Practicing Transfiguration

What can we do beyond merely admiring Jesus’ Transfiguration? Said differently, what could it mean to practice Transfiguration? I owe my title to a 2010 sermon of the same name by one of my mentors, Dr. Bruce Epperly. His angle of approach reminds me of Wendell Berry’s injunction to “practice Resurrection” from one of my favorite poems “The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front” — although I could also credit Harry Potter for an entirely different meaning of practicing transfiguration!

Before proceeding to the implications of practicing Transfiguration, it is important to note that the Hebrew Bible includes a number of important antecedents for the Gospel lesson. Beyond the Hebrew Scripture lesson assigned for this Sunday, consider the vision described in Daniel 10:5-6.  Daniel says,

I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl [which is a mineral], his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.

These verses from Daniel sound like Matthew’s Transfiguration in which Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Perhaps even more strikingly, in Daniel 10:11 the blazing figure says to Daniel, “greatly beloved, pay attention to the words that I am going to speak to you.” These word choices echo in Matthew when a voice says to the transfigured Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”” There is a common thread both in the use of the word beloved as well as in the command to listen or pay attention to what is said.

Another important allusion to the Hebrew Bible is in the explicit appearance of Moses and Elijah in Jesus’ Transfiguration. At the broadest level of comparison, both Moses and Elijah transformatively experience God’s presence on a mountaintop.  Also, in Exodus, after the Golden Calf incident when Moses breaks the Ten Commandments tablets, Moses must re-ascend the mountain.  When Moses comes back down after his mountaintop experience with God, “the skin of his face was shining” (Exodus 34:30) — just as Jesus’ face shone after the Transfiguration.

When you lay the full context of the Hebrew Bible and Gospel lessons side by side, it quickly becomes obvious that the basic template from the Moses story in Exodus was recapitulated in Transfiguration accounts.  Both mention “six days,” have three named companions in addition to the central figure, both happen on a mountaintop, both result in shining figures, and both have God speaking from a cloud.

To begin to reflect on what practicing Transfiguration could mean and look like today, the quote that immediately comes to mind is from Marianne Williamson’s book A Return to Love. Williamson writes (the bold is my emphasis):

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

One of my central convictions is that following the way of Jesus is more important than admiring Jesus, and I believe Williamson’s words illuminate a way not only of being awe-struck by a mountaintop experience 2,000 years ago, but also of potentially following Jesus — along with Moses and Elijah and Daniel before him — in a practice of transfiguration: the practice of allowing the light of God’s love to shine through us.

I do not think it is a coincidence that Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all experienced God on a mountaintop. As with Daniel’s private vision of a transfigured person, our highest, most profound, most enlightening experiences often happen when we are alone or with a small, intimate group of close friends. So we pray and meditate, go on retreat, and gather together to worship. All of these acts, I invite you to consider, are ways of practicing transfiguration. These contemplative practices are ways of gently letting go of our ego, the masks we wear, our busyness, and our distractions. These practices of prayer, presence, and worship, open us from our isolation to connect us to God and to one another. We each reflect different aspects of the image of God, and practicing transfiguration allows God’s image to shine more brilliantly through us in all our uniqueness and diversity.

However, an experience of Transfiguration is no guarantee that our troubles will stay away. Just as Moses had to go back down the mountain to continue wandering in the wilderness, Jesus’ — after the mountaintop Transfiguration — still had to turn his face toward Jerusalem, where his Civil Disobedience at Passover against the powers that be — what perhaps better could be called “Holy Obedience” — led to his tragic martyrdom at the hands of the Roman Empire.

In my own practice, I seek to ascend the mountain about twice a day. In the early morning and in the early evening, I try to set aside about 45 minutes to pray and to journal. I try to spend at least half of that time in silence — not a rigid, blank, stiff, bored silence; but a contemplative, soft, gentle openness to the present moment. In my experience, this contemplative openness is what practicing transfiguration looks like: regularly carving out some time and space in our busy lives to simply be with God and to allow God to be present to us however God chooses.

For Further Study

The Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition has perhaps the most robust conception of what it may mean to practice transfiguration. They call this practice “theosis” or “divinization.” See, for example, Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions.

A good introduction to contemplative practices is Daniel Wolpert’s book Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices.

The Rev. J. Carl Gregg (B.A., M.Div.) is a New York Times-reading, vegetarian-eating, progressive Christian, who also loves Centering Prayer, reading theology, and praying-by-biking-to-work.  After serving 7 years as the Associate Pastor at Northminster Church in Monroe, Louisiana, Carl recently moved and is now Pastor at Broadview Church in Calvert County, Maryland. Visit his Patheos blog here.

About Carl Gregg
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