“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
That piece of bad poetry comes from an otherwise wonderful movie called The Wolf-Man, released in 1941, starring Lon Chaney Jr. It’s about a man name Lawrence Talbot, who moves home to his family’s estate in Wales, but carries with him a dark, dark secret.
You can guess the secret. It’s in the title. When the moon is full, kind and peaceful Lawrence Talbot turns into a murderous, blood-thirsty wolf-creature.
Human beings have always told stories about transformation.
Many of us, perhaps in school, have read Franz Kafka’s story about a salesman who wakens to find that he has turned into something horrible. An insect, in most translations; but really, in the original German, some sort of nameless vermin.
One of the most famous ancient poets, named Ovid, collected stories like this. Sometimes the transformations are ironic. A hunter spies on a goddess taking her bath; she turns him into a stag, and he is torn apart by his own hunting-dogs. A mortal woman challenges a goddess to a weaving-contest; for her arrogance, she is turned to a spider. Sometimes they are sort of funny. One man becomes a woodpecker, one woman a cow. Mushrooms become human beings.
Sometimes, these transformations – metamorphoses, that is Ovid’s word for them – are the answer to prayers. The nymph Daphne, fleeing from rape, calls to the gods and becomes a tree. A tree: strong, solid, unbreakable.
We have been telling these stories for a very long time, because they fascinate us – they tickle our fancy, they delight our sense of humor. Kafka’s story describes a kind of existential dread, the fear of alienation from family and community. The story of the Wolf-Man describes another dread: the fear that our inner demons may rise to surface, against our will, to destroy us and the people around us. Did you know that Curt Siodmak, who wrote that movie script, was Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany? He knew what happened when the hidden demons of a man or a nation are released.
And yet, for all the warnings that our stories give, many of us long for a transformation, a metamorphosis. We want to be thinner or taller or younger or older, to have more hair on our heads or less on our bodies; to be smarter or stronger or … whatever.
We want to be anything at all, expect perhaps the way God made us.
Why? Often, because somebody has told us that we should be. Society sets its standards, especially of beauty or clothing, and the rest of us feel compelled to conform.
Sometimes this compulsion is brutalizing. A young woman wrote recently about her husband, who went out to bars and parties without her every night. When she asked if she could go along, he took her to the mirror and stood beside her and said, “Oh, honey, look at yourself. Do you think I want my friends to see that I am married to somebody as ugly as you are?”
That’s a true story. In Ovid’s poem, some goddess would have turned him into a bug, and stepped on him. Because of course that woman is already beautiful; we are all beautiful, in God’s eyes; we are all beautiful, as God made us; we only become ugly when we are cruel.
Somebody in that story needed to be transformed, but it was not the woman. He needed, as the Wolf-Man needed, as so many of us need, to be freed from the evil within.
So Jesus, in our story, goes to the mountaintop and is transformed. He has what St Mark calls a metamorphosis – that is the word he uses, Ovid’s word and Kafka’s, lost in our churchy English word “transfiguration.” Jesus is transformed, but not into a stag or a bug or any other creature. Instead, he glows with a light that cannot come from this world, a light brighter than any bleached cloth, a light brighter than the sun itself. He glows with the light of heaven, the light that God first made shine out of the darkness, the light of Creation.
Peter and James and John do not see a rabbi from Galilee; or rather, they do see a rabbi from Galilee – and in him, they see so much more. They see his inner depths, his ultimate nature. They see him as he really is, in his marvelous, magnificent fullness. On the mountaintop, Jesus is transformed, not into some other kind of being, but into himself.
Transformed into himself.
And that is the transformation that God offers to us. To be ourselves. To be the selves God made us to be, as innocent as Adam and Eve before the Fall. As pure and as good and as whole. As beautiful.
God’s promise is repeated in a Gospel song, based on Isaiah’s story about “peace in the valley.” Elvis recorded it, and Dolly Parton, but I know the Johnny Cash version best, and always hear it in his voice:
Well the bear will be gentle
And the wolves will be tame
And the lion shall lay down by the lamb, oh yes
And the beasts from the wild
Shall be led by a child
And I’ll be changed, changed from this creature that I am.
Changed from this creature, this wolf-man, this human being filled with inner demons, into the very same human beings, but with a clean heart and a right spirit. That is what God does to us. That is what love does to us. Not just the Bible and the sacraments, but love made real in kindness and forgiveness, in care for one another and especially for the poor and the isolated. Transfigures us. Transforms us. Changes us, from this creature that we are into the creature that we were meant to be.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Preached on the Feast of the Transfiguration, 2018
Mark 9:2-9; 2 Cor 4:3-6
 Specifically, the people of Corinth – 7:391ff
 “Peace in the Valley,” Thomas A. Dorsey, 1937