Tolkien’s Transfiguration

February 15, 2015

It’s hard to miss the phenomenon that is The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies over the last ten years. Many who would never read the books have seen the movies. Dragons and elves, hobbits and dwarves have become part of the culture, thanks in large part to Tolkien’s storytelling. For those of you who don’t know, Tolkien’s myth and history span centuries of the life of Middle Earth: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit take place during what’s called the Third Age, a period that resembles the Middle Ages.
Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and his work features a battle between good and evil that endures for centuries. The books and movies are rich with Christian imagery – including many images that might help us to connect with this story of the Transfiguration.
If there is a prophet like Elijah or Moses in these books, it is Gandalf the Grey. One of the Wizards who arrived on Middle Earth from the blessed land across the Western Sea, he is the one who brings the news of the rising of the dark powers, who calls both heroes and hobbits to confront the evil growing in the world, who speaks hard truths and is exiled, condemned and imprisoned for serving the truth and the light. Towards the end of “The Fellowship of the Ring”, Gandalf is leading his friends through the dark tunnels of Moria, an underground city once built by the dwarves but now, overtaken by goblins and orcs. They are attacked while fleeing across a bridge, and Gandalf confronts an ancient evil – a huge demonic figure of fire and darkness. His friends make it across, but just at the moment he defeats the creature, it reaches out and pulls Gandalf with him down into the depths of the earth. They fight and pursue each other for days until Gandalf finally casts his enemy down and collapses. The story says that his consciousness wanders in something that seems very like eternity, but is sent back because his task is not yet completed.
When he meets his friends again, they do not recognize him, as he is cloaked in dazzling white and his face shines like the sun. When the light fades, they call him by his name, and it is as if he is recalled to who he was – who he must be again. It is as if he has come back from the dead, been resurrected, to fulfill his mission on behalf of the light. Like the Transfiguration of Jesus, we see the light of eternal life shining in him – but he still has life to live and a mission to accomplish – a mission which requires the participation of his friends and followers.
Another kind of Transfiguration that occurs in the Lord of the Rings is when Frodo puts on the One Ring – the ring that holds the power of Sauron the Dark Lord to rule all of Middle Earth. When he puts on the ring everything around goes dark, and Frodo can see what others cannot: the dark shadows of the servants of evil shine with power, and he can see the Eye of the Dark Lord whose gaze moves to and fro, exerting influence on the events of Middle Earth. It’s a kind of reverse illumination – like a photographic negative – where Frodo not only sees the light more clearly but also the darkness of the world that the people around him cannot see. He is forever changed by wearing the ring and encountering the evil that it showed him.
A third Transfiguration is that of Galadriel, the White Lady, who shows Frodo what it would mean for her to take on the ring, and become the ruler of Middle Earth. She would begin with the intent to cast down evil and heal the earth, but it would not end there. She shows Frodo the terrible queen she would become if she took the ring. It is Galadriel, having shown Frodo the potential darkness of the world – even the destruction of his home and of all of his land – who gives him a light against the darkness –a small crystal phial of starlight, that will pierce even the deepest shadows, and from which even the deepest evil will flinch and draw back. Galadriel, having shown Frodo what is coming, gives him hope…a small and fragile hope, but a hope that proves its worth.
We can see aspects of the Biblical Transfiguration from these three stories of Tolkien’s. Jesus’ Transfiguration is a moment of light in the midst of darkness. Jesus has just told his disciples that he will have to go to Jerusalem, be tried and executed. The disciples’ automatic reaction is rejection – they stop listening. But that doesn’t make the bad news go away. When they come down from the mountain, the journey will continue – the hard and difficult journey to the cross. The darkness of the world is still there, if they – and we – but have eyes to see it. As Jesus’ face is transfigured by the Shekhinah – the glory of God – in company with the greatest prophets of old, we see the light of resurrection and the power of new life shining in him. He becomes in our sight more fully who he truly is – the beloved Son of God. At his baptism, he alone heard the voice of God. Now the voice is for everyone present. In sound and light, God speaks with delight. “This is my Son. Listen to him.”
Listening to Jesus is our phial of starlight. It is our light against the darkness. When shadows fill our lives, when we journey through the depths of life and find ourselves walking through fire to a cross-crowned hill, we listen to Jesus. That’s what Lent is about, and that will be our theme for the next few months. We will listen to Jesus:
Each of you will receive a bookmark with stories of Jesus to read in your own Bibles or storybooks or online. We listen to Jesus by encountering his stories once again.
You’ll also each receive a small bag of pretzels. The folded arms of the pretzels are a symbol from Medieval Christianity – inviting us to pray daily, with humility. We listen by spending time in prayer. I’d challenge each of you, or each family or couple, to pray together a simple prayer every day. It might be the Lord’s Prayer, or a morning prayer, or a simple grace. You might write one together, or find one on the internet. You can pray it the same time every day, or experiment with different times.
The third thing I’d invite each of us or each family to do is to pick a project for Lent to support through learning and through either volunteering or collecting funds. A woman I know is collecting funds for The Coldest Night of the Year – a fundraiser for homelessness. Others have created coin jars to collect coins for Mission and Service. Another has decided to write letters or emails for Amnesty International. Someone might want to volunteer to fill one of the empty spots on our Nominations sheet! You choose which interests you the most or where you see the greatest need. I’ve provided some labels to put on jars or cans or boxes for those who wish to do a collection. Why pick a mission project? Because listening is active, as well as passive. When Jesus called his disciples, he called them to follow, and to help him usher in the reign of God. When we listen to the needs and dreams of others, and do our part to help, we are listening to Jesus. We’re going down the mountain, and sometimes, right into the shadows, and bringing hope and light with us, in Jesus’ name.

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