Face Value: Feast of the Transfiguration

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, a celebration of the story of miraculous presence as told in Mark 9:2-10. The following is a transcript (which is from the New American Bible, Revised Edition, ©2010):


            "Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, 'Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.' He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, 'This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.' Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.

            "As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant."


There are so many pieces to this amazing story to impress us, and wonder about, and by which to be awed. But as Christopher Pramuk, author of Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line, and a teacher at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, states in this month's edition of Give Us This Day: “To see Christ as he is, is at once to see ourselves as we truly are, like him, both our condition without reserve, even unto shame and violence and death, we can say…, 'It is reliable. It is a lamp shining in a dark place.’”


Peter and James and John (and subsequently us through their recounting and Mark’s recording of the story), get to see Jesus as he really was… as a revelation. It’s the kind of enlightenment which we are constantly searching for ourselves—to shine and live and be as we truly feel ourselves to be authentic. Why is it that sometimes can’t we reveal ourselves to be who we truly are? Why do we wear masks, or hide our true selves rather than divulge the true-ness of ourselves from our hearts?


This is a tough question…with a lot of possible answers. Sociologically we have an innate desire to belong to an identifiable group. I had a sociology teacher at university who asked us to write a list of twenty things to describe ourselves. Shockingly, when those lists were analyzed, most of the defining elements revealed familial or social affiliations to which we students either were socially conditioned to believe we belonged (son, daughter, brother, boy, girl, student, North Carolinian, etc.), or affiliations with which we wished/desired to associate/affiliate ourselves due to the insatiable need to belong to social groups (fraternity and sorority member, humanitarian, Catholic, Methodist, marathon runner, business major, feminist, etc.). Almost everything could be identified as a “hat” that each person wore or claimed in order to classify ourselves as members of various pre-identifiable groups. Everyone does this; it’s part of our proclivity to be able to identify ourselves to others, and so that others can readily identify us. It’s a mechanism for interpersonal interpretation and assessment. Each affiliation has its own set of sub-identifying characteristics that help people to assess and relate and interpret how to interact with another individual. "Marathon runner,” for instance, might conjure associations and assumptions with healthy exercise habits, regimented exercise regimes, stamina, independent initiative (because running is a ‘solitary’ as-opposed-to a ‘team’ sport), among other traits. “Fraternity member” might conjure associations or assumptions of heterosexist normative behavior, affinity for partying, networking prowess, social ladder-climbing behavior, etc. All of these affiliations also change over time, and conjure different associations and assumptions based on the experiences the observer has had with those affiliations in the past. But, overall, they provide people with a reasonable first-impression means of identifying with and preliminary way of interacting with other human beings.


For instance, when I call myself a “tarot reader,” I am associating myself with a fairly select group of enthusiasts of the historical card game of tarrocchi. Contemporary enthusiasts have a predominantly esoteric (and sometimes “new age”) identity with which the general public associates the tarot. The public imagination has a very specific media- and socially-inscribed mental depiction of what a tarot reader is supposed to be like, and subsequently, those associations are often projected as a first impression onto people who practice the art of tarot. For the less informed, that projection might include gypsy or Romani-like templates; or dark, curtained rooms with crystal balls and incense-fumigated parlours. For people with a little more knowledge, it might conjure or project people who like to hang out in new-age bookstores and meditate with crystals. I personally think I break a lot of the projected molds, but it doesn’t mean that people won’t have a pre-conceived, projected impression of me when I first tell them that I read tarot cards.


This is all related to that strong, innate need to belong to some of these groups to define ourselves. And sometimes we adopt masks or “hats” that don’t necessarily fit our true character, simply in order to be able to satisfy that need to belong somewhere. This is a large part of the social science behind gang member affiliation. Many individual gang members come from broken homes or families in which they did not receive the kind of familial affection, intimacy, or satisfaction that a healthy family might otherwise produce. Gangs provide that sense of belonging and affiliation, and oftentimes love that could not be found in the biological nuclear family environment. (This is not always the case, but rather a generalization).


Without getting too far off topic, even Jesus in this story in the Gospel of Mark wishes to wear a “mask” among the public: “…he charged [Peter and James and John] not to relate what they had seen to anyone…” In other words, Jesus wished to keep his true identity secret. For what purpose, we can only conjecture. Perhaps he felt that he could provide a better example to others as a poor rabbi—as one of the lowly to whom he administered—rather than seen as a magical demi-god who could dole out granted wishes. Compassion and relate-ability are mixed into that package… about the impressions that Jesus was able to make upon people, someone with whom they could relate and with whom they could identify, and from whom they could learn human lessons.


