Feast of the Transfiguration - February 14, 2021
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
2 Kings 2:1-12 + Psalm 50:1-6 + 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 + Mark 9:2-9
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ. I speak to you today in the Name of the Three in One and One in Three.
A number of years ago, while living in Madison, WI, I used to take Tai Chi classes. Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art, that is more like bodily meditation practiced by slow synchronized movements that require mental focus and deep breathing. The movements central to all schools of Tai Chi derive from other martial arts used for fighting and self-defense. They are done often in community, always beginning and ending with deep bows toward one’s fellow Tai Chi practitioners.
Most fascinating is the speed with which the community practices this body meditation. Unlike other martial arts, Tai Chi is practiced more slowly—in fact very slowly and with painstaking precision—all with a view of balancing the opposing forces of Yin and Yang within oneself. If you have never seen it practiced, you should google it. It is quite memorizing to watch.
So, I remember joking with people who asked me why I took up Tai Chi rather than Kung Fu, Karate, or Tai Kwon do. I told them it was because I wanted to learn how to beat people up in slow motion.
But the truth is I have always been fascinated with how basically the same movements that had been developed for the purpose of fighting and self-defense, could be transformed into bodily forms of meditation intended to bring inner peace, tranquility, and harmony between opposing forces within oneself.
Virtually the same movements intended for competition and aggression, practiced more slowly, with deeper intentionality, and deep breathing are transformed into a meditation that renders unity, interior balance, and overall well-being.
Today is the Feast of the metamorphothe in Greek—or the Transformation of Christ (which we usually translate into English as the “Transfiguration” from the Latin: Transfiguratus est, from which many English Bibles originally derived). But I make the distinction here between “transformation” and “transfiguration” because the event Mark describes is not just a transformation of Jesus’ surface appearance (i.e., “his figure,”) but of his very “form”—his “morphe.” The importance of this translation can be better understood when paired with the most famous reference to Jesus’ “form” in the Philippians Hymn (2:6-7):
...though he was in the form of God, he did not cling to his divinity as something to be taken advantage of, but emptied himself , being born in the likeness of humans.
The story of the “transformation” of Jesus we heard today is in a sense a privileged glimpse into the deepest dimension of Jesus’ divine identity. What strikes me is the speed with which Jesus’ inner circle comes to this realization of Jesus’ deepest form, his deepest identity. It is a revelation that happens in a flash: There, as if hovering over them, Jesus’ clothes more radiant than any earthly bleacher could make them, dramatically flanked by Israel’s greatest prophet and lawgiver—Elijah and Moses. Peter, James, and John, throwing themselves to the ground in terror, hardly knowing what to say before this “christophany” or “manifestation” of Christ’s form, Christ’s nature—before their very eyes.
And the essence of this dramatic story shares something in common with many of the inspirational stories we hear about in the Gospels: that is, the speed with which things happen. Here, Jesus is instantly transformed before their eyes, revealing to them in no uncertain terms his identity as the Messiah and Son of God.
But isn’t that same dynamic true throughout the entire gospel? A person is ill and immediately cured; a woman hemorrhaging for 20 years and is instantly healed; a paralyzed man is brought to Jesus only to take up his mat and walk home some moments later; a child lay dying...revived and restored to health in an instant.
Jesus is depicted throughout the gospels as battling demons, overcoming illness, and reversing life-long debilitation with the agility and speed of a Kung Fu fighter. But alas, we must be content to practice Tai Chi.
Not privy to the inner circle of those who witnessed his transfiguration (his ‘transformation’), we are left fighting these same ailments in slow motion: unable to instantly cure those who are ill; for weeks, months or years we must keep vigil with those who suffer from a protracted illness, or worse, with those for whom there is no hope of a cure; unable to miraculously heal another, we must be content to live side- by-side, aiding those who suffer a lifetime with irreversible debilitations: mental, emotional, or physical deficiencies.
It seems a bit unfair at times, that things should be so easy for Jesus and so difficult for us. Why does he get to instantly fix the problems he encounters while we are left to live with them for a lifetime? Why does he practice Kung Fu but only teach us Tai Chi?
