THE APPEARANCE OF JESUS' FACE AS HE PRAYED WAS ALTERED, HIS CLOTHES GLEAMED BRIGHTLY. , and on a sudden two men were speaking with him. They were Moses and Elias (Luke 9:29,30). Whereas on the first Sunday of Lent, the theme was the forty-day fast and the temptations of Jesus in the desert, the liturgy of the second Sunday focuses our attention on the transfigured Christ. The vision of the Lord of glory is meant to raise our minds to the victory he won on Easter, and to give us hope that he will also be victorious in us, by the graces won through his passion and resurrection. In presenting us with this mystery of his Transfiguration the Church wishes to encourage us to follow him during this Lenten season of purification through the passion and cross to the resurrection. The Lord overcame the tempter in the desert; later, he went on to defeat him more radically and definitively by his humble obedience and fidelity even unto the death on the cross.
Some modern exegetes, following in the steps of Bultman, consider that the Transfiguration of our Lord was not a historical event that really took place in his life time; that, rather, the three evangelists who record it read back from the resurrection and imaginatively created this account to bring out the message of his glorified humanity. But this view overlooks the concrete details provided by the Gospel accounts, as Dodd has shown, and, in fact, manages to miss the very point of this event, a point made quite explicit by author of the third Gospel. St. Luke is the only one who tells of the content of Jesus' discussion with Moses and Elijah during this revelation of his glory. It was his coming death, his exodus, as Luke terms it, that they spoke of in the course of this exalted experience. The message of the Transfiguration is essentially that Jesus, glorified briefly on the mountain, is the one appointed by God the Father to carry out his mission as Messiah by suffering and death on the cross.
There is no contradiction between the glorification of the Messiah and God's express approval of his person and message, on the one hand, and his rejection, suffering and death on the other. The very purpose of this event is to reveal God's plan of redemption through the suffering and death of his beloved son, who is the Lord of glory. This divine economy was so contrary to all that his disciples expected that the Father deemed it indicated to provide a miraculous display of Jesus' true identity in a context where his future passion was discussed with two of the greatest prophets of the O.T. It made no sense for the evangelists to include their accounts of this revelation in the Gospel at all unless it really took place when it did, in the course of Jesus' preaching and teaching of his disciples. All the Gospels, written as they were after the resurrection, had no further need for proof that God's way of redemption was contrary to our human way of thinking, and more specifically to the expectations of his chosen people, than the appearances of the living Christ. The Risen Lord himself provided all the evidence that faith could hope for, and on the occasions when the Lord appeared in his risen state, the disciples were able to respond and rose to the level they could not manage at the time of the Transfiguration.
There were, to be sure, certain differences between these two revelations of the mysterious plan of redemption, as far as we can ascertain from the accounts available to us. In the Transfiguration there are very striking extraordinary features associated with the event, such as the brilliant light shining from the face and garments of Christ; the voice of the Father testifying to the mission of his beloved Son to teach; and the appearance of two of Israel's holiest prophets, Moses and Elijah. The whole scene in all of its parts takes place in a world that is transposed to a higher level of existence where the divine shines through. The resurrection appearances, on the other hand, are extraordinary by the simple fact that Jesus, who had been put to death, was alive. He appeared in ways that were subject to the same kinds of proof that everyday existence affords. He is not described as emanating any special spiritual light; his behavior is quite ordinary: he speaks directly to his disciples and the women, he walks with them to the country, he eats with them of the same food they partake of, he displays his wounds and the solidity of his body. He does work a miracle at the lake side when the apostles catch a vast quantity of fish that normally would have burst the net. But he had worked even greater wonders during his life time. He also can appear suddenly in a locked room, and disappear at will, for his body is not subject to the limitations of material reality, and he possesses a supernatural knowledge of events and the thoughts of hearts. Still, with all that, he moves among his friends as a familiar figure, conversing, not with heavenly figures, but with his very human followers.
St. Ambrose commended this mystery of the Transfiguration to his congregation of lay persons as a source of spiritual conviction concerning the need to rise above earthly concerns and attachments in order to live out the program set forth in the Gospel.
Let us ascend the mountain and pray to the Word of God so that he might appear to us in comeliness and beauty and be strengthened and go forth and reign. For these things too are mysteries, and refer to higher matters seeing that according to your possibility the Word either is diminished or increases so that unless you ascend to the summit of a higher prudence, wisdom will not show herself to you, nor will the knowledge of mysteries appear to you, nor will you see how great is the glory,, how much beauty there is in the Word of God (Expositio Evangelii Secundum Lucam VII 12, S.C. 52, p.12,13).
