A Religious Dialogue on the Meaning of the Transfiguration

I have just returned from the World Council of Churches or the WCC. Let me briefly introduce what the organization is and what I did there. It is an ecumenical organization, which means it is made up of several different Christian denominations—over 350 actually! This includes many of the mainline protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church of the United States as well as many Orthodox churches: the Russian, Bulgarian, and Greek Orthodox churches for example. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member but has a permanent observer status and cooperates closely with the WCC on common issues. I interned in the interreligious dialogue and cooperation department. A lot of what my department does is teach lay people, like you and I, as well as religious leaders, different methods of having conversation about religious topics. I want to give you an example of a tool today: it is called the dialogue of religious experience. What we do first is choose a topic: today it will be the gospel passage about the Transfiguration of Christ. Then we would gather members of different Christian traditions together and ask them, how do you understand the transfiguration of Christ?

Unfortunately, members of the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute could not join us today, as the plane ticket from Switzerland, is a little expensive, (pause) but they gave me permission to share their answers with you. Imagine there are three people sitting right here, on the chancel steps, talking with you.

The first comes from my friend from Russia who describes himself as Russian Orthodox. He looked at me, eyes full of excitement, and said, in the transfiguration, Jesus glows. He GLOWS. I said, ok, yes, a dazzling light, but this isn’t too exciting. Moses glows when comes down the mountain. Saul was blinded by a glowing light. Jesus is divine, of course Jesus can glow, why not. He told me, Katie Beth, you are missing the point. Jesus didn’t walk around glowing all the time. This was a special event—a time when God the father (or mother) made Godself visible, just like with Moses, and just like with Saul. But this time, this time was different, Peter, James, and John—they did not have to have their eyes covered. They could see because what they were seeing was Jesus, the human Jesus fully united in the life-giving love of the triune God. Remember, you have the whole trinity there. Jesus is transfigured by God the father, Jesus’ divinity is revealed, and then a cloud appears—the Holy Spirit—and the voice of God booms, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” This light, the light around the transfigured Jesus it shows us what our life as humans can look like. What it would mean if we were fully united in the life-giving love of the triune God. We would GLOW.  Maybe you have been lucky enough to meet such a person. Recall a mother, after giving birth, in English we say she glows. Or perhaps you have had a mentor or someone telling you about a profoundly spiritual experience, and while they express it, they just glow.

Turning to the next person, she describes herself as a Korean American Calvinist Methodist. For her, the transfiguration is the most important holy day because it is celebrated twice: always the Sunday before Lent and its own special feast day in August. In the transfiguration, she sees the lived purpose of Christianity. Here are James, John, and Peter witnessing the transfiguration, Peter starts talking about wanting to set up booths for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. See, at this time, it was likely Sukkot, the Jewish festival of booths, where the Jews commemorated the time they lived in exile in the desert building these temporary booths and taking a pilgrimage to the Temple. So my friend sees this as Peter suggesting that they camp out on the mountain for a while. Even though James, John, and Peter were frightened by the transfigured Jesus accompanied by other these important leaders of their faith, there was also something very attractive about being in the presence of the divine, so much so that they not want to leave. But the Gospel of Mark, and Matthew, and Luke all mention the voice of God the Father (or Mother) saying This is my son, whom I love or I have chosen, Listen to Him. Then the Gospels talk of the disciples and Jesus going down the mountain, which suggests Jesus does not allow them to stay. What follows in the Gospels are stories of Jesus healing, teaching, or sending out more disciples basically continuing his ministry with the disciples learning, helping, or being sent as needed. So for my friend, the point of this story is that we cannot stay on the mountain top. We can go to the mountains, or the church, or any place where we experience the presence of God most fully, but we are not to stay in this place. We are to take the glow we receive back down the mountain to our ministries in our communities or the places we are called to be.

The third comes from a person who is Indian and describes herself as a secular person with Christian and Hindu parents. She is a human rights lawyer working with stateless populations. Recall to be stateless means to not be eligible to hold a nationality—citizenship in a country. It makes it very difficult to do things like own property or move freely. A current famous example would be the Rohingya—they are a population living near the borders of Myanmar and Bangladesh, yet neither country will claim them as citizens. So this friend, when she hears any Bible story, she tends to see it in the context of statelessness because Jesus, a forced migrant from birth, can arguably be said to be stateless. Of course, nation states did not exist in 1st century middle east in the same way they exist now, but her point holds. The family of Jesus could not return to Nazareth after his birth because Herod, a state leader, was ordering the death of babies. Similarly, who else is present in the transfiguration, Moses? Moses is also arguably stateless. Remember the image of Moses floating down the Nile in a basket, being adopted by Pharoah’s daughter? Moses being sent away from his mother to protect him from Pharoah’s order that all the Hebrew babies be drowned. And then there’s Elijah at the transfiguration, what about Elijah? He is known as Elijah the Tishbite. The origins of Tishbite are debated, but ultimately most people think that at the very least it suggests Elijah is a resident alien, ie someone living in a place that is not his nationality. So for my Indian friend, it is extremely important that at the transfiguration, a milestone event in the life and ministry of Christ, a reconfirmation of Christ’s divinity, that it is stateless people who are used by God and elevated. For her it is a clear indication that we as Christians should respect those who are stateless and work to better their situation. Apparently the pope agrees, in case you missed it, the internet in Europe just about broke after the Pope made a statement about the Rohingya being the presence of God.   

So here in our dialogue of religious experience about the Transfiguration, we have heard three perspectives: the first from a follower of Russian Orthodoxy, which put great emphasis on the light, the glow around Jesus, and how we as humans can draw so close to God that we too can experience this glow; the second from a Calvinist-Methodist, who focused on taking the mountaintop closeness with God back in one’s community or place of service, and one from a secular person, who sees in it the story of stateless people, generally considered the least in society, honored by God. None of these views is particularly more “correct” than another—they all come from a Biblical grounding. It is in understanding these views we come to see the purpose of the dialogue. If we had mentioned the transfiguration in passing and just moved  forward, assuming everyone had the same understanding of what it meant, this may have resulted in intense confusion. In clarifying how each person understands something, we can learn from each other and grow our ministry.