We all wear disguises. We act one way around friends, and another way around family. Sometimes we never show our true face to anyone. Tony Soprano, the main character in the HBO series The Sopranos, is a mafia boss in northern New Jersey. He is man of many faces, many masks. He seems to lead multiple lives. He is one way with his wife and children. He is another way around his other family, the mafia. Tony tells the other mafiosos that the crime family comes before their actual family. He is different around his many mistresses. Even more, he is different and, perhaps, his most authentic when he meets with his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi. Oddly, he tries to be a good father and husband. But, he does not see the terrible disconnect between his criminal life, which includes murder and prostitutes, and his home life. It is like he is wearing a different mask depending on his social context. He simply doesn’t know who he really is. Tony Soprano may be an extreme example, but we all wear these masks. None of us knows who we truly are.
The story of the Transfiguration can be read as a revelation about our true identity. The word transfigure means, according to dictionary.com, “a change so as to glorify or exalt.” The change, enacted by God in Jesus, reveals Jesus in all his glory as the eternal Son of God. Since he is also human and one of us, the mystery of the Transfiguration is the mystery of who we really are in God. Our real selves are both divine and human, just like Jesus. However, we are not convinced that this divine identity is our true nature. We suffer from the illusion that we are our egos.
A core truth is that we are not our egos. The ego is self-centered and basically a projection of our personal histories, our family, our culture, and even our religion. The ego is who we think we are, which is an identity made up of many labels, fears, grievances, and attachments most of all. One reason we think we are the ego is because we tend to think and act like the people around us want us to think and act. At least, we act and think the way we perceive others to want us to think and act. In No Man is an Island, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes, “The deep secrecy of my own being is often hidden from me by my own estimate of what I am. My idea of what I am is falsified by my admiration for what I do. And my illusions about myself are bred by contagion from the illusions of other men. We all seek to imitate one another’s imagined greatness.”
Some context for the episode of the Transfiguration may help unlock its mystery. In the Gospel of Matthew, from which this Sunday’s Gospel reading comes, the Transfiguration takes places after Jesus tells the disciples to deny themselves and lose their lives. This is the key to the mystery of the Transfiguration and its unveiling of our true self. To follow Jesus requires the letting go of ego and the realization of our divine identity. The whole of the spiritual life is a process of reducing the ego, the self we think we are, to nothingness so we realize we are one with God.
This divine radiance is ours, but only when we die with Christ, that is, when we let go like Jesus. We, too, must deny ourselves and lose our lives. Thomas Keating interprets the line “whoever loses his or her life for my sake will save it” to mean “whoever becomes nothing for me discovers who she or he truly is.” The ego is reduced not by anything we do but by allowing life to happen with acceptance and surrender. That is what it means to become nothing. As Richard Rohr says, “it is not so much what we do as what we allow to be done to us.” In the Transfiguration scene, God says about Jesus, “Listen to him.” Putting Jesus’ teachings on poverty of spirit, forgiveness, seeking first the kingdom, and love, move us from the self-centeredness of the ego to the divine life, our real identity.
In the self-surrender that shares in Christ’s own self-surrender on the cross we allow God to transform us into the same radiant life that shone through Jesus at the Transfiguration. All it takes is self-forgetfulness, that constant exercise of ignoring oneself and what one thinks about oneself. Again, Thomas Merton writes, “When we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.” When we stop paying so much attention to ourselves, who we are in God shines through and the disguises we wear fall away.