Later on, when monks and nuns had come into existence and lived lives dedicated to prayer, Jesus as he appeared in his Transfiguration became a favorite way of conceiving him in their prayerful meditations and in their contemplation. Devotion to this mysterious happening in his life grew up quite early and found a prominent expression in the lives and writings of Eastern monks. Already in the early sixth century the main church of the important monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai was dominated by the great mosaic of the Transfiguration that is still to be seen in the apse cupola today. St. John Damascene, for instance saw in the Transfiguration a symbol of the need for the believer to rise above anxious concerns for worldly gratifications.
Why did he lead his disciples up the mountain? Scripture in its moral sense refers to the virtues as mountains. The apex of all the virtues and, as it were, their citadel is charity.... Accordingly, it is fitting that we leave behind all worldly concerns of the earth and pass beyond the body of lowliness as we ascend to the highest and divine eminence. There we behold those things that transcend every other view (Homilia in Transfigurationem Domini 10 PG 96: 561, 2).
Very early the followers of Christ devoted a good deal of reflection to the meaning of this mystery of the Transfiguration for their spiritual life. Every feature of this vision was carefully noted and made the topic of comment, for no detail of so great a revelation was considered to be with out its significance. Not only the brilliant light that dazzled the eyes of the apostles, but also the voice of the Father that bore witness to him as the beloved one made a particularly striking impression. Surely, one of the most profound and engaging observations on this event was made by Origen, as far back as the third century. Origen notes that Matthew, after saying Jesus was transfigured adds before them. He sees in this phrase an indication that the Word appears differently to different persons. Only to the eyes of those who ascend the mountain does he appear transfigured in glory; to those who remain on the plain, unable to ascend, he is perceived only in his lowliness. His observations remain worth noting today.
But if you are able to understand the differences of the Word, that he is announced in the foolishness of preaching to believers, and is preached to the perfect in wisdom, you will see how the Word has the form of a servant before beginners, so that they say We have seen him and he had no beauty or appeal. But he comes in the glory of his Father to the perfect, who are going to say: And we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth(Comment. In Matthaeum Tomus xii.30 PG 13:1049).
Origen is on very sound ground in making this point, as anybody who has preached to a variety of audiences has had occasion to experience. There is not only question of different persons reacting in contrasting ways to the same words, or to the same person delivering the message; often it happens that some people hear things that were not said at all, others fail to perceive what was said quite distinctly. This along with certain prejudices and other conditioning factors leads regularly to quite distinct perceptions of the personality and even the appearance of the speaker. We are much more subject to such pre-judgments and affective factors that condition our experiences of others than we are aware. This applies not only to our human relationships, but also to our life of prayer and generally in our dealings with God. The prophets had a hard time of it due to this human characteristic, and Jesus himself encountered it repeatedly, and reacted to it with vigorous language at times. The Lord notes this fact and comments on it at some length, and then cites Isaiah's bitter words to the same effect.
I speak to them in parables because they do not see when they look, and do not hear or understand when they listen, so that in them is the prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled which says:... For the heart of this people is dulled and their ears too heavy to hear. Their eyes are closed so that they may not see with their eyes nor hear with their ears and understand with their heart and so be converted that I might heal them (Mt. 13:13- 15).
Even though Jesus explained his parables to his apostles, yet their understanding also was limited by similar factors. While they were able to grasp a good deal of the Lord's teaching, and certainly appreciated him deeply as a person, yet they proved unable to hear his most important disclosure, and as a result were unable to recognize him as carrying out the Father's plan in his passion and death, so humiliating for him and his followers. The revelation made at the Transfiguration was provided them precisely to overcome these limitations. However, even with the help of that extraordinary event, they were not able to perceive the Lord's hand in the essential work of his mission, as he carried out the plan of the Father. Only the resurrection provided adequate light and strength for a true, more adequate perception of the Word made flesh and become obedient unto death for those who are enmeshed in the nets of the senses. That includes us no less than the apostles.
