FEAST OF THE TRANSFIGURATION OF THE LORD
Being Attentive to the Mystery
(Dan 7:9-10/2 Pt 1:16-19, 13-14; Ps 97; Mt 17:1-9)
“You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”
Those words from St. Peter, a witness to the transfiguration, invite us to ponder this mystery and let this feast strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ Risen from the dead.
The liturgists chose the readings for this feast well. In the first reading, Daniel recounts his own personal heavenly vision that prefigures the transfiguration. In the second option, St. Peter, a witness to the transfiguration, recalls his experience of that life-changing event and encourages us to ponder and draw meaning and strength from it for ourselves.
The gospel from St. Matthew focuses us on the event itself, packed with symbolism and meaning. The journey to the mountaintop is a gesture that indicates an encounter with God, a desire for a theophany.
Jesus takes with him three leaders of the early church: Peter, the first pope; James, the leader of Jerusalem church where it all began, and John, the longest living apostle and our last link to the apostolic are. Suddenly, two great Old Testament figures appear: Moses, the great lawgiver and leader of the exodus out of Egypt, and Elijah, the great prophet who experienced his own personal exodus from this world into the heavens on a fiery chariot as his successor Elisha looked on with wonder and awe – also prefiguring the transfiguration. These five witnesses from both Old and New Testaments underline the importance of what was to transpire.
In his gospel, Luke points out that Moses and Elijah were speaking to Jesus about his departure, or exodus, “which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31) How ironic that in all this glory and awesome brilliance, their conversation would be about the passion, suffering and death that Jesus was to undergo in Jerusalem. The message is clear – the way to glory, to eternal life, is through the cross – through some suffering that when accepted by us without resentment or bitterness, as Jesus did, places us within the kingdom of God.
The other purpose, in the light of that suffering, was to give the apostles strength to face the imminent suffering of Jesus, and to begin to understand the role of redemptive suffering in the life of the early church, as well as to give us that same strength in the face of our own often seemingly meaningless suffering.
The bright cloud and voice from heaven is the blessing the Father gives to Jesus, a blessing that empowered him to accept the suffering that awaited him. This is a reminder of the importance of blessings in our own lives – especially the blessing of fathers over their sons, and mothers over their daughters. Blessing comes from the Latin benedicere, which means “to speak well of.” When parents affirm, praise and speak well of their children, that blessing imparts a powerful inner strength, self-confidence and self-worth to the children that equips them to face all the challenges that life will throw at them. As one young boy put it, “I desired even just one light punch on the arm by my father, more than all the love of my mother.” It is that gesture that seems to transfer the energy of the father to the son, and that transferred the Father’s energy to Jesus.
Here is a quote from the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes that relates to this feast of the transfiguration: “The Church firmly believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through His Spirit offer humanity the light and the strength to measure up to its highest vocation. Nor has any other name under heaven been given to (humans) by which (we) must be saved. She likewise believes that in her Lord and Master is found the key, the center, and the goal of all human history. The Church also holds that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, who is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever. Hence in the light of Christ, the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creature, the council wishes to speak to all men and women in order to shed light on the mystery of humanity and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time. (GS 10)
Fr. Robert Imbelli, in an article on the transfiguration, adds this reflection: “Jesus transfigured not only fulfills the Torah and the prophets, he recapitulates in himself all God’s dealings with humanity. Jesus concentrates and intensifies all the spiritual forces of the universe, and redirects them toward the awe-struck disciples. They receive him as they are able, ‘grace answering to grace.’ For he is the true, if not always recognized, desire of every human heart.”
A last lesson of the transfiguration is that we are not to try to cling to any consolation from God, any even slight and subtle spiritual experience, for its own sake. These consolations are meant to strengthen us for service to a struggling humanity, and to support us when the going gets difficult. Peter understandably wanted to build three tents to keep that spiritual high going, but Jesus took them down the mountain, and even predicted his passion on the way. It was only his resurrection that would fully realize his own exodus back to the Father – helping us understand why he would demand they say nothing to anyone of this experience until “after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
The Eucharist is a foretaste of the heavenly glory the apostles glimpsed on that day upon the mountain. We too hear the Father’s voice, and we too experience transformation – as the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus, and we in turn become more fully the Body of Christ in the world.
Finally, we are also invited to descend the mountain, to set out from this celebration, forgiven, healed and nourished, to spread the Good News of the transfiguration to a world that desperately needs to hear that Good News.