Mike Baughman, who writes for The Hardest Question, suggests that what we call transfiguration is actually metamorphosis (metamorpho being the Greek that we translate as “transfiguration”). If that’s so, than the story of Jesus on Mount Tabor is the same story that tadpoles and caterpillars enact in nature. Jesus undergoes a metamorphosis. His divinity is revealed. But Mike wisely points out that this doesn’t mean that his nature is transformed. The caterpillar and the butterfly share the same DNA – they are the same creature. Metamorphosis isn’t about becoming something entirely different. It’s about the revelation of a different form within a single being. As Mike so eloquently puts it, “the full purpose of the tadpole has been revealed in the frog.”
I was talking to my friend Laurie about this as we planned our weekly sermons. Transfiguration is metamorphosis, but what does that mean? And how can one construct a sermon out of that single thought? Laurie, of course, knew where to go with the idea. There’s a reason we read the Transfiguration story before the beginning of Lent, she said. Think of what’s happening on Mount Tabor. Jesus undergoes a metamorphosis, right there before Peter, James and John. They see his full purpose revealed. But transfiguration isn’t a central moment in Christian life. The revelation of purpose isn’t enough. The fulfillment of purpose is, and that happens at the resurrection. Peter, James and John find themselves looking at the resurrection Christ before resurrection has taken place. He won’t look like this again until Easter morning. In fact, despite Peter’s entreaties, he’ll return to the way he looked before, to his tadpole or caterpillar state, and walk with them down the mountain. So transfiguration isn’t an end in itself (neither, I suppose, is metamorphosis in nature, at least not to a religious person, who believes that things have purposes beyond their material existence on earth).
Laurie came up with the best metaphor for this. After butterflies and moths hatch from their cocoons, they need to spend time spreading their wings and allowing them to dry. She reminded me about the passage in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. When Dillard was a little girl, a friend found a Polyphemus moth cocoon, and their teacher put it in a mason jar after the children had passed it around, the heat from their hands having stimulated the moth inside into thinking that spring had arrived. The moth emerged in the mason jar, alive and powerful, but
He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried, and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still racked with useless, frantic convulsions.
Perhaps, Laurie suggested, that is why we read about the Transfiguration right before Lent. It reminds us of what we are eventually meant to become – creatures whose true natures are revealed in a new shape, a new purpose. But it also reminds us that we have to let our wings dry into the proper shape. Lent is like the lifting of the mason jar. All the things that press about us are sent away, so that we can dry into the new shape that we, and the world, will fully assume at Easter.
But what are we going to become, eventually? What is that new shape that we’re reaching for? Whatever it is, the metaphor of metamorphosis tells us that it won’t be a complete break from the past. The tadpole and the frog, the caterpillar and the moth, are the same creature. The seed of our resurrection selves are right here, inside our present selves. To me, this means that we can never neglect or denigrate the past. When we think of our pasts, many of us find much to be ashamed of. Yet it’s a mistake to think that the events of the past disappear in the moment of resurrection. Our pasts aren’t vanquished on Easter morning. They are redeemed. Our scrabbly, slimy former selves are brought into a new kind of beauty.
And this, too, is part of the purpose of Lent. As we pause, allowing ourselves to dry so that the new shape that we’re assuming can form itself without deformation, we can think about our pasts, and how they formed our spirits. We can look at and consider those things that are most painful to us, most shameful. When I was in seminary and struggling with my own shame over my past, my favorite professor asked me a simple question. “Back when you were that person, did anyone love you?” I had to answer yes. “Were they idiots?” he asked. “Were they fools?” I had to answer no. “Then they loved you because they saw something good in you,” he said, “even if you couldn’t see it yourself.” That, for me, was the path to redemption. Realizing that the full purpose of the tadpole is revealed in the frog, that when I was a tadpole, slimy and silent in my own misery, the spirit within me was moving inexorably towards metamorphosis, towards my own transfiguration.