All of us are limited in our grasp of the divine plan; we have serious limitations in our under standing of the world that surrounds us. That remains the case even when our own interests are at stake. This is true not only for us who have but average intelligence, and good, but merely common gifts of nature, but as well in the case of persons with superior gifts. It would seem that having extraordinary gifts, in fact, can prove a liability when it comes to the question of living happily in one's personal life. Indeed, for those who are closest and should be dearest to highly gifted persons, association with them has often proved to be more a source of distress than of joy. The biographies of so many men of genius witness to this fact. Not only artists, of whom many of the most gifted lived very unhappy lives, but even men of affairs and politicians whose practical gifts would seem to assure personal happiness, have failed to make good choices in matters that were essential to their personal happiness. We see today in our country many of the best educated, intelligent and privileged men of power who through bad judgment as to their true interests end by ruining their good name, losing their influence, causing immense pain to their loved ones and misery to themselves. When we consider how many such persons have gone through such a cycle in the last decade or so, and reflect on their advantages and gifts, we may well fear for our self. One of the more surprising aspects of our human condition is the fact that we seem unable to learn much from the unfortunate experiences of others; some of us cannot even manage to learn from our own past mistakes and failures, and, as a result, go through life repeating them in substance, though the circumstances change.
Learning to live wisely, to be able to recognize what is true and good at its real value is, in fact, a worthy achievement, even a noble one. It requires courage to confront the limits we find in our selves and to accept them. To take responsibility for our mistakes, to acknowledge our failures and even our sins against God, require a certain confidence as well as humility and a strong sense of truthfulness. Anyone who habitually practices such honesty deserves our respect and will soon gain the confidence of those he lives with.
Some one who can handle past sins which have become a source of grievous regret and pain gains in respect by taking full responsibility for them. Jesus obviously felt this way, for he built his Church on men who, as he predicted would occur, failed him before they learned to know themselves, their limits and their sinfulness. Peter, who represented all the apostles, later made no secret of his failure; nor did he blame others, or the system. He confessed his sins, wept over them, and returned to his master, in distress but trustingly, to become a staunch and loyal witness to him for the remainder of his life. Most of us feel more confident in approaching him in prayer than we would have had he never fallen and repented.
An important condition for such self-knowledge and admission of responsibility is precisely a deep sense of confidence in God. We must trust that He truly forgives and receives us with love, though He knows our weakness and sinfulness. We firmly believe that God is love, we are convinced that He gave His beloved Son as our redeemer, to die for us. We find it easy to assent to these truths. But until we are convinced that He loves us, and are confident of that love at those times when we are aware of our unworthiness and failures, we shall not be able to take adequate responsibility for our actions. Rather, we become defensive, criticize others, especially authorities, or the system, with the result that we fail to grow out of the same old patterns of self-defeating behavior. Self-justification is the great enemy of self-knowledge and of spiritual growth. Anyone who has learned to overcome such a strongly rooted human tendency has achieved a great work and will have the respect of those he lives with.
It seems evident that the chief purposes of the Transfiguration was the giving of such confidence to the chosen apostles. Having seen who Christ truly is in his glorified state, and having heard how he is the specially beloved of the Father, they were to see in his choice of them an unshakeable basis for their knowing they were loved and trusted. This confidence that we are loved and accepted for ourselves by the one who is deserving of all respect is the most essential need each of us has in order to remain faithful to our Lord's person and teaching in all circumstances. When we posses such trust in God's fidelity to us, we no longer need to defend ourselves from the truth about ourselves, even when it is pressed by those who do not approve of us, who may even dislike us and seek to do us harm. We will then find our strength and our purpose where it truly resides, in the all-powerful and all loving God who made us for Himself.
Many monks and nuns over the centuries have contemplated Christ in his Transfiguration, and found in that prayer the experience of his merciful love. As Origen had long ago noted, the Word makes himself known under a variety of forms, adjusting his appearances to the condition of each. Those called to the contemplative life are no exception, for even in this vocation there are many different gifts and the condition of each of us changes with time. Still, there is a particular attraction felt by a good number of believers, many monastics among them, to the light of Christ as manifested on the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus was revealed there in a brilliancy that arose from the transcendent realm of his divinity, and it proved too strong even for his chosen apostles to assimilate, as is so often the case for us as well us who fall short of their virtues.
But we are told that after his glory passed away and while they remained dazzled, filled with fear, Jesus drew near to them and touched them, and said to them "Rise up and do not be afraid" (Mt.17: 7). When they opened their eyes they were immediately reassured, for they saw no one but only Jesus in his customary form. In this way, the Lord did not express his disappointment in their weakness, but rather gave them a sign of his abiding acceptance and went on to continue his teaching them. He would eventually strengthen them by the gifts of his Holy Spirit, but first they had to grow through further trials and more teaching. He displays the same compassionate concern for us, tempering his demands to our capacity, and preparing us for the fuller revelation of his glory when his hour arrives. Let us pass these days of Lent striving to respond to him when he draws near to us, to touch us reassuringly, and lead us further on the way that brings us through the cross to the life of the resurrection, in the glory of the Father.Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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