This is not to say that Jesus was “hiding” his true meaning or lessons behind a façade, merely that he was showing himself and teaching the law in ways that people could relate to and understand. Remember, that Jesus also taught through the medium of parables rather than necessarily through direct commands. People relate to storytelling. They can picture themselves in the stories, and they create scenarios of imaginative, creative contemplation (as opposed to a simple statement to which they adhere).


I thought that perhaps I had a tarot deck that illuminated the Transfiguration. Technically I was wrong (I had been thinking of A. A. Atanassov’s Golden Tarot of the Tsar) and the card I had in mind was the Moon card which depicts the Assumption of Jesus. Still, the visual is similar and could be imaginatively construed as the Transfiguration sans Moses and Elijah (and if one didn’t bother to read the Little White Book of card descriptions). So I looked at several different decks to see where one might interpret the Transfiguration in the tarot deck. And what I discovered is that both the Moon card (XVIII) and the Sun card (XIX) are wonderful representations of this idea of the hidden, masked, reflective-self (the Moon), and the blossoming into our true, radiant, inner, real-self (the Sun). Let’s look at several examples:


In A. A. Atanassov’s Golden Tarot of the Tsar (©Lo Scarabeo, Torino, Italy), the Moon card illustrates Jesus as his earthly self “rising above” earthly things (the mountaintop). He is the example that he longs to teach to mankind. But he is also mysterious—he teaches in parables that must be interpreted; he “draws” crowds of thousands like the tides of the sea; he has special powers of healing from which no one can understand where they come; he has the courage to defy and confound the Pharisees and the scribes by quoting the laws and Moses and Elijah and the prophets.

Moon & Sun cards, Golden Tarot of the Tsar (©Lo Scarabeo, Torino, Italy)

In the following consecutive card (the Sun) Jesus is still present, but he has become the Trinity—the Godhead, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. What’s more, Jesus is depicted here as a child—which is exactly the temperament and innocence that Jesus described as the ideal for humankind (“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never receive it.” Luke 18:15-17). Our true selves are reflective of the child-like innocence with which we observe the world; not the skeptical, reserved, needy, or lonesome people we have become through negative interactions in the world; not the bitter, taken-advantage-of, disappointed, rejected adults we have become, but the ever-trusting, excited, joyful, expectant, inspired, awe-filled children untainted by bitterness and rejection. If we can retain that child-like hope and expectation despite the negative interactions of the earthly world, we will shine as the examples that the Christ wished us to be.


Life is perspective. We might wear masks (our Moon-selves), but we can still reflect the child-like, inner-light of our true selves (our Sun-selves).


Here is another example… from Seven Star’s Deck of the Bastard (which is a re-invention of images from the Rider-Waite-Smith, Soprafino, and Ettiella tarot decks.) In this Moon and Sun combination of cards, the depiction of the Moon and the Sun are extremely similar, and in personal interpretation we might say that they are two different expressions of the same face. The Moon is surrounded by cloud-cover (perhaps the surrounding society that reflects its light and either obscures or reveals its character—as a reflection of the weather environment in which it finds itself). Whereas the same face as represented in the Sun card is its own entity; it has burned-off all surrounding cloud cover and stands alone as independent of character, shining its true fiery, radiant nature.

Moon & Sun cards, Deck of the Bastard (©Seven Star, Tarot by Seven, LLC)

This third example is from James Wanless’s Voyager Tarot. The Moon card depicted a classic Greek or Roman statuary bust. It is two-headed like Janus, perhaps able to put on a different face to accommodate any situation. But the landscape seems cold—a cold moonlit night where the snow owl hunts by movement along the frosty ground, the snowy landscape where the wolves howl, and the icy waters of the ocean. While the bust is two-faced, it is also frozen in stone—forever epitomizing an idealized sense of earthly beauty.

Moon & Sun cards, Voyager Tarot (© James Wanless)

Meanwhile, the Sun card also depicts a mask. But here it is the golden death mask of Tutankamen in a much warmer landscape—fiery even. We have a sense of true transformation (the butterfly) and vibrant expression (the smiling, shimmering jester—child-like joy—and the clownfish, bursting poppies), and intimacy represented by the couple walking on the beach together—a relationship where we can be our true selves with one another.


What social group identities or familial affiliation “hats” do you “wear” in order to identify yourself to the world?


Are you more of a Moon-person…wearing many identities in order to “fit in” and belong to social groupings? Or are you a Sun-person…living your true child-like existence and radiant, true, inner-self? Would you recognize your true radiant self if it revealed itself?


Are there times or places where you feel comfortable shining as your true Sun-self? Are there places when and where you feel like you can’t show your true Sun-self? What sorts of things or situations prevent you from achieving your child-like joyfulness, untainted by the bitterness and rejection of the world?


How can you adjust your life to transfigure yourself into your true Sun-self?







Posted in Catholic Philosophy, Discovering Meaning in Imagery, Tarot Reading and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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