Meditations on Transfiguration
Meditations on Transfiguration
By Kaleigh Andrew
“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance - for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light .... Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? .... Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave - that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.” - Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
If you have ever been to Michigan in the summer, then you know that it is glorious. In the small town that I was visiting, I was walking back from a coffee shop. It was 10:07 at night, and I could see the last moments of light clinging to the horizon.
On the twilight lit path ahead, there were countless fireflies who blinked in and out of existence, and I delighted in my companions. The night was cool, there was a soft breeze, and aside from the fireflies, I was alone. In moments like these, I often think of the quotation above.
What does it mean that this world can “shine like Transfiguration,” and why would she suggest that an ordinary person, provided with a bit of courage, could experience the world this way?
When I think about the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus from Matthew 17, I am perplexed. It is a moment that seems fragmented from the rest of the Gospel. Sure, Jesus affirms His divinity by performing miracles and foreshadowing His crucifixion and resurrection, but He always does so subtly. In this passage, the disciples get to experience an absolutely glorious scene, where they catch a brief glimpse of His true nature.
His divinity is beautiful and fills the disciples with wonder and fear.
When Marilynne Robinson says that courage is required to behold and honor beauty, I think of the disciple’s reaction to the Transfiguration. They wanted to prolong the moment, but then they were frightened by the beauty.
Peter says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” God interrupts Peter and speaks from the cloud and affirms Jesus’ sonship, and the disciples “fell facedown to the ground, terrified.”
I cannot help but think that we often have this same reaction to Transfiguration-like moments. We fear the moment passing too quickly, and we wish that our physical bodies could stay in that place for eternity. Like the disciples, we are both awed and terrified by beautiful moments where heaven comes to earth.
Have you ever looked at the starry night sky and felt your heart chill as you thought about your smallness?
The experience inspires a sense of wonder but also a sense of fear as you realize that your world, and everyone in it exists in a tiny space in a universe that seems to host an infinite number of stars and planets. However, this is followed by peace as you think, “Yet, I am His beloved still.”
And this is what Jesus does after the Transfiguration. He does not leave the disciples on the ground in holy fear, but He touches them and says, “Get up; don’t be afraid.” He takes them down the mountain, and the world “sinks back into itself again, and to look at it, no one would know that it had anything to do with fire, or light.”
And so your Transfiguration moment ends, and you come off of the mountaintop, but in your heart you have learned something about the divinity and the glory of Jesus. I felt this way on that Michigan summer evening; I was astounded by the beauty, and the moment felt sacred and set apart.
Or maybe Transfiguration-like moments require courage because we are invited to see His divinity and beauty when we can only see the sin that is inherent to the human experience.
An Armenian-American Orthodox theologian, Vigen Guroian talks about beauty expressed despite the ugliness of human nature. His ancestors were victims of what is considered the first genocide of the 20th century, which caused many of them to be displaced and exiled from their homes. Yet, Armenian immigrants who lived in dirty tenement housing in bustling cities would often cultivate gardens on the tiny balconies they possessed. When he would visit his aunt’s and uncle’s homes, they would say, “Have you seen the garden?”
Perhaps this is a picture of the human soul in times of suffering. We are capable of cultivating beautiful gardens in the darkest places of human existence, and we experience Transfiguration-like moments when we get into the dirt and sow seeds, because those seeds will yield great beauty. So I must believe that Transfiguration-like moments are the times when eternity seems to shine through the muck and the mire of the human experience.
In order for the disciples to experience Transfiguration, the only requirement was that they follow Jesus, and it’s not as though they were told they would be a part of the Transfiguration. Jesus surprised them with this.
However, the road that they journeyed on with Jesus was difficult, and suffering was a part of their journey with Him. But the glory and the closeness with Him that they experienced was inconceivable.
Maybe this passage teaches us that beauty and pain are not mutually exclusive, and neither are suffering and glory. Transfiguration-like moments, which can occur in the natural world around us, remind us that there is an eternity that lies ahead, and He will be with us through it all.
When I first read Gilead as a senior in college, it changed my theology. It taught me that the sacred and the profane can exist within the same space, and that heaven and earth are not so far removed from one another as I think. This is not to say that the experience of God is cheapened, but it reminds me that He is always with me.
He is in every sunset and sunrise, and He is the creator and author of all that I find beautiful. Consequently, I find it beautiful because He is beautiful. When He looked at His creation and called it “good,” He was also calling it “beautiful” because the Hebrew adjective in Genesis means both.
I am delighting in His glory when I behold the sight of a late sunset and a path lit by fireflies and fading light. I am also delighting in His glory when I love my enemy, and when I choose the road of suffering over the one of comfort, just like my Lord Jesus.
He is there in the midst of suffering and pain and hurt because He is in all things, and it is his breath that gives life to the dull, gray ember of creation. If we will have a little willingness to see it, then He can transform our experiences into Transfiguration, even those fraught with pain and loneliness.