Take out your pencil. Today’s post begins with a pop quiz on that Jesus-on -a-mountaintop story in the Gospel of Mark. Have you read it? Have you heard it? Do you know what it means?
Don’t worry. There’s only one question on this quiz and it happens to be multiple choice:
a. First century plastic surgery
b. A biblical plan to compute your tithe
c. A Christian weight loss program
d. The glory of God breaking open the heart of a man on a mountaintop.
(Ding. Ding. You’re right. Of course, it’s “d”.)
To be transfigured, to have your whole self, your whole person turned inside out, is an experience that many a mom knows well. Carrying a child for nine months reshapes everything. Your heart swells with love and your body with life but so do your hands and your feet. Rings no longer seem to fit and shoes are too tight.
And just when you think there is not a single inch of you that this little person does not occupy, delivery day draws nigh.
Upon a tidal wave of contractions, you surf the ecstatic — burning stages of birth. And with every fiber of your being, this little tiny person is propelled into the world.
You feel like you have just climbed a mountain.
And when they place that little slippery purple person on your naked chest, there and then, life itself is transfigured. In the baby’s face, you see your loved one’s eyes and maybe your grandmother’s nose.
The spitting image of your hopes and dreams.
(And I know that adoptive moms go through their own transfiguring experience, too. And it often takes a lot longer than nine months!)
Bring that little person home and very soon your mantel and your hallway are lined with photographs: baby pictures, school photos, family portraits. Images, reshaped and transformed and transfigured over a life time.
Some of us work like the devil to try to live up our parents’ expectations. While some of us run like Hades to avoid turning into our mother or our father, our parents or grandparents.
Most of us are also scared to death, I believe, to discover whose image actually is stamped on our souls.
The catechism says it is the image of God — the image of Christ. Can you believe it? In a culture that is prone to value firearms more than families, in a society where profits are often more important than people, can we still believe that each and every on of us is created in the image of Christ?
At the turn of this century, there was a contest that called on artists to create an Icon of Christ for the third millennium. It was sponsored by the National Catholic Reporter and it drew nearly two thousand entries from over nineteen countries. Sister Wendy Beckett selected the winners, as well as, the runners-up.
The chosen images drew visceral responses – many written up in the Washington Post.
One anonymous e-mailer shrieked: “It is nothing but a politically correct, modern, blasphemous statement reflecting the artists’ and the judges’ spiritual depravity.”
Another critic complained that a certain entry made the Prince of Peace look like the artist formerly known as Prince. And yet another called the winning entry – a blatant rip off of Jimi Hendrix from the Electric Lady Album!
But others were deeply moved by these newly cast images of Jesus. A Catholic priest wrote, “I am sitting here with tears brimming over and running down my face. These are magnificent images of haunting, inviting serenity. Jesus would recognize himself in these images.”
Jesus as a thick lipped and broad nosed ebony woman. Jesus as an olive skinned, dark haired Middle Eastern peasant. Jesus as a gaunt, gray haired, gay man. Jesus portrayed in bursts of color and glorious light.
Jesus transfigured before our very eyes.
Now the transfiguration of Jesus as the Christ, a scholar writes “is one of the strangest tales the gospels have to tell. Even with the voice from the cloud trying to explain it, the transfiguration is a cosmic and a confusing event. Even Jesus — who spent his life in conversation with the prophets — has no words.”
Instead, a vision erupts on a mountain top and images appear. Up the mountain, Jesus climbs with Peter and James and John. When they reach the top, Jesus can no longer contain the glory of God. It splits his heart in two. It spills out of his every pore: blazing and blinding, exquisite and ecstatic.
The image of Elijah is seared onto his soul. The commandments of Moses beat in his heart. The holy three enveloped in a cloud. But when the cloud is lifted, only the image of Jesus remains.
And it is the same Jesus, the man with whom his friends had traveled a dusty mile. The same Jesus whose mother and brothers they knew. The same Jesus they had seen hungry and tired and sore. Out of the cloud, steps the spitting image of God. Jesus of Nazareth. Flesh of our flesh. Bone of our bone.
In this last flash and blast of Epiphany, walk down the mountain, friends. Take a look around and try to catch a glimpse of such glory. In the eyes of a child. In the arms of a beloved. In the voice of a friend. In the face of a stranger.
Just about anywhere. Just about everywhere. Just around the corner, the human face of God waits to greet us – if we but recognize him.
May God’s glory break open the hardest of hearts – no matter who we are – no matter how impossible that might seem.
May God’s love transfigure and transform us into the likes of love, into the likes of him.
So, let us pray. Day by day.