When Calvin is transmogrified, he changes into a tiger—inspired, of course, by his companion Hobbes. But when he comes out—and this is the gift of the artist—Calvin the tiger is still absolutely recognizable as Calvin—his stature, attitude, and being, while now covered with fur and a tiger’s features—mean that you could never mistake him for someone else.
So too, with Jesus.
Today we hear the gospel of the Transfiguration—not the transmogrification-- in Luke—but they’re not so dissimilar. The emphasis in the word “transfigure” is a change in appearance. Transmogrification is a change in shape.
Jesus has been changed—but he is still recognizable. There is no question if this is really Jesus—it is, only glowing, wearing radiant white clothing, and accompanied by Moses and Elijah. And he is on the mountain with Moses, who also knew during his life what it was to be changed physically by an encounter with God—we read that story today where Moses must veil his face because God’s glory is shining through him. And he’s on the mountain with Elijah, who was so transformed by his encounter with God that he—according to scripture—didn’t die, he just ascended into heaven to be subsumed into the divine presence.
The Transfiguration is the climax of the Epiphany season because it is a climactic manifestation of Christ’s identity as the Son of God. Each week, our Gospel has been about the revelation of who Jesus is to those around him and to us—beginning with the Magi when they fall down and worship, and then the—very similar to today—voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, his first miracle at Cana, his proclamation in the synagogue at Nazareth that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: he is the one they’ve been waiting for. Each story pulled the veil aside a little for Jesus’ followers to understand who he was, and today, we begin with the statement that this is taking place eight days after Peter acclaims Jesus as the Christ. Now that Peter—and James and John—know who Jesus is through their faithful following, now they are going to SEE who Jesus is.
But when they see it, Peter and James and John start out wanting to put Jesus and Moses and Elijah in a box—only slightly metaphorically. It’s a generous instinct—they want to share this incredible experience with others—if we can box up this Glory of God, and contain it in some way by building booths for each of them, then we can really make progress.
All they need is for it to go “boink.” But where Calvin takes a plain box and uses it to begin flights of fancy and creativity, when adults start working with metaphorical boxes, we tend to shut down creativity. We tell God to behave—and to work only through approved methods… luckily, their hope to put God in the box doesn’t last long.
It is Jesus who is transfigured physically—but the purpose of the Transfiguration of Jesus is to transform, transmogrify, and transfigure Peter and James and John—and us. Bishop Curry, in a sermon about the transfiguration, referred to them as being stretched by what they saw—that they were stretched, elongated, so that their identity as Christs could be revealed.
I think of it this week a little more of a transplant. Ezekiel hears the word of God saying, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” God promises us a transfiguration of our hearts, a heart transplant, if you will, from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh; from hearts that are uncaring and unfeeling, to hearts that beat and weep and love. Moses spends his ministry struggling against people whose hearts have been hardened;
“It is good for us to be here,” says Peter on the mountain, and he’s right. He knows that he needs to witness Christ so that he can become Christ. It is good for us to be here, today, at Epiphany, because we live in a world that needs a heart transplant. We need our hearts to be transfigured—transmogrified—transplanted. And this is the place where that happens. Or where it can happen.
A friend shared a video on Facebook this week that got me weeping in my office. It was about two mothers and two children; one baby needed a heart transplant, the other baby died. Three years or so after the tragedy and transplant, the video showed the mother of the child who had died meeting the now four year old little girl whose heart had belonged to her son. They gave the mother a stethoscope, and she got to listen to her dead son’s living heart beating in another child’s body. Her face showed such a complicated web of emotions—obviously grief, but also love and joy and pride and longing. She wept. So did I, watching. My heart was full and beating and fleshy.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to see and hear something ….But in a sense, isn’t that what God does for us? That mother’s face, full of grief and love and yearning and pride, is the face of God as God listens to see if his son’s heart, if Jesus’ heart, is beating in our breasts. We have been transfigured from earthly creatures with hearts of stone to followers of Christ who has transplanted his heart into our chests, transfiguring our faces in the process. And when God can hear it, his face, that, that is the glory of God.
Can you hear Jesus’ heart in your breast? Beating, filling you with life? And when God listens to that heartbeat, and can hear his son's heart, perhaps God says, as he does today, "This is my Son, my chosen. Listen to him."