I often think about how good philanthropy must feel to those who practice it. Imagine how quickly someone can change the quality of a person’s life, the health of an organization in a singular graced moment of generosity: from pending failure to financial stability; from no chance at an education to a full four-year scholarship; from a village having no clean water for miles, to local wells that now spring forth an abundance of fresh water.
And if there is so much joy in one’s ability to effect those kinds of changes, imagine how it would feel to make a paralyzed person, walk; a mute person, talk; a dead child restored to life; a leper made clean.
Indeed, one would think this might solve all of our problems. Clarify our sense of purpose in life. Turn our swords into ploughshares. And transform a doubting world into a community of believers. Yet, strangely enough, as we will see over the course of this year as we reflect on Mark’s gospel together, he insists over and over again, that despite these first hand witnesses of Jesus’ miracles, healings, the multiplication of loaves and fishes, the transfiguration— Despite all of this even his closest disciples fail to comprehend, fail to understand his deepest identity as the Messiah.
In fact, as we will see, Mark’s entire gospel is oriented toward the slow, gradual, patient realization of Jesus’ identity by all whom he meets. Maybe, in fact, the speed of a Kung Fu punch, though it may, in a moment, knock us off our feet, is, in the end no match to the graceful, patient transformation that unfolds as one learns to hold and channel what in martial arts is called chi -- that vital, universal energy the flows through all and in all.
And whether by Providence or coincidence, in the Kabbalah or system Jewish mysticism it is not chi (C-H-I) but chai (C-H-A-I) which also means “life” and makes up the lowest rung on the ladder of divine emanations. In other words Chai is the divine emanation closest to the physical plain – or what we simply call “Life” or the “Life-Force.” Hence the salutation “l’chaim” – to life!
This divine emanation, descending from the heights of Heaven, manifest in the universe as the life-force, the very creative power through whom and in whom the universe is created and held in existence finds its ultimate manifestation, indeed revelation, in the Incarnation – and thus becomes for the Christian not a WHAT, but a WHO – whom we name Christ. It is this Christ that Colossians tells us “is all and is in all.”
It is this Christ – the life-force of the universe—that is revealed in all its glory on Mount Tabor in the Transfiguration. What the Eastern Orthodox call the Tabor Light or “Uncreated Light” – because the source of the light emanating from Christ has no origins – it is a revelation of the Eternal Light, the eternal CHAI, as it were.
We should not underestimate what this revelation implies about Christ as the Incarnate one, the messiah. For centuries Israel was waiting for a Messiah whom they believed would be something more akin to a Kung Fu Fighter—a powerful military leader who would liberate them from the dominating powers of the nations who held them in captivity—the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans. A messiah whom they believed would transfigure Israel from an oppressed people beholden to the nations, to the former glory of the Throne of David, their once and future king.
This mistaken assumption may well account for the description of the throngs of people hailing him with palm branches and accolades as he made his way into Jerusalem for his final Passover — And yet, we must ask ourselves, where were all the crowds of adoring fans just days later at his crucifixion? The answer is simple: They had all gone home.
After all, a dead Messiah is no Messiah at all. At the very least the crucifixion proved that Jesus was not the one they had been hoping for. But what they could not have known is that a Messiah who embodies life itself, who is the very source, origin, and emanation of life could not in fact succumb forever to death – as we will see.
And so we see in the end, even Jesus proves himself to be a Master of Tai Chi...not by skirting or avoiding death, but by moving through. He chooses powerlessness over the gratification and satisfaction of quick fixes, instant cures, and military victory; he sees the ephemeral nature of the accolades he had earlier evoked in others; the “Hosannas” and praises completely abandoned once the moment had passed, once he failed to conform to their own expectations of what a Messiah “should be.”
