I often find myself saying this or that reading is one of my favourite passages of scripture. Well, this one certainly deserves to be in the top ten: The Transfiguration. There is so much food for thought that every time you look at it you see different things.
Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus; we know that they refer to the law and the prophets and that their presence indicates that Jesus has come to fulfil all that they hoped for.
Moses led his people into the Promised Land, but he never got there himself. But now he is there. And in what company! With Elijah the greatest of Israel’s prophets and with Jesus the long awaited Messiah. We tend to think of the presence of Moses and Elijah as confirming who Jesus was; demonstrating to the apostles that Jesus is the one to whom Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, pointed to.
But looking at it another way, just think how Moses and Elijah must have felt being there on the mountain with Jesus in that moment of special communion with the Father. This was the moment for which their whole lives and all the mighty works that they performed was but a preparation. What satisfaction they must have experienced.
And the Church in choosing that first reading brings that other crucial figure from the Old Testament into the picture—Abraham. And we have that marvellous story of the sacrifice of Isaac—or rather the non-sacrifice of Isaac.
One can hardly imagine what went through Abraham’s mind when God told him to take Isaac to the mountain and offer him there as a burnt offering. This child who was so long awaited and whose birth itself was a complete miracle suddenly picked out to die by this hard taskmaster of a God.
But Isaac does not die. He is a prefigurement of Christ; God’s only Son, who was even more long awaited and who is also sacrificed on the mountain of Calvary. But he is too spared from the power of death and rises again to bring salvation to the whole human race.
By presenting these three great patriarchs from the Old Testament the liturgy shows us the wonderful continuity that exists between the Church and the People of Israel. Like them we journey to the promised land. Like them we have our patriarchs, just for recent examples look at John XXIII, Paul VI and now Pope John Paul II—tremendous leaders, frequently misunderstood, but universally acknowledged as wise old men who have done their level best to discern the will of God for his people. They are our modern day patriarchs.
And in the Church of the New Testament we have our matriarchs too like Mother Teresa, Edith Stein and Therese of Lisieux who also show us the way God wants us to live our lives in the world of today.
This moment of transfiguration or theophany is a marvellous mystery. In the most traditional interpretation Jesus is assured of the Father’s love before he undergoes his passion and death. And this is perfectly valid. Jesus was both fully human and fully divine and in his humanity surely needed encouragement and the assurance of the Father’s love just as we ourselves would have needed it.
But the Transfiguration was also for the apostles; and through them therefore also for us. In the Transfiguration the assurance is given that the Father and the Son are one and that all that is to come—the passion and death of Jesus—is part of God’s plan for our salvation.
The apostles saw the glory of the Lord; it was too great for them to even begin to appreciate and they burble nonsense about pitching tents. They want to be doing something instead of simply being, simply resting, basking in the glory of the Lord.
Some important writers speak about the Transfiguration when explaining the stages in the spiritual life. There are periods of great activity in our prayer life, especially at the beginning when we go around praying for every one and everything. I suppose we could compare this to Christ’s public ministry.
But then comes a moment or moments of transfiguration. Special moments when we sit down to pray and no words come but we are overcome with a powerful feeling that God loves us. It might not last long, and we frequently can’t explain it to others, but it was sheer bliss while it lasted. The spiritual writers compare this to Christ’s Transfiguration.
But don’t be deluded that this will last forever because then comes a period of desolation, a period when God seems very far away. It is as if having shown us the depths of his love he withdraws and leaves us on our own for a while. Sometimes this lasts a very long time indeed and our faith is sorely tested.
The spiritual writers sometimes call this the dark night of the soul. We can compare it to Christ’s passion. The best way to look at it is as a period of growth in the darkness. If you’ll excuse the analogy, it is like a small shoot covered in manure; it is seemingly wiped out but all the while the roots are being deeply nourished and in due time it will burst forth as a remarkably strong and vigorous plant.
These are just some of the phases of the spiritual life that are important to know about. Maybe they make sense to you, maybe they don’t—if so don’t worry. Perhaps it is too soon to know how they apply to us, often we can only tell with long hindsight. Frequently we go through these phases in our youth and then go through them all over again but in a much deeper and more mysterious way in our adult lives.
The Transfiguration is a deep mystery and a worthy subject for our meditation. Just take for example even out of context those words when the vision went away: Suddenly when they looked round, they saw no one with them any more but only Jesus. If we could see only Jesus what would our lives be like? They would be transformed beyond recognition.
If in all those around us we could see Jesus we would be beginning to see the world as it really is. We would be seeing the hidden world of the Kingdom, which is a truer version of reality than anything that we can perceive with our senses.
Dig deep into the Gospels, look below the surface, meditate on the words of Jesus—see his words as addressed personally to you. Then scripture will become what it is—the living Word of God. A book filed with spiritual insights—a love letter from the King of Heaven personally addressed to you.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket