Gillian Chisom's Transfiguration Sermon

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Both the Hebrew Bible and Gospel readings for today feature a transformation—Moses’ face shines because he’s had contact with God, while Jesus’ divine nature is revealed to Peter, James, and John. Both readings, furthermore, focus our attention not just on the transformation itself but in the surrounding community’s reactions to the transformation. In the Hebrew Bible reading, the people’s reaction seems relatively straightforward: they’re afraid of Moses, and so he covers his face, presumably out of sensitivity to their reaction—I’ll come back to that later. For now, I want to focus on the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ transformation. When I first read the passage, it seemed strange to me that they weren’t more afraid; to me, the situation sounds terrifying. Not only does Jesus, their friend and teacher, suddenly change into someone else, someone totally Other, but he’s speaking with two equally frightening dead guys. Given all of this, it seems strange and astonishing to me that the disciples appear to take the situation in stride.

Taking a closer look at the context of the passage, however, might help with this. We’re told at the very beginning that Peter has just acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah; in fact, Peter’s confession serves as a reference point for dating the events of this passage. In between Peter’s confession and the events on the mountain, however, something else important has happened: Jesus has predicted his own death, a point to which I’ll return later. For now, though, the important thing is that the disciples have already recognized that Jesus is the son of God, at least in theory. I still think that seeing him transformed in divine glory would have been a bit frightening, but the text seems to suggest that they’re able to take that step. It’s hearing the voice of God confirming Jesus’ divine identity that’s finally too much for them: perhaps the cloud that envelops them at this point is, like Moses’ veil, God’s way of shielding them from a more direct experience than they’re ready for.

The epistle reading further elaborates the theme of transformation, this time bringing all of us into the picture: Paul says that we, too,  are being transformed into the image of Christ. When I think of transformation, one of the first things that comes to mind is fairy tales: no, not the Disney versions, but the older, more complex, often terrifying ones. Many of these stories involve dramatic transformations. One of the ones that I find most fascinating in this respect is “Donkeyskin,” a story that’s usually not included in the canon of fairy tales that people read today because of its disturbing content. It starts with a king whose queen is a legendary beauty. On her deathbed, the queen makes the king promise that he won’t marry anyone less beautiful than her, hoping to prevent him from remarrying. The king, however, comes to the conclusion that the only person who fits that description is his daughter. The princess manages to stall for a while, but eventually she has to escape to another kingdom, using the skin of a donkey as a disguise. The rest of the story reads more or less like “Cinderella”: the princess gets a job as a kitchen maid, but manages to interest the local prince by going to several balls dressed as a princess. Eventually, he figures out who she really is and they get married. There are several different versions of this story, and several variations on how the princess’ secret is revealed. For me, whether or not a particular version resolves the princess’ fate in a satisfying way depends on how the prince finds out who she is. In some versions, she has to tell him, which seems totally inadequate to me, because if he’s unable to identify the woman he has allegedly fallen in love with even in the most grotesque disguise, then what hope is there for a happy ending? In my favorite version, the climactic moment of the story arrives when the prince puts all of the clues together and literally pulls off the cloak of animal skins with which the princess has disguised herself (she’s wearing a ballgown underneath, of course). Though there’s still plenty in the story that’s problematic from a feminist point of view, I still think that there’s something extraordinarily powerful in that moment of recognition and unveiling, the moment at which the main character is able to become her true self because someone else has seen through her disguise. I think it’s important, too, that the transformation that has occurred in the course of the story is a mutual transformation: the prince has to learn to pay attention to the world in a new way so that he is able to recognize the princess. This theme of mutual transformation emerges even more clearly in “Beauty and the Beast.” Yes, the Beast’s transformation happens first, because his true self is inadequate and needs to become something else; but the focus of the story, in my opinion, is not on his transformation but on Beauty’s. She has to change in order to see the person that he’s become. In some of the early versions of the story, in fact, the Beast doesn’t change back to a man at the end, because his changing back isn’t the point: the point is that she has learned to love him the way he is.

Given, then, that transformation seems to be a crucial feature of all three texts for today, how are we to understand each instance of transformation, Moses, Christ, and all of us? In the case of Moses, he muffles his transformation with a veil, choosing not to alienate a community that isn’t ready to see the glory of God manifested in him. Moses, however, takes the veil off when he’s actually speaking to God, remaining true to his transformed self while also displaying sensitivity to the reactions of those around him. Christ’s transformation and the disciples’ reaction to it presents more of a puzzle. Though the Transfiguration obviously reveals Christ’s divinity in an overwhelming way, it seems to me that perhaps what he’s trying to teach his disciples through this experience is not how to recognize his divinity—they seem almost too comfortable with that—but how to recognize his humanity. He has, after all, just predicted his death for the first time, and in that context Peter’s suggestion that they remain on the mountaintop reveals a striking failure to recognize the fullness of Jesus’ identity. To return to the example of the fairy tale, the disciples had to learn both to see the princess in the kitchen maid and to see the kitchen maid in the princess. They had to recognize and accept that the glorious Son of God that they were just beginning to know was also the suffering servant who was going to die, whether they wanted him to or not. I don’t think it’s s coincidence that the story ends not with the voice of God thundering from on high, but with Jesus standing alone, or that a few verses later Jesus predicts his death yet again.

According to Paul, we, too, are being transformed into the image of Christ. What does that mean, though? I think that the idea of mutual recognition is important here. We cannot recognize Christ in ourselves without recognizing Christ in other people, and we cannot recognize Christ in other people without recognizing Christ in ourselves. Like Moses, sometimes being who were are in Christ means exercising sensitivity towards the community in which we find ourselves, a community which might not be ready to see us in a certain way. Sometimes, like the princess in “Donkeyskin,” we need a disguise in order to protect ourselves. It’s equally important, I think, to remember the disciples’ lesson, to remember that Christ is both divine and human, God not only in glory but also in pain. Seeing Christ in others, then, may mean experiencing divine love and compassion, but it may equally mean seeing Christ’s woundedness. More often than not, you might have to learn how to see both at the same time. I can’t say that I have any clear answers about how this works in terms of actual relationships: being true to one’s identity in Christ while remaining sensitive to one’s community is always a delicate balancing act. In preparing for this sermon, I’ve experienced that complexity in a personal way. I grew up in a denomination where women aren’t allowed to preach, and because of that I’ve had a difficult time seeing myself as someone who could be here, today, doing this, not because I agree that I shouldn’t be allowed, but because I’m simply not used to seeing that as a possibility. I needed this community to recognize that possibility before I could recognize it myself. It’s important to remember that Christ manifests himself not only, and perhaps not even primarily, in each of us as individuals, but in all of us united as his body. As communities, we probably manifest Christ’s brokenness at least as often as we manifest his love, but in learning to see him in each other we are each continually transformed into someone new, someone we could not have imagined on our own. Amen.