So too, throughout the spiritual life, we may all hope experience moments of insight; quick flashes of grace that change us forever: Like the transfiguration in Mark’s gospel, or perhaps an inexplicable healing, an experience of synchronicity, or love, or unity. But the life of discipleship is oriented to something far more subtle, even far more transformational...and the placement of the Transfiguration in the gospel of Mark as well as in our liturgical year both speak to that deeper transformation which is the very stuff of contemplative practice. The story of the Transfiguration we heard today appears in Mark just prior to the dramatic shift in Jesus’ ministry which transitions from Miracle-worker in Galilee, to a sustained emphasis on his passion and ultimate death. We move from a Jesus whom Mark signals as powerful, authoritative, and strong, to one who grows increasingly threatened, tortured, and by all worldly standards, weak.
Indeed no less than half of Mark’s gospel is devoted to the Passion of Jesus. And perhaps most surprising of all, it is not his miracles, or his transfiguration, or even his authoritative teachings that ultimately lead the masses to recognize his deepest identity—it is his moment of complete powerlessness – indeed the moment of his death. Mark will tell us in 15:37-39:
“Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
And herein lies the wisdom of celebrating this feast just prior to the onset of Lent.
Lent: as we begin the collective effort to look deeply into ourselves, to do the slow- motion work of self-examination, interior reflection, and inner healing.
Lent: when we explore the power of powerlessness, rather than the worldly promises of quick fixes and instant solutions, learning as we do to hold chi, to hold LIFE, that it may flow freely through us, rather than attempt control it. Lent: where the holy work of healing others, revealing our true self to others, forgiving others, is as much about our own transformation as disciples as it is about those whose suffering we enter into with deepest compassion. Indeed where we again take up and apprenticeship of the Spirit, who alone can teach us to embody the CHRIST- LIFE in our own flesh and blood.
Despite the envy we may sometimes feel for those in the gospel who seemed to have it easy beneath the healing hands of Christ...let us not forget the simple fact that Christian discipleship is not and has never been about POWER or control—no matter with how much goodness we intend to wield it. As we will see throughout our reading of Mark, and in the observance of Lent which leads inevitably to the Paschal Mystery— Christian discipleship is cruciform! That is, in the shape of a cross. It is above all about powerlessness—at least as the world conceives it.
The prophet Isaiah (2:4) foretells of a time when whole nations will be transformed – indeed, transfigured – from bellicose and warlike states to beacons of peace and prosperity:
...They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
It is fascinating how Israel’s expectation of a messiah reflected their own bellicose ambitions: triumphing over the most powerful of nations in decisive kung fu victories led by a messianic military leader. It is easy to believe as an oppressed people that a change in the tide of power will always result in a better world. But without fail the oppressed always become the oppressor. But Isaiah’s oracle here speaks to a truth that Jesus would come to embody in his messiahship.
Messiahship is not about Kung Fu, but Tai Chi. It is about the slow, patient, gradual movement toward balance, harmony. About the peaceful transition from power-over to servant leadership. It is learning to breathe deeply with those we are called to serve, to heal, and to transfigure – to be present in and through death experiences, not merely skirt or avoid them.
The lasting changes we experience in life most often happen in this way. Slowly, gradually, almost imperceptivity. This is how the church as the Body of Christ continues to be transfigured today. We are not celebrating merely the transfiguration of a Jesus “out there” or “over there” or “up there high upon Mount Tabor.”
We are celebrating that very same transfiguration within ourselves, not only as individuals, but with all the grace of a community learning to move together in slow- motion, learning to embody that graceful, gradual dance of the Gospel in our lives, realizing that flowing through and around and among is the very Christ – that uncreated light and life force – we seek to become: Bearing one another’s grief, attending to one another in sickness, holding each other in times of need, and raising each other up in triumph.
These are the movements that heal, that save, that redeem, that transfigure. Indeed most miracles happen not with the speed of lightening and thunderous epiphanies. No, most miracles unfold in slow-motion: loving movements of tenderness, imperceptibly kind acts, with gentle and full breaths, and yes, deep bows.
May the God who is even now transforming you ever more-so into the Body of Christ, awaken you to the beauty of a life lived in slow motion.
+ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.