Faith like a sparkling drop

No one knows what happened in the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matt. 17:1-9). Deep truths are elusive and almost always wrapped in mystery – from the Greek mustēs, “secret,” something we’re not supposed to talk about in public. Maybe we’re not supposed to talk about the Transfiguration, and maybe that’s why, after the disciples witnessed it, Jesus told them to be quiet. “Shhhh!” So let’s not try to tell the truth about the Transfiguration; let’s “tell it slant,” to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase, and ponder it like we would any other mystery.

First of all, the word Matthew used for “transfigured” is the same word Paul used when he urged all Christians, “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). Was Matthew describing not a physical change in Jesus but a renewal of his mind, a change in his thinking, perhaps a deepening of his commitment to the way he had chosen, that caused his disciples to see him differently? Whatever may have happened to Jesus, Paul expected it to happen to each one of us and to all of us.

The key to what happened to Jesus may lie in what frames 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 (Matt. 16:21-26). And just after the Transfiguration, he reminded them 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 accepted death not as a possibility but as the real and looming outcome of the way he had chosen, and he committed himself at a deeper level to the hard, self-sacrificing journey he had begun, knowing that at the end would be not only death but unimaginable joy as well, and life beyond comparison.

Jesus could have chosen something else. He could have gone up the mountain and gone over the hill, abandoning the way and settling for a life like everyone else with hardly a second thought. Or he might have gone ahead but half-heartedly, never risking himself totally to what he had begun and so never knowing the wholeness that comes with total commitment to God’s will. He could have remained quiet, unprovocative, active in his community and congregation in some small way, and avoided the hard choices that a life of faith requires.

Instead, he put all his chips in the kitty and chose the costly way of total commitment. He opened himself to his true 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 – the Germans have a better translation; Verklärung, they call it, the “clarification” – and his true nature became clear, in all his fullness, in all his wholeness, in all his radiant glory.

St. Paul envisioned such a transfiguration for each of us, such a clarification of our true nature when we choose total commitment to the way and surrender completely to God’s will. But such a choice is a costly choice. The Transfiguration asks us to consider what such a choice might cost us. Are we willing to go the distance, to put all our chips in the kitty, to pay the price, to take up our cross and follow?

One night a little boy fell out of bed, and as his mother was comforting him, she asked how the accident happened. “Well,” the boy said, “I guess I lay down too close to where I got in.” How many so-called Christians don’t take their baptisms seriously? How many lie down too close to where they get in and are always falling out of faith or barely hanging on by their fingertips, holding on to old ways of thinking and old ways of living because they’ve grown familiar and comfortable with those ways?

From the early Christian tradition comes the story of how Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said, “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?” 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.” If you will, you can choose to become transformed by the renewing of your mind; if you will, you can choose to become all flame; if you will, you can choose for your true nature to become clear, in all your fullness, in all your wholeness, in all your radiant glory.

But your true nature will not be like that of Jesus – your face may not shine like the sun – or like that of Abba Joseph – you may not become all flame. Your true nature may be more like that of Tom of Warwick. In the final scene of Camelot, as King Arthur is preparing for his final battle, Tom, a boy of about fourteen, asks to become a knight of the Round Table. “When did you decide upon this nonexistent career?” Arthur asks him. “Was your village protected by Knights when you were a small boy? Was your mother saved by a Knight? Did your father serve a Knight?” “Oh, no, Milord,” Tom replies. “I only know of them. The stories people tell.” And Arthur muses, “From the stories people tell you wish to be a Knight?”

After some further conversation, Arthur tells a clearly disappointed Tom that he will not be allowed to fight in the battle. “You will run behind the lines,” Arthur tells him, “and hide in a tent till it is over. Then you will return to your home in England. Alive. To grow up and grow old. And for as long as you live you will remember what I, the King, tell you; and you will do as I command.” That’s when Arthur tells Tom to “Think back on all the tales that you remember of Camelot,” and to tell the story “strong and clear” to those who haven’t heard.

Just then Pellinore comes in and reminds Arthur that he has a battle to fight. “Battle?” Arthur replies. “I’ve won my battle, Pelly. Here’s my victory!” he says, pointing to Tom. And Tom runs off to do as he has been commanded. “Who was that, Arthur?” Pellinore asks. “One of what we all are, Pelly,” Arthur replies. “Less than a drop in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea. (Arthur smiles. There is jubilance in his voice.) But it seems some of the drops sparkle, Pelly. Some of them do sparkle!” Arthur takes a firm grip on his sword, moves to exit, and the curtain falls.

The great, storied battles of faith may not be ours to engage, the great transfigurations not ours to experience. The great heroes may be for other times and places and circumstances. Our charge may simply be to live out our lives, remembering the story and telling it strong and clear to those who haven’t heard it – that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory, a glory that will come again by God’s grace – and in the meantime to be one of those sparkling drops “in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.”

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