Did you know that for “transfiguration,” you get 19 Scrabble points? Not so much, really. In Scripture, too, the word is not quite the heavy lifter we have been taught to believe. It’s Latin, and means in day-to-day God talk to make a total change of outward form into something more beautiful, or well, more spiritual. A lot of baggage has been brought down to us along with a goodly number of lovely paintings of glowing faces and poor Moses and Elijah perched precariously on one foot each.
Some late-19th Century French painters were despised by the Academy because their oils showed us not a pretty Jesus, but a coarse, working-class laborer. Following their lead, we can speak of seeing the “transfigured” in the face of a mother holding her dying child in Patterson Park, or an old man comforting his starving wife in the desert of Yemen, or a face more vacant than dust of some genderless soul in a Memory Care unit. Our transfigurations nowadays are not for the faint of heart.
The Church keeps the Feast of the Transfiguration this Sunday, on August 6—unless it is being trendy, and postpones it to Epiphanytide. There is a good lesson to be learned in seeing Jesus transfigured on August 6. Let us remember that on that date in 1945, we bombed Hiroshima. In President Truman’s pious ratiocination, we shortened the war. We also shortened the lives of some 150,000 persons at Hiroshima and 75,000 at Nagasaki, conservatively speaking, of course. Also, at least another 60,000 would be dead by year’s end from nuclear poison.
Those who own the faith of Jesus see Him not just in the forced-marches of Japan’s Imperial Army, in the daily horror of their prison camps, in their tortured slaughter at Nanking and Shanghai. The wounded Jesus as transfigured Christ rises through the blood-red sky above imprisonment and mushroom cloud alike.
So then: The real meaning of “transfigure” is found in the Greek: it says that Jesus “μετεμορφωθη” (metamorphoses) and that means “change shape” or if you will allow me, “Jesus changed how he was seen.” Let us change the shape of our lives; let us learn from the horrors done by ourselves and others; let us change how we are seen to the world. As you read these words and as you come to service at Emmanuel, say to those you meet that we do what is our constant work: we bond as one in the breaking of the bread and the prayers, and we offer to those beyond the door to Cathedral and Read that priceless metamorphosis which is our heritage and our glory.
The Feast of the Transfiguration, 2017