Barbara Krensavage insists that clams are not a regular part of her diet. Yet one snowy evening in December she found herself craving an old recipe and so brought home four dozen quahogs—a clam particularly abundant along the Eastern shores of the United States, between Cape Cod and New Jersey. Mr. Krensavage was in the midst of shucking the shellfish for dinner when he discovered one that looked like it was dead. It had a different color to it and he thought it was diseased. As he was about to discard it, Mrs. Krensavage took a closer look.
It wasn't dead. In fact, inside the live clam was a rare, possibly priceless, purple pearl. Experts estimate that roughly one in two million quahog clams contains a gem-quality pearl like the one found by the Krensavages. Due to the great rarity of the find, it has been difficult to even place a value on it, though some have estimated the pearl to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The life and ministry of Jesus Christ unveiled something new to the world. Jesus spoke of a kingdom, where, like this discovery of the Krensavages, all is not as it may first appear. In a world that would seem to some more marked by disease than promise, he spoke of a treasure hidden, a mystery revealed in this life, worth selling all we have to possess as our own. Even amid the promise and sting of death and disease, he spoke of an abundant life somehow stronger than death itself. He spoke of his kingdom as present and real. He called it a pearl of great price: For the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.(1) Yet he noted that even holding it, we might completely miss its worth.
Matthias Grünewald, An Apostle from the Transfiguration, chalk sketch study, 1511.
Last Sunday marked a lesser-known Christian holiday called Transfiguration Sunday. It is the liturgical day that marks the disciples' encounter of Jesus transfigured, or metamorpho, on a mountainside—the Greek word from which we get the word metamorphosis. Jesus stood with Peter, James, and John—three men who left lives behind to sit and learn at his feet—and there he was transfigured before them.(2) These men knew Jesus better than any other. They were with him constantly, eating, sleeping, learning. And yet, we are told they were terrified in his presence on the mountain. As commentator Frederick Bruner describes what was happening on that mountain, "What Jesus was within was once made visible without."(3) Poet Malcolm Guite describes it similarly, terrifying perhaps, but a terror stemming from a mystery revealed.
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.(4)
In the Old Testament, the face of God was readily spoken of as far too much, far too radiant, for a person to see unveiled and yet live. The veil was necessary. Early rabbinic reflection taught that Adam and Eve had lost the radiance of their faces in their fall from God, but that the Messiah would reestablish this radiance once more. Guite tells of that revealing in hopeful verse:
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face.
Here as the face of Christ "became like the sun," it portrayed vividly the glory of God, the Love at the heart of things. Here was a moment, a glimpse of the beginnings of God's restorative work, a preview of the gifted transfiguration awaiting those united with Christ. For the disciples in this new moment, the sound of God's voice and the reality of the Son were too much to behold standing. All three disciples fell facedown on the ground, until Jesus came and touched them. Then they didn't want to leave and were devastated to be told they couldn't remain. But they had to carry that moment of clarity back down the mountain, back to routine and ordinary life, back into the sting of death and chaos. This metamorphosis is built for sharing.
I suspect it is telling that the clam which held the pearl the Krensavages now treasure was the one that had the most outward appearance of death. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, "[I]t is, I think, a gross exaggeration to picture the saving of a soul as being, normally, at all like the development from seed to flower. The very words, repentance, regeneration, the New Man, suggest something very different."(5) Those who lay their hands on the thought that they are made in the image of God and are being presently formed by the love at the center of all things don't do so without laying down everything before him, giving this face everything we have, being turned inside out by the glory that nearly blinds us—until we can see.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Matthew 13:45-46.
(2) Matthew 17:1-9.
(3) Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 12-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 167.
(4) Malcolm Guite, "Transfiguration," Sounding the Season: Poetry for the Church Year (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012), 56
(5) C.S. Lewis, Transposition and other Essays, ch. 3.