“He changed in front of them,” it says. Transfigured is the word that we have become used to reading here. It is the Feast of the Transfiguration. after all. That sounds more holy somehow, more theological than to say simply that he changed. But the Greek word here is metemorfw,qh (metamorphothe) from which we get metamorphosis —or change.
So what happened on that mountain six days after a conversation about suffering and death? Something. Hard to say, except by repeating the words that we read there. He was transfigured; he was changed before them. What they were used to seeing they no longer saw; and something they hadn’t seen before suddenly became evident to their frightened eyes. And what did they see? Something well-nigh indescribable. Luckily, there were aids to their seeing all around them to help them define what it was that had happened in front of them.
First of all, there were those other guys. Mark says it was Moses and Elijah. How did they know who it was? Did they come with name tags? Were there prompters running around with signs? Or was it one of those “they just knew” kind of things? Maybe Moses had his famous staff - the staff by which he parted the sea and then struck the rock to get water. Maybe Elijah had his wilderness clothes on, a John the Baptist motif that showed he was a man of the desert, a man uneasy with so-called human civilization. Maybe it was a wild look in his eyes. Maybe Jesus called them by name when they appeared. We don’t know, because not a lot of attention is paid to the two of them. They were there as props; they were scenery for the lead actor; they were in supporting roles on this day. It wasn’t about them. They represented the law and the prophets, the story of the people of God, the heights of the Chosen People. But they were there to draw attention to the one who was the Word of God, who was the Presence of God, Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Then there was the voice. The only words spoken on that mountain top, well besides the rather unfortunate mumblings of a desperate disciple who just had to say something. And that something was about as appropriate as a giggle in a funeral, as a belch during a silent prayer. He was the guy shouting “you da man” when D.J. putts to win the championship. The one giving away plot details in the darkened movie theater. Even Mark tries to shush him up by saying, “He didn’t know what to say.”
No, not those words, but the other words. Or, to be more accurate, the Words. Similar to a previous utterance. A few chapters earlier, there were the Words: “You are my Son, my Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” Now the Words say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” The first Words are directed to the one being baptized, the one launching a ministry and a hope. These mountain top Words are to those who would seek to follow that one. To them, the terrified mumblers. And to us, the followers at a distance. “Listen to Him. To the Beloved Son.” To the changed one, the revealed one. Pay attention.
Pay attention to what? To the change? To the glow, to the fireworks, to the power and the glory? Well, yes. And no.
In what context do we usually use the word metamorphosis? I remember science class and talking about butterflies. The process of changing from a rather ugly worm-like caterpillar into the fragile but breathtakingly beautiful butterfly is metamorphosis - change. Or maybe it was in earth science, and we were talking about metamorphic rock. Melted by the heat of the earth’s core, the rock flows from one form into another.
But here’s the question: “Which is the true form of the rock or the creature?” Or is the before and the after both a part of the whole? Is it a matter of perspective and a matter of timing? Where you are and when you are allows you to see one truth as opposed to another.
What happened on that mountain was not so much a change into something different, but a revealing of the essence of the one who was changed. Jesus became who he was on that mountain, even though he was who he was as he climbed up and then down again. He is always who he is; he is always present in the fullness of his being. We can see only a part of him, the part we need at any given moment. We experience only a piece, a dimension of the reality that is the Christ. And we get used to that; it becomes familiar to us.
But every now and then, we catch a glimpse of something larger, something deeper and more profound. Every now and then, we hear a word that reverberates in our soul for weeks if not a lifetime. Every now and then, a tear comes to our eye as we stand on the precipice of glory. Every now and then, a lump comes to our throat as we encounter the depths of love and sacrifice. Every now and then, we climb a mountain and see what it is that we are following in what is most often the darkness of this life. Every now and then, we move a little closer, grow and little taller, move a little closer, and listen a little better. Then we can realize that who and what we are, even as we grow and change on the discipleship path, is possible because of him. Only Jesus.