In Bible study on Monday, we looked at the word study of “Transfiguration.” In Matthew, the Greek word is “metamorphou” as the English metamorphosis. A metamorphosis is a change from one thing into another. Meta means after, and morph means form, so we get an “after-form.”
In science, a metamorphosis is an abrupt change in bodily structure through cell growth and differentiation. As a kid, we would wade in the pond’s shallows and watch them go from little fish to growing legs and becoming frogs. Jeanne and I joined a neighborhood project raising caterpillars into butterflies and observed metamorphosis firsthand. A hungry caterpillar starts the journey holding tight to milkweed with all its tiny legs. They gobble a massive amount of greenery to sustain growth. Most insects can’t eat milkweed because the sap gums their mouth closed, and they die. Monarch caterpillars have a particular enzyme that breaks down the gluey residue, so the milkweed is their buffet. Most caterpillars will become dinner for birds, but a few will attach and go into a cocoon, where the magical metamorphosis happens. After a few weeks, wings can be seen through the crystallise until, finally, the new creature pushes its tender wings and breaks through as an elegant, transformed flying being. We placed this beauty on our butterfly bush and watched her soak up all the nectar for the journey to Mexico.
Matthew describes the mysterious event of a luminous Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah as a metamorphosis. Let’s explore why that word fits.
Let’s enter this story from the disciple Peter’s perspective. Peter is among the big three in Jesus’s inner circle heading up a mountain for a spiritual retreat. Peter was likely aware of the importance of mountaintops as places to seek God. Holy people and mystics in many religions made mountain pilgrimages to contemplate the divine. In Greece, Mt. Olympus was the home of the gods. Mt. Kailash in Tibet is revered by Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains. The mountain’s divine powers cleanse the sins of the climber. The Irish call mountaintops the “thin places” where the veil between heaven and earth is more permeable. Caterpillars climb milkweeds for metamorphosis; humans climb mountains.
Moses climbed Mount Sinai to speak with God, where he received the Ten Commandments. Exodus 24 tells the story of Moses dwelling on Sinai for 40 days, and a bright cloud covered the peak while he was there. When he came down from the mountain, he had to cover his face with a veil so the glow would not frighten people. We will see the parallel in the Transfiguration story.
Peter has much to ponder at the mountaintop. The previous chapter, Matthew 16, is a turning point in the Gospel story. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you think I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” Jesus praises him for his spiritual insight that came straight from God and says, “I tell you that you are Peter,[b] and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[c] will not overcome it.
Before Peter can fully embrace his newfound status, Jesus goes on a tangent, saying he must go to Jerusalem and suffer at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law and be killed before he is raised from the dead.
This is crazy talk! Peter pulls Jesus aside and says this is a terrible plan. “This shall never happen to you.” Peter didn’t expect a rebuke for his concern, but Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan. Peter, you have no idea how God works.”
As I said, Peter has much to ponder. What has he got himself into now? He left his fishing boat to explore the marvels of God and change the world. “Be all you can be.” Martyrdom was not in the recruitment brochure. If Peter had been paying closer attention, he would have observed how many people wanted to kill Jesus. In the Christmas story in Matthew, Herod slaughters innocent babies trying to find the Christ child. People want to kill Jesus eight times in the Gospels before we get to Good Friday. Transforming the world with love does not come easy.
Now we come to the big moment. Engaging in Messiah talk is one thing, but becoming luminous as a full moon and speaking with your long-dead spiritual ancestors, Elijah and Moses, is another level. Matthew’s description is sparse and straightforward. If there had been a security camera on Mount Tabor around 32 CE, what would we have seen? Can a spiritual vision be captured on camera? You know the challenge of capturing a beautiful moment on camera. iPhone cameras are excellent, but your best sunset photo over Linekin Bay cannot fully express the wonder of ripples of light playing across the water, the birds skimming the waves for fish, and the warmth of the sunset air.
So, what would we see at the Transfiguration? Christian art often tries to show the scene in grandeur. Raphael’s famous “Transfiguration” was designed as an altarpiece, with Jesus glowing, hovering off the ground, and a crowd scene below. At first glance, the painting seems like an overwrought spectacle. Artists do their best to memorialize and capture Jesus in our art and architecture. Most Renaissance art portrays Jesus as much more God than human than my understanding. But Peter would have liked the grand scenes of Raphael. He wanted a glorious, victorious Messiah. When he sees Jesus with Moses and Elijah, he is excited about constructing three tabernacles to honor the moment. When you have a building, you have an institution, and then you have power. This holy site may be an alternative to the Temple in Jerusalem for Jesus’s followers. These are the first words out of Peter’s mouth. How can we capture this and use it to grow the movement? Jesus, surely you know a few contractors from your former employment who can get us started. I wonder if Peter and Raphael are on the same wavelength, focused more on glory than the path Jesus takes.
Let’s look at the next scene in Matthew. A bright cloud descends on the mountaintop, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved;[b] with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Notice three things in this scene. First, the bright cloud reminds us of the scene in Exodus 24 when Moses is on Mt. Sinai. This moment happens in a pattern like previous revelatory events of God’s presence. Second, the voice repeats the words from Jesus’s baptism. “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Third, the command is added, “Listen to him.” The voice doesn’t say to fall down and worship Jesus. Or build a shrine. Or tell everyone what you have seen. At this mountaintop moment in the thin place, the divine message is “Listen.” That is it. “Listen. Listen to the life of this man, Jesus.” The response to glory is humble awe and willingness to follow.
Let’s turn back to Raphael for a moment and look at the bottom half of his painting. We have a crowd scene that is dark and chaotic compared to the light and symmetry of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. This scene portrays the healing of the epileptic youth, occurring in the verses directly following the Transfiguration:
14-16 When they returned to the crowds again, a man came and knelt in front of Jesus. “Lord, do pity my son,” he said, “for he is a lunatic and is in a terrible state. He is always falling into the fire or the water.
Everyone is amazed when the youth is healed of this terrible affliction. What Raphael has done in this altar piece is combine the Transfiguration with the following story of healing in Matthew’s gospel. This vision is not meant to make the peak sacred, as Peter thought. The glory of light is brought into the real world when Jesus comes down the mountain. Raphael shows us that Jesus’s shining moment is a moment for humanity, our moment, a light shined in the darkness and brings us all to metamorphosis.
I was curious to see where the word metamorphosis is used elsewhere in the Bible. Paul was fond of the word. In Romans 12:2, Paul says it most simply:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (undergo a metamorphosis) by the renewing of your mind.
The early church’s theology taught that we are not merely to exalt Jesus but to follow his way and become more Christ-like. Bishop Irenaeus said in the 4th century, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” This life sometimes feels beyond my reach. Some days I am just a hungry caterpillar, or I am wrapped up in a cocoon, and I feel like staying there. But if you have wings, at some point you must get out. Like the butterfly, you must push to break free. It is supposed to be hard. The butterfly gains the strength to fly from the effort of pushing through the cocoon. The push is the last part of the metamorphosis.
I invite you to hold your hands up, palms out. And after a deep breath, push out into the air. Pull back and push again with a big exhale. Friends, Christ makes you strong, and whatever your push is now, you got this! Amen.