“Atop Mount Tabor, the place identified since the fourth century as the (unnamed) “high mountain” of the Transfiguration, sits a wonderfully ironic piece of architecture. Mark says Peter suggested it from within confusion (“Rabbi, … let us make three tents; one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”), and Italian Franciscans, in 1924, actually did, in stone. It is a gorgeous basilica with two side-chapels, one for St. Moses and one for St. Elijah. Though it is, with respect to the New Testament account, ironic (implementing what the text implies was a mistaken notion), the construction is nonetheless inevitable. What else would an architect do to memorialize this event?”1
People, especially religious people, are very good at memorializing things, at setting heroes and events in stone, lest we forget. The Bible is full of people doing such things, perhaps most famous the story of Jacob’s Ladder (it’s not just a movie). Jacob is on a journey and gets tired, so he uses a hefty stone as a pillow of sorts, and that night he has his dream of the ladder to heaven, with the angels ascending and descending. It’s there that the Lord spoke to Jacob, promising him many descendants and that He will watch his back wherever he goes. Jacob understandable thought this was awesome, so he set his stone pillow up as a pillar, anointed it with oil, and renamed the place Bethel, which literally means House of God. (As an aside, all the Superman characters from Krypton has names like this; Kal-El, Jor-El. Any time you see an -el suffix on a name, if means of God, hence the names of the angels – Micha-el, Rapha-el, Uri-el, and so on.)
Anyway, humans are good at memorializing things, even if it’s a thing that’s almost impossible to memorialize, like the Transfiguration. The fact that the Transfiguration is memorialized at all also seems strange, because in some ways it is one of the scariest stories in the Bible. Noah and the Flood is the scariest story, but we use that theme in baby’s rooms, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised when it comes to the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration is scary in three ways. They are:
- One: the glory of Jesus was revealed to humans, and who’s ready for that?
- Two: Moses and Elijah were there, and that had to be scary.
- And Three: being transfigured would be a terrible thing to happen to regular people.
The first two are self-explanatory. But the third is my personal nightmare. Remember that being transfigured is not the act of being transformed, but the occasion of being revealed for who you really are, to the essence of your being. Now, I know that all of you are pure as the driven snow, but I wouldn’t want my inmost essence revealed for the world to see. I don’t want to look upon my own sins, or the ugliness and the pettiness and every evil thing that remains in me, and I certainly don’t want to climb a mountain and let my friends see me like that.
Thankfully, transfiguration is not a likely occasion for me or for anyone else. Our scary T-word is transformation. Rather an occasionally being revealed for who we are, our task as Christians is to be transformed, to change, to not memorialize ourselves into unchanging stone while we are still alive. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, we who “contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into (the image of Jesus) with ever-increasing glory…”
Transformation like that sounds hard, like the before and after pictures in a bodybuilding supplement ad. But then Paul goes on to say that such transformation “comes from the Lord.” The work, then, is not so much in the transformation itself as much as it’s in the work of allowing God’s Spirit to work on us, to let Him chip away at the sin and the ugliness and the pettiness and every evil that weighs us down, that turns our hearts to stone. How do we do this? Prayer and fasting never hurt. Talking to others about God opens our hearts to what God is saying to us and through us. Acts of charity, giving what came from God back to God; acts of kindness, showing Jesus to others in our actions; and finally the act of being together as we are now, as Christians gathered in a holy place, our mountaintop, let’s us see Jesus in His glory, that we may know into what we are being transformed.
Who knows, if we keep all that up, perhaps one day being transfigured wouldn’t be so bad after all.
1Dennis Hamm, SJ http://liturgy.slu.edu/Transfiguration2017/theword_hamm.html