Wednesday, February 7, 2018
And He Was Metamorphosed Before Them!
Every week our staff gathers on Tuesday to read the gospel lesson for the upcoming Sunday, to discuss it together, and to pray. Yesterday, after reading Mark 9:2-9, we all agreed that "transfigured" is a word we rarely use in conversation. Sure, we say "transformed" or "changed," but "transfigured" seems to imply a very specific kind of event that doesn't happen very often. What does that word really mean?
The prefix "trans" implies a change since its roots are "across" or "through." The root of "figure" has to do with shape or appearance or form. But this event on the mountain top, where Jesus is "transfigured" before his disciples, seems more than just a change in appearance. We use the word "disfigured" to describe someone whose form has been marred by an accident or a fire. The term "prefigure" means a foreshadowing--literally a coming into shape beforehand. But how does the word "transfigure" mean to change as in going through or across one form to another?
During staff meeting, I opened the Greek Bible app on my phone (I'm still looking for a good one) and was reminded that the word translated for us as "transfigured" is "μετεμορφώθη" or, transliterated, "metemorphothe," which, of course, comes from the same root as metamorphosis. What happened to Jesus, therefore, was more than a change in appearance. He was metamorphosed in front of their eyes. Now, I use the word "metamorphosed" in conversation even less frequently than I use the word "transfigured," but the recapitulation of the Greek root helps me visualize both literally and theologically what happened to Jesus.
To the Greek readers of Mark's gospel account, Jesus was transformed beyond mere appearance. One does not say to someone who changes clothes in the middle of the day, "Wow, you've been transfigured!" To metamorphose means to transform--to grow, to change, to develop. We use that terminology for a caterpillar turning into a butterfly or a tadpole changing into a frog. No, Jesus didn't become something new, but can we say he developed? Or can we say that his form--his figure--changed into its mature state?
I've always described the Transfiguration as a moment when Jesus' divinity shone through his humanity--not replacing or mixing or overshadowing it in an anti-Chalcedonian way--but breaking through the surface. This refocusing on the Greek word for what happened makes me wonder whether, at least in the eyes of his disciples, Jesus reached his full God-man maturity. Yes, I'm aware that either doesn't make sense or is a full-blown heresy (I'll take the former, please), but what happened on the mount of Transfiguration is more that just a pulling back of the curtain.
By the time they walk back down, Jesus is back to normal, or at least it seems that way. So this isn't the kind of caterpillar-into-butterfly metamorphosis that we're more familiar with. But it's more than just a laser light show. It's more than just Superman taking off his Clark Kent suit to reveal that he's actually a superhero. This is a change, a development--at least for a moment. Given Mark's narrative to this point--building the case for Jesus as the manifestation of God's authority and power on earth--that makes sense. How can we behold that transfigured, metamorphosed Jesus for ourselves?