The notion of transfiguration may suggest something seen in an enhanced mode, as in many of the techniques offered by apps for photography, whereby a photo of my aged self can be transfigured to portray me in the prime of life. But the transfiguration which most interests me is that by which something or someone is seen as they really are.
Broughty Ferry is a prosperous suburb of Dundee, which seems wonderfully separate from the problems of the city, although its increasing use by wealthier young people as a weekend playground has reminded me of the famous couplet by Hilaire Belloc:
Like many of the upper class
he liked the sound of broken glass.
Its housing is a mixture of Victorian fantasy by Jute barons, solid respectability by successful professionals, seaside terraces by B and B landladies, modern retirement flats by the douce elderly, and also this:
A cluster of older houses connected with the original fishing village and ferry port, expressing decency, usefulness and a modest elegance. In this morning’s autumn sunshine and from this viewpoint, the suburb was transfigured into its true self.
I have seen this happen to people. I remember at university a lecturer in Old Testament who was a little bent and wasted in his middle years, and not too rivetting as a lecturer, but when he turned out for the college football team with students twenty years younger than himself, he was transformed into a version of Stanley Matthews with a magical dribbling ability and a devastating left foot shot. In fact his guile at football was matched with a guileful interpretation of the Bible which led to his masterwork on the book of Proverbs.
Marilyn Munroe was subjected to many transformations as an actress, but her husband, the writer Arthur Miller, noted particularly the change that came over her when she was in the company of vulnerable or troubled people: then she was at home, in sympathy and entirely herself. That transfiguration revealed her character.
Always, of course, the change is not just a special state of the person or object which is seen, but also the readiness of the viewer to see with open eyes. If I had been in a dull mood this morning I would not have seen Broughty Ferry transformed. If Arthur Miller had been self-absorbed, he would never have seen the real Marilyn.
In the story of David and Goliath in the Bible, the boy David is just a daft boy until his stone knocks the giant to the ground. Then we see that of course he is already a cunning and dangerous warrior, who is happy to cut his opponents head off. The story reveals that a clanking berserker is no match for an intelligent youth who can kill at a distance. Goliath never had a chance. David is transfigured in action.
All this perhaps helps the intrpretation of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.
The Transfiguration Mark 9
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no oneb]”>[b] on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,c]”>[c] one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;d]”>[d]listen to him!’ 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
This passage is not factual history. For example how did the disciples know that the figures appearing with Jesus were Moses and Elijah? (a primary schoolboy once answered this question perfectly, “They had their names on their shirts like Messi”) But it conforms to my model of transfiguration:
1 Jesus is changed – into himself! What shines is his own nature.
2 The disciples’ understanding is first of all that Jesus belongs with the greatest heroes of their faith, and is even greater.
3 Secondly they understand that Jesus is confirmed by God as his child.
4 At the end of the revelation what they see is simply Jesus as he truly is.
In Mark’s Gospel the readers realise that what happens when people encounter Jesus with trust is that they are transfigured and become their true selves even as they become like Jesus. To be like Jesus is not to lose your identity in his, but to find it in his. St Paul expressed this clearly in his letter to the Corinthians:
“Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face seeing the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit.”
When people are united with Jesus, they shine with the glory which comes from him, but they are truly themselves, with unveiled faces. The Spirit of which St. Paul speaks is the “interbeing”, the realm in which there are no barriers between person and person, or between a person and God. Living beings become translucent to each other and to their maker. Their transfiguration into shared life is also their deepest identity.