Growing up in the ’80s, two of the biggest things for boys were GoBots and Transformers. Personally, I liked GoBots better, but both had the same general principle. When push came to shove, they would transform into something else. Most of the time it was cars, but sometimes buildings, rocks, and so on. For the longest time, when I heard the story of the Transfiguration of Christ, I always thought of the GoBots I played with as a kid.
On one hand, this was good imagery for the Transfiguration. On the mountain, Jesus is transfigured in front of Peter, John, and James. Jesus changes from a man into something more, right before their eyes. However, that is where the analogy kind of falls apart. The Transfiguration is not really a moment where Jesus goes from one state of being to another; it is more of a revelation of how Jesus was the whole time.
For the three, it was a significant moment when they saw that Christ was much more than who they thought he was. Yet, as the story lets us know, they still could not fully understand what they were seeing. To their eyes, Christ was in something like an ordination ceremony, but it would have been the ceremony to end all ordination ceremonies. Still, they did not make the connection fully. Even though Jesus explained to them what had gone on, their future actions revealed the disciples’ continued lack of understanding.
Instead of thinking of this as a transformation, I like to see this as more of a revelation. Jesus brought the disciples to a place where he could be fully revealed to them. The truth of the passage is that, other than a light show, nothing changed; Jesus was the same going up the mountain as he was coming down. Even in the moment of transfiguration, one could justifiably argue that there is no real change.
The line, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white,” points to something that has much more to do with the nature of the event than to some magical metamorphosis. I liken it to watching a child see a parent who has been deployed for over a year. Seeing the emotion on the child’s face change from boredom or confusion to pure joy is amazing! Here, Christ is being reunited with his father, and registers the joy which comes from that reunion. So why the clothes became white, who knows, but it does not signify a change in the person of Christ, rather in his state of being.
Here is the interesting thing: by explaining the story with analogies like the GoBots or, as I have also used in the past, butterflies, the emphasis of the story is put in the wrong place. Christ has always been, and always will be, the same. Thus, the basis of this story has less to do with the change that happens in him than it does with the change that happens in us. When we make the story be about magical things that happen, we remove ourselves from the world of belief and enter into the world of unbelief. When we see this passage as a revealing, we are forced to ask ourselves how many times Christ, God, the Holy Spirit have revealed themselves to us, yet we were either blissfully ignorant, refused to understand, or neglected to care.
The truth is that when Christ is revealed in our lives, it is not some magical transformation. Christ is not hiding somewhere, waiting to transform into something big and powerful. Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is there with us each and every day, and when we believe, we can see the full beauty of our Lord, now and forever.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen