Teaching Transfiguration

a sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

I have to admit, I didn’t know who Minerva McGonalgall was until yesterday. She is a character in the Harry Potter books. She has been the headmistress at the Hogwarts School from time to time, and the head of Gryffindor. But what the most interesting thing I learned about her is what she teaches at Hogwarts. She teaches transfiguration.

“Transfiguration” is not a word you hear every day. It’s one of those words that we really aren’t sure if we can define. Does it the same thing as transformation? Or is it more like disfiguration and configuration? Does it imply a change in appearance only? Or is there some deeper change going on? So, I decided to look it up. But, all I really got was a reference to Harry Potter and to today’s Gospel reading. Today, is Transfiguration Sunday, because the Gospel reading tells us that Jesus was transfigured. His outward appearance changed right in front of his closest disciples. His clothes became a dazzling white and his face began to glow. He was joined by Moses and Elijah, and once again, the voice of God boomed out of the sky.

This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him.

The scriptures tell us that Jesus was transfigured. But what does that mean?

The Church talks a lot about transformation. We talk about transforming lives, by which we mean getting rid of the bad parts of a person and starting over in a radically different direction. We’ll even say something like, “Bob has been transformed. He’s a new person.” Typically, this means that the old Bob was a no good, low down, cheating and lying scoundrel, and the new Bob is now a boy scout.

The idea of transformation is very appealing, because it implies that we can change things very quickly, and with little or no effort. Something magical happens, and what was old has become new. That is why we watch reality shows where homes are transformed from dingy old fashioned shacks to sparkling new mansions with the snap of a finger, or people who are transformed into beauty queens with a new haircut and clothes. We like the idea of transformation.

But I believe that transfiguration is different. It turns out that the word for transfiguration in the Bible comes from the greek word that means metamorphosis. Metamorphosis is what happens when caterpillars turn into butterflies, or tadpoles become frogs. It is a change in the outward appearance of something, typically something that has reached a particular stage of maturity and development. The animal is still the same on the inside – its DNA is the same – but suddenly its true nature is revealed to the world. We are able to see clearly the creature that God created it to be.

Something like metamorphosis is going on in this story. Jesus was transfigured, not changed, and the disciples could finally see who he was all along. Christian writer and Episcopalian Madeline L’Engle writes,

“Suddenly they saw him the way he was, the way he really was all the time, although they had never seen it before, the glory which blinds the everyday eye and so becomes invisible. This is how he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy like a flaming sun in his hands. This is the way he was – is – from the beginning, and we cannot bear it. So he manned himself, came manifest to us; and there on the mountain they saw him, really saw him, saw his light. We all know that if we really see him we die. But isn’t that what is required of us? Then, perhaps, we will see each other, too.”

Jesus was transfigured on that mountain top, but it was his disciples who were changed. Suddenly, they could see who Jesus was all along. And his transfiguration marked a change in their understanding of their calling and their mission. No longer where they followers of a simple teacher, a rabbi. Nor were they following a warrior, one who would overthrow the Roman army and restore the Jews to a place of worldly power. Instead, they finally saw that they had been walking with God all along. Finally, they truly saw him for who he was. He was the Christ, the Messiah, the one who is to reveal the love of God for all human kind.

Lent is the time when we walk to Jerusalem with Jesus. It is the time when we leave today’s mountain top experience, so that, through prayer, confession, and self examination, we are formed and reformed into the fullness of what God calls us to be. It is when we reflect on what it means to be fully who we are as human beings – people who are broken, people who stumble and fail, people who sometimes have to crawl along like a caterpillar – before we see that God has been with us all along.

We know that through Christ, we can also look forward to our own transfigurations, when our outer shells have fallen away and we become the person God has truly intended us to be. Our transfigured selves are waiting to be revealed on the other side of the mountain, on the other side Lent. As we begin our journey with Jesus this Ash Wednesday, remember that we are not called to be who Jesus is – only he could die and rise again. Instead, we are called by God to be all that God has created us to be, so that we too might reveal the love of God to our brothers and sisters, and reflect God’s glory in the world.

Thanks be to God.


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