It’s the feast of the transfiguration (supply your own damn caps if it means that much to you). I don’t know who exactly is feasting, but one assumes this is super (maybe even, trans-) important to the Orthodox, pretty dang important to the Roman Catholics, and totally unheard of by the Mennonites. The Baptists don’t believe in it because it isn’t in the Bible. Oh, it is? OK then, the Baptists believe in it, but like the Mennonites, they’ve never heard of it. It’s not in Romans.
Then, of course, there are the Japanese. They have reason to hate this day, and perhaps all such bright and shiny metamorphoses. Thanks to some atheist scientists (one dreams) and a Baptist politician (one knows), a few hundred thousand Hiroshimans lit up on August 6, 1945. I like to imagine a Christian missionary talking to them about the transfiguration. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, just, perhaps, not ethical.
I don’t get the transfiguration, except as a trope. I mean, I get the obsession with back lighting and transmogrification and all, it’s just that I’ve seen and it doesn’t appeal to me. Peter Jackson pretty much ruined all that in The Fellowship of the Ring, trying to channel the numinous with digital tricks and voice modulators. Now Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett are forever stuck in my mind with a really bad youth group leader I used to know who would always perform the role of Satan in church plays by running his voice through some stupid filter from hell. “Give me the ring. After all, look how tall and scary I just got!” Oooooooh.
Transfiguring, transmogrifying, choose your gerund—that’s pretty much an everyday thing around here these days. Vampires, wizards, animagi, steroids, boob jobs, facelifts, facejobs, boob lifts, computer effects, filters (visual, aural), airbrushing, facebook alter-egos, memoir writers, viagra, chip memory implants (does that happen yet?). It’s not a one-time thing on a mountain anymore; that was bad enough as far as I’m concerned. Now it’s just as mundane as . . . the mundane, only shinier or fuller or skinnier (depending upon the figure you are trying to trans).
That whine isn’t anything necessarily new. Most of us can agree that these false transfigurations can take our eyes away from the real one. What though of the real one? If that even means anything, really. Jesus went up on a mountain and all of a sudden he’s surrounded by Moses and Galadriel and Plato’s chair and Beatrice and lots of other things either floating down from the sky or doing that Star Trek transporter thing? Alright. What now? Other than another opportunity to make Peter out to be a bit of a buffoon, what are we to take away from this? What does it mean, meaningfully (not even to mention mean physically or Physics-ly)?
What worries me is that it’s someone’s attempt to sneak Plato in the mountaintop back door of the gospel. We live our lives, Jesus lived his (they say), on the dirty ground of Palestine, animal pee and shit pretty much wherever he stepped, human shit on the rest. Subject to cutting, bruises, passion, sweating, laughter, liver failure, crucifixion, erotic attraction, the urge to dance, hunger, sleepiness, inexplicable happiness, doubt, and the need to go. I like that Jesus. I don’t think I’m going all Ricky Bobby on this or anything. If I’m not supposed to like that Jesus, I don’t get the incarnation as an idea or a practice. I want to curl up and sleep at his feet, assuming he wouldn’t want to snuggle with the likes of me. And tell him every day—“Master, Rabbi, whatever whomever you are,(whatever name I use, I know that Matthew and John will fix it later when they edit), this world makes sense to me when I am with you. I’m not getting all of this. I might not even be getting most of it. I might not ever get much more than this. But if this is what it means to love G*d and man, then I am walking with you. Everything looks different because of you.”
You see what I did there? I know you did. That’s because I am only giving this meditation to people who care about such things. (God, words, thinking, etc.). Jesus transfigured the world, at least as I understand the story. NOT by bringing down Plato’s ideals or turning up his divine nose on the everyday, the mundane, the wedding feast, the farmed field, the noisy child, the noisy blind man, the noisy crowd, the nosey rich young ruler. But by making it all holy, if not shiny.
He transfigured the prisoner, the hungry, the naked, the Samaritan, the Japanese, young adult novelists, the cattle at his nativity, not to mention the young woman about to be slaughtered by the Taliban. He took on our skin and told us to look for him in the rough and ragged creatures of mother earth.
So, what’s up with this mountaintop version of The Shining? “Heeeeeeere’s Jeeeesus!” Don’t read ahead, because I refuse to come up with a facile answer. it’s not like I know, pretend to know, or want to know. Unless I discover that it’s all a big mistake, which would be alright.
