In every account of the Transfiguration, God calls and claims God’s beloved child.
The Church celebrates the Transfiguration of the Lord at the end of the season of Epiphany. Each year of the lectionary cycle, we read the narrative from a different Gospel. This year, we read the story from the Gospel of Mark. Every Gospel narrative includes different details of the story. In every telling, Jesus’ clothes dazzle in radiant white. He undergoes a change, whether his face shines like the sun as Matthew’s Gospel records or whether, as in Mark, his clothes are brighter than anyone in the world could bleach them. In the Gospel of Luke, we read that the appearance of Jesus’ face changed.
What does it mean to be transfigured?
The Latin root of “transfigure” is “transfigurare,” or change shape. Similar to transformation, the word transfiguration conveys an improvement. In some way, the transfigured shape is better than the previous one. A few years ago, one of my church members brought her lace wedding dress to the church so that another member could, over many painstaking hours, remove the lace and transfigure the bodice into a long, beautiful tablecloth. When we celebrate the Transfiguration and other occasions that call for white liturgical colors, the wedding dress adorns our Lord’s Table in its new shape.
Transfiguration is more than a improvement, but a total and visible transformation as Jesus experienced on the mountaintop with his disciples. A skilled surgeon may transfigure a body after a traumatic injury has disfigured it. Have you ever witnessed a friend undergo a drastic physical transformation? What did it feel like to see them again in their new state?
In every Gospel, the disciples react with fear to their friend’s transfiguration. When Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone about it, he may understand that others would share the same fearful response. Although we can’t know Jesus’ motivations for asking his disciples to hold the event in confidence, we do know what God was saying:
“This is my Son, my Beloved; listen to him!”
When the figure of Jesus Christ undergoes dramatic transformation, God makes a point to claim Jesus as a beloved child. In the Gospel of Matthew, God adds that he is well pleased with this beloved son.
The moment of transfiguration is not only a change in Jesus’ appearance, but a disclosure of the truth about him: that he is God’s son. Jesus embodies humanity and divinity as the Son of God and Son of Man. With his very body, he bridges the gap between heaven and earth. Yet it is Jesus’ body that provokes fear in the disciples, those who know and follow him. At his crucifixion, his body suffers. The vulnerability of having a body at all results in violence and death for the Son of God.
How many people suffer unnecessarily because their bodies appear outside of cultural expectations? Our society’s collective imagination about bodies and gender continues to widen, but too often contributes to violence for many transgender, non-binary and gender-expansive people. Not everyone celebrates the joyous transfiguration of their friend, neighbor or family member.
Jesus reserved his transfiguration for a moment in solitude on a mountain, aware of the fear that even his close friends would feel. Other followers and inhabitants of the nearby land missed this sighting of glory, the chance to glimpse the divine within Jesus. How much glory do we miss when our churches are not safe places for others to express themselves? There is so much glory to behold in one another when we welcome the fullness of others’ personalities, from rich laughter to deep friendship to dazzling clothes, like Jesus wrapped in white on the mountain. So much glory is missed or persecuted by those who reject their beautifully diverse siblings in Christ.
When Jesus’ body changed, God’s love for Jesus did not change. Furthermore, God chooses that moment to speak, claiming Jesus with pride and inviting the disciples to listen to his words. At the Transfiguration, I find comfort in a parent who can behold a son’s changed appearance with love, not fear.
In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul promises, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” When Paul promises this transformation, he borrows the same Greek word, μεταμορφόω, that the Gospels use to describe Christ’s transfiguration.
By loving every member of the family of God, we not only respond to Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor. We are also reflecting the behavior of our Lord, who loves and cherishes creation to the point of entering our world as Jesus Christ. We become more like Christ by obeying him and living out his great love for humanity.
As we become more like Christ, we learn how to better love the whole body of Christ and view them with our Creator’s loving gaze. We can see every person created in God’s image as reflecting the beauty of their Creator, just as a child’s face reflects their parents’. God’s diverse creation is rich with glory for those with eyes to behold it.