The first and best thing to do with mystery is be quiet. The word itself suggests it. It’s from the Greek mustēs, “secret,” something shared only with the initiated. It has the sense of “shhhh,” a sound best made with a forefinger pressed to the lips. Maybe that’s why, after Jesus’ disciples had witnessed his transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-9), he told them to be quiet. “Shhhh!” I’m not going to try to explain the transfiguration. Like any mystery, you’ll have to ponder it on your own. I’m just going to offer some things to consider.
Matthew tells us that Jesus was “transfigured” (v. 2), a Greek word meaning “to change into another form” (metamorphoō), like the metamorphosis that turns a caterpillar into a butterfly, so “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” And he says Jesus was transfigured “before them” – “in their sight,” the Greek word means. Was it a physical change in Jesus that happened in full view of the disciples? Was it an inner, spiritual transformation that altered his appearance? You’ve seen someone’s face beam with joy or peace. Or was the change in the disciples, so that the way they saw him changed? I don’t know. No one does.
But I know this: The word Matthew uses for “transfigured” is the same word Paul uses when he urges all believers, “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed (metamorphoō) by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). Did Jesus experience in that moment a “renewing of [his] mind,” the transformation Paul expected all believers to undergo, so that he was seen differently by his disciples? Again, I don’t know. No one does.
The key to what happened to Jesus may be in what surrounded him in that critical moment. He had just warned his disciples that he would suffer and die, and he told them the same fate was in store for them (16:21-26). And just after his transfiguration, he reminds his disciples that “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him” (17:22-23).
Perhaps there on the mountain and for the first time, he accepts death as the real and looming outcome of the way he has chosen, and he commits himself at a deeper level to the hard, self-sacrificing journey he has begun, knowing that at the end is unimaginable joy and life without compare.
He could have chosen something else. He could have gone up the mountain that day and gone over the hill, disappearing into a life like everyone else with hardly a second thought. Or he might have gone ahead half-heartedly, never risking himself totally and so never knowing the wholeness that comes with total commitment to God’s will. He could have remained quiet and unprovocative, active in his community and congregation in some small way, avoiding the hard choices that a life of faith requires day by day.
Instead, he chose the costly way of total commitment. He opened himself to his true nature, his God nature, uncovering the will of God that lay deep beneath his own will. And in that choice, he was transformed, changed in the eyes of those around him, and he became his true self, in all his fullness, in all his wholeness, in all his radiant glory.
That choice is always ours to make. In a sermon to a confirmation class in 1938, just before World War II, German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer told those confirmands, and says to every true Christian: “You have only one master now. . . . But with this ‘yes’ to God belongs just as clear a ‘no.’ Your ‘yes’ to God requires your ‘no’ to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and poor, to all ungodliness, and to all mockery of what is holy. Your ‘yes’ to God requires a ‘no’ to everything that tries to interfere with your serving God alone, even if that is your job, your possessions, your home, or your honor in the world. Belief means decision.”
Belief means we must choose, and Bonhoeffer chose to say “yes” to God and “no” to the rising tide of nationalism, and “no” to a self-serving narcissist who corrupted the political system for his own selfish ends. Bonhoeffer’s choice cost him his life. What might your choice cost you? Are you willing to pay the price, to take up your cross and follow?
Your choice might be less dramatic but just as meaningful. Bob Howard recently shared a meme on his Facebook page that reflects the kind of choice we can make every day: “As the world fights to figure everything out, I’ll be holding doors for strangers, letting people cut in front of me in traffic, saying good morning, keeping babies entertained in grocery lines, stopping to talk to someone who is lonely, being patient with sales clerks, smiling at passersby. Why? Because I will not stand idly by and live in a world where love is invisible.” Making love visible is a choice, a transforming choice.
In the early Christian tradition, there’s a story of how Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to Abba Lot, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
What else can you do? If you will, you can become all flame. If you choose the way of total commitment to the radical faith Jesus opened, you can be transformed. You can become your true self, in all your fullness, in all your wholeness, in all your radiant glory.