In preparing for to preach this Sunday, the last Sunday after Epiphany, I’ve been intrigued by the word “transfigured.” That is, of course, because the Gospel lesson selected is the story of the Transfiguration, the experience of Peter, James, and John witnessing Jesus for a few moments fully reflecting the glory of God.
What struck me was to wonder about our use of the term “transfigure.” I wondered what was the difference between this term and the term “transform.” So, I went back to the Greek. Perhaps “transfigure” reflected a special, distinctive word.
Lo and behold, I was wrong. In fact, the word used in Matthew 17:2 was metamorphothe, from the same root as “metamorphosis.” In our current usage, I think in general that Greek word, the aorist passive of the verb, might indeed be as easily translated “transform” as “transfigure.” In fact, when I checked my Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, they gave both translations.
We use the word "transfigured" instead of the word "transformed" to emphasize that this is still Jesus, and still identifiable as Jesus. That has been the interpretation of the Church from the earliest days. Indeed, Luke makes this clear. He's the one synoptic evangelist who doesn't use the word metamorphothe. He says, instead, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” It’s clear, too, from the Vulgate, and Latin translation of scripture. The Vulgate uses transfiguratus est (as opposed to transformatus est), emphasizing the difference. And, certainly, this isn’t like John's account of the garden, when Mary Magdalene didn't recognize Jesus. As best we can tell, Peter, James, and John were not confused. They knew it was Jesus. He looked different, but he was clearly him. He was "transfigured," not "transformed."
I was struck by the contrast with characters from Ovid’s “Metamorphosis.” In it characters are changed, not only in form, but in substance, in essence. Narcissus really becomes a flower. Arachne really becomes a spider. Scylla really becomes a seabird. Niobe really becomes a rock. That work, reflecting material common in the legends associated with the Greek pantheon, was completed about the same time Jesus was born. So, in the world around the earliest Christians this idea of metamorphosis was common. Metamorphosis didn’t just change what you looked like, but changed what you are. But the Church has always insisted that Jesus was not transformed, but transfigured.
What strikes me about that is that we sometimes hear about the "transformative power of the Gospel," and never about its "transfigurative power." I have long felt some concern about that. Those who use it most seem to have all too clear an idea what the believer is to be transformed into, without much sense that God may have a broader sense of the possibilities. In any case, they do seem committed to "transformation" rather than "transfiguration:" a change in who the person is instead of the same person fully reflecting the glory of God.
But Jesus was transfigured, not transformed. Yes, Peter, James, and John, as John would later write, did see “his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son;" but Jesus wasn't really changed. He was no more and no less divine because they beheld him in glory; and he was no more and no less human, either. We might say they saw “the real Jesus,” in seeing him as he could be seen in the Kingdom; but he was still the same Jesus they’d walked with up the mountain. He wasn’t somehow a different sort of being.
By the same token, living in the light of the Lord doesn't transform us, doesn't make us more or less human. However, it can transfigure us. Our appearance can be changed, before both God and human folk. We, too, can reflect the light, the glory of the Lord; and with time and discipline we can reflect that glory more brightly. We don’t expect to be fully transfigured until we meet again in the Kingdom; but in the meantime we can work on our own capacity to reflect the glory of God.
That's what Lent is about, in a way. Between Transfiguration, when three apostles catch a glimpse of Christ in glory, and Easter, when the whole community sees his resurrected glory, we get ready. We too glimpse the light of Christ's glory, and by discipline prepare for resurrection light. The discipline of Lent isn’t about reshaping us into someone, something different. It’s about buffing us, polishing us, so that the glory of Christ, already present in our lives, is more clearly reflected in the world around us.
Peter, James, and John went up the mountain with Jesus, and saw him transfigured. When they came down the mountain, he was the same Jesus; but they had seen him, literally, in a new light. We are called to reflect the presence of Christ within us. And we’re called to do that, not by becoming someone or something we are not already, but by allowing the light of Christ that shines on us to reflect from us out into a dark and weary world. Through this Lent, and through every day of our lives in Christ, let us pursue our own transfiguration, and in time the world will see us, literally, in a new light: for the same light that showed the glory of Christ on the mountain will show the glory of Christ in our lives, and the promise of the glory of Christ for the whole world.