Today’s Gospel is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration. Peter, James and John accompany Jesus to a high mountain where “he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” The disciples are granted an incredible vision of Jesus in all of his divine glory, getting a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus And they hear the voice of God, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
You would think that experience would clearly mark the dividing line between “before” and “after.” That nothing could possibly be the same for the disciples after an experience like that. Yet, afterwards, James and John still worry about whether they are going to get to sit at Jesus’ right hand, Peter still denies him and they still all run away when Jesus is crucified. At some level, they still don’t quite get it.
How much like our own experience! I’ll go on retreat, have the most incredible experiences of God, marvel at what God has revealed of Godself, feel like nothing could possibly ever be the same. And then, I come home from retreat and I’ll think or do something that seems to me utterly inconsistent with the revelations I’ve experienced. And I wonder, have I made any progress at all on this spiritual journey?
The best I can say sometimes is that, if I look at my prayer journal and my life now and compare it to my prayer journal and life a year or two years or three years ago, I “get it” more now than I did then. The image that sometimes comes to me is a spiral – even if I’m sometimes covering the same ground, I’m a little deeper in the spiral than I was before.
That’s not always satisfying – there is something nice about the idea of a single flash of light changing everything all at once. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Our occasional glimpses of Transfiguration do mark us, and they do impel us forward. But we still need work.
I preyed this morning with St. Mark’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, an event that lies in the center of Mark’s Gospel, halfway between Jesus’ baptism and his resurrection. And, indeed, it calls to mind both of those events – the brightness of Jesus’ clothes recalling the resurrection and the voice of God calling to mind the baptism.
The central moment of the event, what everything in the episode leads up to – is the moment when God speaks from the clouds, saying, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.”
And there is something quite specific we are to listen to. The Transfiguration occurs immediately after Jesus’ prediction of his passion (“the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected…and be killed, and rise after three days”) and His explanation of the conditions to discipleship (“whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”).
Listen to Him. Understand that rejection, suffering, death and resurrection are integral to Jesus’ mission and, in the words of one commentator, that “the way of the cross is equally integral and inescapable for all who would follow him.”
This is not just a heady experience, a high on the top of the mountain. It is a reminder that discipleship is not just wedding feasts and banquets where a few loaves feed thousands of people, not just Jesus walking on water and healing people. To be sure, we have the promise of resurrection at the end, but before we get there, there is the cross – the cross that must be taking up by all who would follow Jesus.
Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. St. Luke’s Gospel (which we hear in today’s Mass) records that Jesus took three of his disciples up a mountain to pray and that while he was praying “his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” St. Matthew says that “he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.”
The event surely had significance for Jesus, helping affirm him and his mision as he turned his face toward Jerusalem. It also surely had significance for his disciples, who heard the voice of God telling them, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
The the event also has significance for us. As the Magnificat reflection for the day says
Christ’s Tabor radiance is a kind of mirror in which we glimpse the glory that God wills to give his friends. The resplendence of the Transfiguration reveals the fullness of life destined to be ours. The Transfiguration invites us to configuration. As we peer into the glory that pours from every pore of the transfigured Christ, we cast off everything unworthy of our personal relationship with the Infinite, and we take on the luster of the Son of God. … Silently from Tabor’s splendor, the Savior begs, “Become what you behold!”
Become what you behold! Words that date from a sermon given by St. Augustine on the Eucharist. And, indeed, this is the same invitation we are offered each time we receive the Eucharist: to become what we behold.
This day is a special reminder to us of what God has in store for us, of the “fullness of life destined to be ours.” All we need to is accept the invitation.
Near the end of the ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” What caused Jesus to be so resolutely determined to go to Jerusalem, knowing that such an act would intensify the opposition that had already started to build against him.
The key to understanding Jesus’ determination is the experience we hear proclaimed in today’s Gospel, the event we refer to as the Transfiguration of Jesus. Luke tells us that Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, John and James to pray. As He so often does, Jesus seeks guidance from God as to what hie next steps should be.
And something happens when Jesus goes up to that mountain to pray. We are told of the appearance of Moses and Elijah, who speak with Jesus of “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” A cloud, a sign of God’s prseence appears, and from it a voice declaring (as it did at His Baptism) that “this is my chosen son.” And whatever else went on in that prayer, we know that Jesus is changed by the experience. Barbara Reid, O.P. writes,
In this profound encounter with God, Jesus receives surety about his next steps, and this “aha” experience is visible on his face. Notably, Luke does not say that Jesus was transfigured; rather, that ‘his face changed in appearance.’ Like Moses, whose face was radiant after being with God on Mount Sinai (Ex 34:29), and Hannah, whose face was lifted up after her prayer was heard (1 Sm 1:18), so Jesus’ encounter with God is written on his face…During this intense prayer of discernment, Jesus is given sure signs that he is guided by God in his choice.
Jesus’ experience reassures him of God’s love and gives him the strength he needs to “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
It is important that we hear this Gospel as not just a story about a remarkable thing that happened to Jesus. Rather, we ought to reflect on what reassurance we need from God to make the hard choices we are asked to make and follow Jesus’ example of prayerful discernment. Our own “aha” moments may not be as vivid or splashy as the Gospel descriptions of the Transfiguration, but God will give us the same strength, assurance and confirmation He gave to Jesus.
Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. Jesus ascends Mount Tabor with Peter, James, and John, “[A]nd he was transfigured befor them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light….[A]bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
An experience like this is not like watching a movie. It is not something you see and then walk away from, saying, “That was nice.” Rather, it is an intimate encounter that invites our transformation. The Magnificat introduction to the mass of the day calls Christ’s radiance at the Transfiguration “a kind of mirror in which we glimpse the glory that God wills to give his friends. The resplendence of the Transfiguration reveals the fullness of life destined to be ours. The Transfiguration invites us to configuration. As we peer into the glory that pours from every pore of the transfigured Christ, we cast off everything unworthy of our personal relationship with the Infinite, and we take on the luster of the Son of God….Silently, from Tabor’s splendor, the Savior begs: “Become what you behold.”
Become what you behold. The invitation is there. It is ours to accept.