Two years ago I took a long walk. Repeat after me: no, longer than you are thinking right now. I saw and felt and heard and touched so many wonderful things of this earth. Tainted, for sure. Wrinkled, quite often. Drunk, the Germans precisely. Snoring? Oh my Platonic One, the snoring. Blistered? Badly. Transfigured? Hmmm. Well there was that one late afternoon on a bridge over a little stream with my head in the lap of the virgin mary who fed me blackberries and looked in to my eyes and said, “I’m sorry, but this will be as good as it ever gets, but you’ve got to admit it’s pretty damned good.” And I do. And she walked away into a sunset and it was almost kind of like the transfiguration. Otherwise, shiny Jesus was there only in his absence. In the agnostic prayers, the breaking of the bread, the cheap Spanish wine, the footrub from a friend who couldn’t speak my language, the cows of Galicia. I assume he was there in a number of adulterous women, but for good or bad, I never found out.
There were mountains. Lots of them. They were beautiful, gracious, and merciless. I didn’t need shiny Jesus or Peter Jackson to convince me that the world is charged with the grandeur of something or someone. And, of course, it’s a bitch.In and of itself. And, often and especially, when we try to transfigure it ourselves (by transmogrification or, more tragically, by nuclear fission).
Today I took a shorter walk. Not that short. Three or four miles at least. But I walked by my best friends’ house. Jennifer and Edwin. It looked like an empty house. Because it is, I guess. Because they moved to Kentucky. But when they were there, at least much of the time, it reminded me of a burning bush that would not be consumed. The mental energy in and on them, and by extension, in that place would have made William Blake . . . say something Blakean about it. That place was transfigured by the human form, divine or not. They were devoted to this Jesus fellow and probably more in tune with all this platonic transfiguration nonsense than I. Excuse my being obviously correct, however, in saying that these lovely creatures (prone not only to wander but also to all sorts of human ridiculousness) might have been pagans or even Calvinists and still have transfigured that place and the lives of those who stepped into their force field (it always comes back to Star Trek, doesn’t it?). And that’s only right, if . . . .
Last night I took a genuinely short walk. Knowing my liturgical bent, Rorie the dog intentionally shat three separate piles as we walked around the block (in her defense, it’s a long block). “What the hell are you doing, Rorie the dog,” I exclaimed. She looked at me all like I know you, you talk the shit, but can you handle the shit? Build three tabernacles or convert to Plato or shut your huge mouth giant human. “Say WHAT?” You heard me, she looked, transfigure this. She turned away and didn’t look another word at me. Just that solemn mysterious impenetrable air of hers. The one she has usually after a nice . . . walk.
So, there you have it. Why the transfiguration creeps me out. Not because it’s all shiny and scary, but because I get it, but I don’t get it. OK, OK. You come from the stars and all. So did Lucifer. Where do we do go from here? Way back in the day, Bob Milham used to get mad at me because I wasn’t more interested in supernatural experiences. He meant visions and transfigurations and such. To me, that’s like Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, in which it turns out that there really are smart, shiny aliens who have come down to us. And . . . they wanted to eat our brains (or something like). That they are out there and shiny, I guess, comforts some people. I want more.
One final thing about this transfigured Jesus and why he disappoints me. The most amazing thing to me, whatever really happened, of the larger story, and the part that shocks and disturbs in all the right ways (right being defined as, how Joe likes things) is that the resurrected Jesus was pretty much . . . not transfigured (in THAT sense). Yes, he could walk through walls, supposedly. I think one of the disciples did better than that in the Book of Acts (he did some Klingon transport thing, if my interpretation is correct). Maybe both happened; maybe neither, but it’s a zero sum as far as I can see. But that the wounded, bruised (why not?), tortured Jesus, who loved and was loved, who cared and was hated, returned from the realm of the dead (whatever that means) in that maimed form? If I were that missionary in Japan, I would talk about that Jesus, in all his terrible beauty. There is a transfiguration I can care about if not understand. To him I say yes, yes, yes, please be true. There was the human form divine. If Peter hadn’t been running so fast to catch up with the disciple whom Jesus loved, he probably would have tried to build some tabernacles. I think I’ll just go down and visit Edwin and Jennifer in Kentucky instead. Or take a long walk.