Why We Need the Transfiguration

Tent at Night(Creative Commons Image by Karl-Petter Akesson on Flickr)

The last week of January, Luther Seminary hosted its annual Midwinter Convocation — a popular event for many, but especially alums. For the first time this year there was an opportunity to have breakfast with the faculty. At my table, one attendee had not missed a Convo in 48 years! This year’s topic was “Religious but not spiritual.” Why am I telling you all of this? Because in reflecting on how to preach the meaning of the Transfiguration, I was struck by the fact that at the heart of the whole conversation around religious but not spiritual, spiritual but not religious, is the desire to experience transfiguration here and now, regardless of the terminology we choose to use. In the end, we want a sense of the transcendent, the numinous, the holy, something outside of ourselves that is the cause for awe and wonder.

Whether spiritual or religious, either way, there is a need to know transfiguration in our lives.

That’s what Peter wants, right? I am not so sure that he wants to keep Jesus and his friends in tents forever. Peter wants to encapsulate the experience. He wants to capture the feeling.

Transfiguration matters, it seems. It’s not just a convenient event to mark the Sunday that bridges Epiphany and Lent. It’s not just a bizarre story that might cause some Christian embarrassment.

We need transfiguration.

What if we take Jesus out of the picture? Then we realize that this story is not just Jesus’ revelation of his glory but the fact that what we wish for is our own sense of glory. Not in a narcissistic, look at me, kind of way. But a recognition of the deep human need for transformation, change, conversion, makeover, alteration, metamorphosis.

We need transfiguration as much as Jesus needed to be transfigured.

Liturgically, biblically, christologically, the transfiguration is a turning point, a transition from one way of seeing Jesus to another. It’s not just about securing the Jesus of the future or holding on to the Jesus of the past but points to the real human struggle with change, with transformation.

Transformation is hard. Change is hard. Traversing from one place to another, from one way of being to another? It’s easier to stay the same. Stay the course. Convince yourself that what you’ve always known is satisfactory and sufficient even when you have glimpsed what could be.

So we just sit. We wait. For what? The right time? The right place? All of our questions answered? Everything figured out? All of our proverbial ducks in a row?

This is why the transfiguration rocks. It just shows up. There is no right time. It just happens. Now what? No amount of planning can predict the right kind of change. No amount of preparation can prepare you for an altered reality or an altered perspective. No amount of strategizing can make you ready for a transfiguration to be truly a transfiguration.

I think that Peter’s issue is not so much about holding Jesus to his expectations. Nor is it capturing the moment.

I think Peter’s issue is the realization that if Jesus changes, then Peter will be changed as well. “I cannot be the same. I will also be transfigured, transformed. And maybe I don’t want that. So, let’s pitch some tents, keep things the way they are, hunker down, and ride it out. Maybe the whole thing will just pass by. I can come out of my tent and all will still be the same. Jesus will be the same. I will still be the same.”

So that’s why the Transfiguration. Jesus gets this. What will it be that gets you to move, to come out of your tent, or maybe even not to want pitch one in the first place?

Rather than blame Peter for his myopia, maybe we admit our own. I am guessing that not much about human nature has changed in the two thousand years since Jesus’ earthly ministry. Transfiguration means exposure. I mean, look at Jesus. You can’t miss him. Vulnerability is less than comfortable but it seems absolutely essential for life and thus for a life of faith. At least Jesus seems to think so. When we exchange vulnerability for certainty all we do is live the lie that authenticity does not matter. That the truth of who we are can be absconded by our denominational structures, doctrinal commitments, and dogmatic insistences, that is, our tents that we secure, pounding stake by stake into the ground.

Tents are not just about shelter. They repel the forces of nature. They keep out that which might harm. They keep as much in as they keep out.

And Transfiguration will rip our tents into shreds.

Transfiguration means change. We think we welcome change, but when it actually happens, we adopt stances of resistance and rejection. Or convince ourselves that the change can wait. That it really isn’t necessary. That the time is not right. That the problems that will ensue are not worth the result of living into who we really are.

Transfiguration means a new way of seeing the world. And replacing the lenses of our lives is a lot more complicated than picking out new fashionable frames.

Because at the heart of the matter is that transfiguration not only signals change, but alters life’s direction. It certainly did for Jesus. And when that happens, well, no tent in the world is going to give you the security you think you want or need. Because when we shore up the shelters that protect us from harm we also run the risk of keeping out that which is so very, very good.