Posted by: smstrouse | March 2, 2019

The Transfiguration and Caterpillar Soup

999077070_ca7263a22c_bJust imagine that you were with Peter, and James, and John coming down from that mountain with Jesus. I would imagine that you would be pondering the extraordinary thing that you just witnessed up on the mountaintop. Your friend Jesus suddenly started to glow – literally. And then you saw him talking with Moses and Elijah, the two biggest names in Jewish history – never mind that they’re long dead.

And then to top it off, out of the clouds came the voice of God. And you all fell down on the ground scared out of your wits until Jesus came over and told you to get up. I imagine when he said, “Don’t be afraid.” you thought to yourself, “Yeah right.”

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to imagine being there. I mean it’s hard enough to read about it and try to figure out what that was all about. And people have been arguing about that for millennia. The story of the Transfiguration or the meta-morphosis of Jesus appears in all three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. So it would appear to be a pretty important story to those early writers. But it’s also a story that raises a lot of questions. What are we reading here? Is this a fable, a myth, a theological metaphor? Is it eyewitness history? Of course some simply dismiss the story as bizarre fiction.

They did just that from the beginning. Tacitus, considered one of the greatest historians of the Roman Empire, sneered at the pernicious superstitions of Christians and Suetonius in his Life of Nero derided believers as adhering to a novel and mischievous superstition. When we read the second letter of Peter, we can hear the early Church responding this derision: “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we told you of the power and coming of Christ Jesus; we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. We heard God’s voice come from heaven, while we were on the holy mountain.”

So what really happened? No one knows for sure. But using the criterion of Alexandr_Ivanov_015embarrassment – which says that if part of the story puts Jesus or the disciples in a bad light – it’s not likely to have been either invented or airbrushed. So there just might be some truth to this wild tale. I mean Peter does come off as a dunce in the story. Unflattering details like this suggests that the gospel writers were writing history even if the story – like so many stories in the Bible is easier to describe than to explain.

Let me tell you what I think. I think something did happen and that Jesus literally, if briefly, metamorphosed before their eyes. The disciple saw the human Jesus – itinerant Rabbi, wisdom teacher, rabble-rouser, boundary crosser – suddenly also reveal his Divine nature. He became Jesus the Christ. You could say that he took on Christ nature. But here’s the thing. I don’t believe those two natures are mutually exclusive. Jesus didn’t cast off his humanity in order to put on the Divine. Nor did he take off his glitzy Divinity clothes and put his ordinary human clothes back on. Some scholars say that this is an out-of-place post-resurrection appearance, but I don’t believe that it took dying and rising for Jesus to manifest his true nature. Jesus always had those two natures within him; for a few shining moments the disciples got a glimpse of what the fullness of humanity looks like.

Moreover I don’t believe that Jesus was the only one with Christ nature. I think we all have it.  Yikes! That sounds like heresy, doesn’t it?  Or, at the very least, foolishness. But the fact is that some segments of Christianity have always recognized that the fundamental work of human beings is the spiritual practice of becoming a Christ.

Transfiguration_of_JesusIn Eastern Christianity, transfiguration is a mystery central to spiritual practice. Maximus the Confessor of Constantinople wrote in the 7thcentury that we live to realize and actualize Christhood. That is why human beings exist.

We in the West are not without our own understanding of it. Martin Luther asserted that we are “little Christs” to one another.  C.S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia, expanded on this:  “Christ became human in order to spread to other human beings the same kind of life. Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.” And St. Francis saw Christ present in all of creation and in all people. He himself endeavored to live his life in imitation of Christ so that he could, likewise, manifest the presence of Christ to others.

So this idea of Christ nature is not as farfetched as it first might seem. Now I don’t really expect any of us to start glowing like Jesus did anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have that potential within us. The Divine is within, and with it is a possibility of exuding your Christ nature at any time. When we take away the dualism of heaven/earth, human/divine and we see Jesus as the epitome of what it is to be human, that is to carry within us the presence of the Divine, then we begin to see ourselves as Christ bearers to the world. We don’t have to wait until we die to be transfigured, metamorphosed into little Christs.

