Peter, James and John caught a rare glimpse of Jesus when he was “transfigured”. I put the word in quotes because I call into question our assumption that the vision of Jesus as dazzling brilliance enveloped in a cloud of glory is somehow more special than the everyday vision of him as a simple carpenter from a backwater village.
In fact, I argue quite the reverse. What the disciples saw in the transfiguration was the Son of God in his natural state. What should surprise us is that he traded otherworldly glory to become an everyday person—so that he could be close to us. The real transfiguration happened when Jesus cried as an infant, slept in a stable, ate and drank like a glutton and drunkard.
Jesus confirms as much in the aftermath of the so-called transfiguration. The disciples were arguing: “Who is the greatest?” Being around that kind of power had an intoxicating effect on them. Maybe that is why Jesus only chose three of his disciples to see it. He knew they were prone to feed their power-hungry impulse and he wanted no part of it.
Either way, the disciples believed he was the Messiah; as such, they believed he was destined for kingship—and they, along with him, destined for power. It is understandable they would argue about who was the greatest among them, but their argument belied a misguided belief. The path to transfigured humanity is not through some kind of unearthly magic but precisely through learning to be just who we are: human.
How could he make this clear? They had missed it so far. So, this is what he did:
He placed a child in their midst, a person of no account (the name of the child is not even mentioned). Here is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
Then, he told them that if they welcome a child, they welcome him. So, what do they do next?
The story goes that sometime later people were bringing children to Jesus to have him bless them. Do the disciples “welcome” the children, as Jesus told them? Far from it. The disciples took pains to send the children away. The disciples had more important work to do; they thought Jesus had more important work to do.
But Jesus, patient as ever, tells them not to send the children away. “Let the little children come to me…for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
But they missed it. And we do, too. We make our various lists of people who are important: politicians, celebrities, speakers, authors, award-winners, CEO’s, professors. We feel our importance is measured in terms of wealth or breadth of influence.
Jesus says that is all rubbish. He modeled it by becoming a Nobody. Because we miss it, though, he shows us another example of how God changes things: a child. If we can’t see the kind of change God wants in the person of Jesus, hopefully we can see it through the child in our midst.
But we often overlook the child. And, in doing so, we miss the kingdom of God. See the child.
Do you know her name? What are her favorite foods? Does she like to sing, climb trees and tell jokes? What does she wonder about? Does she daydream and seem to think backwards about the world?
Let it be, Jesus says. Let it be. That is transfiguration. Just become a child. That is transfiguration.