The Rev’d Daniel McClain is Associate Rector for Formation at St. David’s Church, Baltimore, MD.
In her short story,“The Displaced Person,” Flannery O’Connor symbolizes the glory of the transfiguration with a peacock. More precisely, her characters’ responses to that peacock show us how disruptive glory can be, and how easy it is to miss glory. For O’Connor, prejudice and hard-heartedness are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to perceiving glory. O’Connor depicts this in the character of Mrs. Shortly, whose blindness prevents her from truthfully beholding the glorious majesty of the peacock that lives on the farm. Mrs. Shortly has “unseeing eyes,” literally ignoring what’s immediately before her. Instead, Mrs Shortly prefers her delusional “inner visions,” daydreams in which her fantasies are fulfilled in grotesque and sociopathic ways.
Another character, Mrs. MacIntyre, is also blind to the glory around her. But her blindness is of a more mundane and perhaps sympathetic sort, although we know that for O’Connor the mundane and relatable usually turn out to be the most destructive elements of her stories. Mrs. MacIntyre’s forgivable annoyance at the peacock and the remarkably efficient Polish immigrant who is resurrecting her declining farm becomes something nefarious, as Mrs. MacIntyre uses that annoyance to justify her complicity in the gruesome death of that immigrant.
O’Connor wants us to see that glory is often perceived as disruption to the normal, efficient order of human affairs. It is a sad story to be sure, but a poignant demonstration about how our failure to perceive people and situations as they are — especially those that are right there in front of us — is not simply a failure of our eyes, but more importantly of our hearts.
So too with the disciples in today’s gospel. Although the disciples aren’t quite the narcissistic and tragic characters of O’Connor’s story, there is nevertheless a moment, a subtle and mundane moment, when they come dangerously close to completely losing sight of what is taking place right before their eyes. Peter’s offer to build tiny houses for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah might be humorous, but it’s an example of the ways in which the heart, when overwhelmed, attempts to normalize and contain the overwhelming.
In this case, Jesus appears in overpowering radiance, showing himself in divine splendor to the disciples. The disciples, in their awe, don’t know what to do, until Peter, making what appears to be a respectful gesture, offers to commemorate the moment with a memorial, a physical structure to symbolize the importance of the event. And yet, Peter’s offer serves another, unspoken purpose: Peter wants to block out the struggle with the mysterious and confusing thing taking place before his very eyes by institutionalizing it. Peter’s strategy is one that we’re familiar with: it’s one of avoidance.
Just verses before today’s reading, Peter utters his famous confession that Jesus is the Christ. Now this confession comes after a series of vignette’s in which Jesus performs miracles and is confused for a resurrected John the Baptist. After asking the disciples who they think he is, and then hearing Peter’s confession, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be persecuted, executed, and then rise again after three days. We’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: this must have been disappointing and disruptive news, especially to the zealous among Jesus’ inner circle.
And yet, there, on the side of that mountain, in the presence of a transfigured Jesus, flanked by Moses and Elijah, Peter experiences something so overwhelming and perhaps quite confusing. Does Peter’s offer suggest that he doesn’t quite understand what it meant to say that Jesus is the Christ?
It’s crucial to remember here that Peter, James, and John are on the side of the mountain in the first place because Jesus invited them there to pray, as he does with all of his disciples so often throughout Luke. For Jesus, Prayer is the key way he relates to and knows the Father, and the Father’s will. It’s how he is one with the Father. Through prayer, Jesus invites the Father to do his will in the World. And Jesus invites his disciples to be one with him and the Father through prayer.
For Jesus, prayer shapes us; it shapes our desires, our habits of thinking, seeing, and hearing. Prayer, we might say, is how we see God, the world, and ourselves as we truly are.
So, It’s not surprising that Jesus would show himself truly to his disciples in this specific context, that is, in the context of prayer. For it is by, in, and through prayer that the Father and the Incarnate Son relate to one another, and likewise that God desires to deepen his relationship with his people. And of course, it shouldn’t be surprising to us that the disciples haven’t quite caught up with Jesus on this matter. Just as the disciples still have so much growing to do in their relationship with Jesus, they also have so much growing to do in the life of prayer. Prayer and relationship with Jesus work together, for it is only in prayer that the disciples will see Jesus in his glory.
Going back to “The Displaced Person,” we see that O’Connor’s characters’ fundamental problem is their struggle to bend reality to their wills, to bend the servants and immigrants on the farm to their wills. And when that doesn’t work, they struggle to contain those people and events through more nefarious strategies.
And of course, this is the human problem, isn’t it? We work so hard to domesticate life, to make things safe and secure that it’s easy in the midst of all this to confuse God for another one of these disruptions that we so detest, to add God and our neighbors to the list of things we need to domesticate, to contain. The disciples, in a seemingly innocuous gesture, are guilty of this very same posture. This is why the story of the Transfiguration is important, for God’s glory can not be contained.
Years later, we read that Peter is still contemplating this event. He recognizes now that the voice from heaven is not a disruption to his reality, but rather is the lamp, the light that shows him true reality. Peter challenges us, even today, to open ourselves up to this true light, the light of Christ, that is continues to reveal itself in the interior voice of the Spirit. Peter challenges us to be men and women moved by this Spirit. Indeed, to be transformed into such women and men, to be shaped by the Spirit in prayer, is to be transformed into the image of the transfigured Christ. Embrace this transformation, for doing so is the calling not of a select few, but is rather the true calling of all Christians.