If we were to draw out in symbols and timelines the road maps of our lives, we could pencil in both single and crucial moments as well as entire years marked with particular themes of development. In any picture of a life laid out before us, there are abrupt moments of pivotal formation and gradual phases of transformation. It is a paradox that insight seems to grow gradually and yet it also seems to arrive in overpowering moments of abruptness.
A dramatic example of this comes in the life of Jesus and his disciples. Peter, James, and John found themselves climbing a familiar mountain with Christ, an ordinary event in their lives together. But on this day, they were silenced by the entirely uncommon appearance of Elijah and Moses who started talking with Jesus. It must have seemed a moment of both honor and awe. Peter immediately responded to it. "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah" (Matthew 17:4). But before he had finished speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them and a voice from the heavens thundered, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" The disciples were terrified. And then as suddenly as it all began, they looked up and saw no one but Jesus.
There are transforming moments in our lives that seem isolated in both time and vividness. We remember them as mountaintops or downfalls, points in life lifted above or plummeting below the majority of the map. But are they not also much more than this? Whether distinguished by joy or pain, a transforming moment is always more than a moment. Such moments are no more isolated in the pictures of our lives than they are isolated in the picture of reality. The disciples were never the same after their three years with Jesus, through ordinary meals and extraordinary miracles, distracted crowds and disruptive mountaintops.
Professor and theologian James Loder was on vacation with his family when they noticed a motorist off to the side of the road waving for help. In his book The Transforming Moment, he describes kneeling at the front fender of the broken-down car, his head bent to examine the flat tire, when he was abruptly alerted to the sound of screeching brakes. A motorist who had fallen asleep at the wheel was jarred awake seconds before his vehicle crashed into the disabled car alongside the road and the man who knelt beside it. Loder was left pinned between the car he was trying to repair and his own.
Years later, he was compelled to describe the impact of a moment marked by abrupt pain, and yet unarguably something much more. Writes Loder, "At the hospital, it was not the medical staff, grateful as I was for them, but the crucifixes—in the lobby and in the patients' rooms—that provided a total account of my condition. In that cruciform image of Christ, the combination of physical pain and the assurance of a life greater than death gave objective expression and meaning to the sense of promise and transcendence that lived within the midst of my suffering."(1)
This encounter with God, like the Transfiguration of Christ on the mountainside to a small group of frightened disciples, did not merely transform a moment; it was a moment that transformed reality and thus, the whole of life. Writes Loder, "Moments of transforming significance radically reopen the question of reality."(2)
When the disciples came to the end of their mountaintop encounter and looked up, they saw only Jesus. Moses and Elijah were no longer there; the cloud that enveloped them disappeared and the heavens ceased to speak. But Jesus was fully and humanly present to them, the glimpse of God in that transforming moment on the mountain a radical reality that would shape all of life.
To borrow from Emily Dickinson, there are times when truth must dazzle gradually, until it is given its proper place. Other times we seem to find ourselves moved nearly to blindness as we encounter more than we have eyes yet to see. Sometimes, like Peter, we interpret these moments of transcendence imperfectly at first, and it is in living with the moment that we learn to see it more. The Spirit is at work even in the deciphering, and in the final examination, the content of our transforming moments is Jesus alone, the transfigured one, the transforming one, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard Publishing, 1989), 2.
(2) Ibid., back cover.