In the world of social media, there are not just viral images or videos that are widely shared, but viral themes in which people participate. Last month, the big theme was the “#TenYearChallenge,” in which people celebrated the start of a new decade by posting photos of themselves from 2010 and 2020 side-by-side to show the passage of time. The challenge seems to have started among people in their 20s or perhaps early 30s, and most of the participants fell in that category, because their #TenYearChallenge posts demonstrated how their appearance and/or sense of style had improved over those ten years.
The 2010 photos tended to show someone who was physically or socially awkward, whose hair and clothes were at best an afterthought and at worst cringeworthy, intentional choices. The 2020 shots, though, showed someone who had really transformed their appearance since 2010. Their hair was usually stylishly coifed and perfectly in place; their clothes looked ready to hit a chic restaurant or club, or even a red carpet somewhere. As a result, those participating elicited comments of praise from friends about how wonderful they look now and how amazing their transformation has been.
The #TenYearChallenge, then, was really another version of a social media theme that is often called a “glow-up,” which means a radical transformation from being awkward or unappealing to notably attractive. A glow-up, then, has some of the elements of the classic “ugly duckling” story. You probably know the story, which was originally a children’s tale by Hans Christian Andersen.
A group of baby ducks hatch, but one of them looks very different from the rest: he’s unusually large, he’s the wrong color, his neck is too long. The other ducklings and even grown ducks reject and ridicule him. He strikes out on his own and grows up, but never finds others who welcome or care for him. Eventually, he is so lonely he approaches a flock of beautiful swans who have just landed on a nearby pond. He is shocked when they accept him, but he finally notices his own reflection in the water, sees a beautiful swan staring back at him, and realizes that he was never a duckling, ugly or otherwise, to begin with!
The main difference between a glow-up and the ugly duckling story is that there is some intentionality to a glow-up. The ugly duckling doesn’t actually do anything other than grow up and realize that he was being judged by standards that didn’t actually apply to him instead of understanding his own innate, though different, beauty. But while a glow-up often includes elements along those lines (maturing from early physical awkwardness into a more elegant beauty), a glow-up also involves significant intentional transformation: an awareness and embrace of a distinctive sense of beauty and style where previously there was only apathy or incompetence.
The result is also a standard movie trope, seen in everything from My Fair Lady to The Breakfast Club to Clueless to Mean Girls to Crazy, Stupid, Love: someone whom everyone thinks is unattractive, unworthy, or odd is transformed into someone stylish and appealing through a new wardrobe, some personal grooming, a few tips on social cues, and something like taking off their glasses or letting down their hair from a bun, which for some reason is treated like a mind-blowing magical transmutation on par with Cinderella’s pumpkin becoming a fancy carriage.
Often, this transformation is mediated by the intervention of a new mentor or friend who tells them what to change and how to change it, and the result is that the person who has had the glow-up is admitted into the circles of the popular and powerful, and the real question is whether they will remember who they are underneath the glow-up, and remain loyal to the friends who cared for them when they were still considered a nobody.
Maybe that’s why Peter suggests setting up dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses; he’s concerned he’s going to be left behind or left out after Jesus receives what seems to be a divine glow-up. Jesus has taken Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. Mountains are a favorite location for God to meet important people on important occasions, which is why Jesus goes there. And once he’s there, he seems to receive the mother of all glow-ups: this apparently normal human being, raised as a carpenter’s son, begins to literally glow, his face and clothes shining with dazzling light as if the disciples are looking directly at the sun itself. And right after that happens, Jesus is miraculously welcomed into the company of arguably the two most important people from Jewish history: Moses and Elijah.
Both Elijah and Moses are members of the very exclusive club of those who’ve had direct encounters with God on the tops of mountains. We heard one of those episodes in the Old Testament lesson today, when God calls Moses up Mount Sinai to receive the stone tablets upon which God’s Law itself was written. In fact, as the story says, he ends up spending forty days up there face to face with God as he does so.
And if Moses embodies the gift of God’s Law, then Elijah represents the gift of God’s Prophets. Elijah, too, met directly with God on a mountaintop when all seemed lost in terms of Israel’s faithfulness to God, and God gave Elijah instructions on how to turn things around for Israel by anointing leaders who will bring them back into their covenantal partnership with God, which is part of why the appearance of Elijah is understood in Jewish tradition to be a harbinger of the Messiah’s arrival, the Anointed One who will rescue and restore Israel. And now here Jesus is, literally glowing with divine light as he talks to Moses and Elijah as an equal.
But even as Peter is in the middle of making his suggestion about three dwellings, God’s voice booms out over the mountain and interrupts him, repeating the words spoken from heaven during Jesus’ baptism not long ago: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased.” And then the voice goes on to give a simple but important command: “listen to him!”
That declaration and command is why Transfiguration Sunday is one of the major events in Jesus’ life and ministry that we celebrate with special days of observance each year. One of the main reasons the Transfiguration story can seem odd is because we more or less read it the way that Peter seems to: through the lens of the glow-up trope. Reading it that way, Jesus’ appearance is transfigured by the intervention of God, glowing bright as the sun, and that gets him in with his cool new celebrity friends Elijah and Moses, while Peter and the other disciples stand by watching in awe and wondering if Jesus will start pretending like he doesn’t know them.
But that’s actually missing the whole point of the transfiguration. The point here is not that Jesus’ outward appearance is changed into something that he’s really not underneath; the point is that his outward appearance is changed to reflect what he already really is: the Son of God incarnate, the Beloved One, in whom God is well-pleased.
In that sense, the Transfiguration story is less of a glow-up and almost a version of the ugly duckling story, in which Jesus’ appearance changes without any intervening action or intention, but simply by becoming what he actually always was from the beginning, which others never really understood. It is less of a transformation and more of a revelation; it is an epiphany, showing the disciples and us that Jesus is not simply a charismatic and wise teacher from Galilee, but the Messiah, the Lord and Savior that God promised; the one whom the Magi came all the way from Persia to honor. So it’s fitting that this Transfiguration holiday each year is the bookend to the holiday of Epiphany that we celebrated seven weeks ago, which recalls the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.
Our challenge in the face of this epiphany, then, is the same as Peter’s: to really listen to Jesus, as the voice of God commands. Because the temptation is often to try and give the Jesus revealed before us a glow-up of our own: to try and tell him where to go, where to stay, and what to do; to try and get him to like who and what we like, and to reject who and what we reject; to try and make him more appealing to ourselves and others by covering up the things he says that feel awkward or uncomfortable rather than listening to him; things like “love your enemies” or “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven,” or “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
But in those challenges are also Christ’s deepest promises, which shine forth from him like the warmth and light of the summer sun, chasing away every lingering shadow on the ground, or chill in the air: that what he offers is a life overflowing with selfless love, a life in which nothing is impossible for God, and a life in which we receive freely, and in unfathomable abundance, what we could never hope to grasp or hold on our own. Those promises are ours, and we are theirs, if we but listen and follow. And through the grace of God, we can, and will, and do.