Now I want to say something about this process. The word ‘transfiguration’ comes from the Greek word ‘metamorphosis.’ We probably usually think of this in relation to the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. You’ve probably all seen the pictures of the stages of the process: the egg, the larvae, the cocoon, and the adult butterfly. I was at a retreat recently led by the International Association of Sufism. The theme was transformation through practice and knowledge of unity – unity meaning oneness with the Divine. And one of the presenters was comparing the metamorphosis of the butterfly to our own spiritual transformation.

He said something I’d never heard before. He said in the chrysalis stage, all that is insideChrysalis(Pupa)_of_a_Common_Crow_Butterfly_(Euploea_core) the cocoon is goo. If you were to cut one open at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out. I thought that this was a great metaphor for the spiritual journey – feeling formless like goo – all traces of the former life being dissolved, not knowing which way is up and which way is down, not able to see any hint of a future way of being. In other words a complete mess. Caterpillar soup. I’ve been there.

When I got home from the retreat I wanted to check this out and it turns out that this information was only half right. According to Scientific Americanthe contents of the cocoon are not entirely an amorphous mess. There are highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs in there. While the caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts that it’s going to need as a mature butterfly. Discs for its eyes, its wings, its legs and so on. Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for these discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form all the features of an adult butterfly.

Jonia Mariechild describes the process in Butterfly Mysteries:
The caterpillars new cells, called imaginal cells, are so totally different from the caterpillar cells that its immune system thinks they’re enemies and gobbles them up. But these new cells continue to appear, more and more of them. Pretty soon the caterpillar’s immune system can’t destroy them fast enough. More and more of these cells survive and then an amazing thing happens. The tiny lonely imaginal cells start to clump together and they all resonate together at the same frequency passing information from one to another. Then after a while another amazing thing happens. The clumps of imaginal cells start cluster together – a long string of clumping and clustering cells all resonating at the same frequency, all passing information there inside the chrysalis. A wave of good news travels around the system – lurches and heaves  . . . but not yet a butterfly. Then at some point the entire long string of imaginal cells suddenly realizes all together that it is something different from the caterpillar. Something new, some-thing wonderful. In that realization is the shout of the birth of a butterfly.

37373668271_4180e72e3f_bAgain, what a great metaphor for our own spiritual transformation. This imaginal stage is also called the Imago, the image. Within the goo is the image of the butterfly. You might recognize that word from the theological term Imago Dei – the image of God. The author of Genesis wrote that we were created in God’s image, the Imago Dei. Within our goo, we have the spiritual cells which can make us into something new.  Not goo but spiritually mature human beings who know that we have the very image of divinity within us.

Now is this just a lot of nonsense that has no practical application in daily life? Not  for me and I hope not for you. My hope is that each of us is in the process of transformation. Or maybe you feel like you’re in the goo stage; you trust that the Imago is in there and it will work itself out. Or maybe you feel like your new self is just about fully formed and you’re almost ready to burst forth. Or maybe you still feel like a caterpillar just chomping away on leaves just to survive. Wherever you are in the process, the point is to be open to it through practice and knowledge of your Oneness with the Divine. And when you do there will be those times when others will see glimpses of your Christ nature. And like those imaginal cells lumping clumping and stringing together to make something new, we will come together for the good of the world.

Transfiguration isn’t just about someday in heaven. It can happen today. As Jesus lived, worked, and taught in the midst of Empire, so can we. We’re in a time of national trial; of that there is no doubt. No doubt many of us also are contending with personal trials. And many people feel great despair of the enormity of the problems we face. But this is where the Transfiguration of Jesus can give us the hope we need.

Transfiguration was all about the human Jesus, and we human beings can relate to him and learn from his teaching an example. Transfiguration was also all about the Divine Jesus, not a separate entity from the human Jesus, but intertwined with his humanity, at one with God. When we catch this brief glimpse of the fullness of his being up there on the mountain, we see our own Imago Dei and we know that we’re not powerless in our being in the world. We too are imbued with Christ nature that enables us to go down from the mountaintop, back into the world to do what needs to be done.

So what difference would it make in your life if you were to acknowledge and embrace your Christ nature? And what difference would it make in our world if we all were to acknowledge and embrace our Christ nature?

A big difference. Be transformed. Then – go. Transform the world.

Amen!

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