Homily: The Transfiguration

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The Second Sunday of Lent (Year C)
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18

Psalm 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14
Philippians 3:17—4:1
Luke 9:28b-36

Every Lent, the Church has certain episodes it pulls from the gospels to kind of serve as “anchors” for the Lenten journey. Even though we read from different books of the Gospels each year, every First Sunday of Lent we begin with Jesus’ temptations in the desert, and on the Second Sunday, we have the mystery of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Why? Because the Church is teaching us about the Christian understanding of reality, the supernatural reality that exists behind the veil of the physical world, beyond what we can observe with our senses. Jesus appeared to be like other preacher-miracle-workers. But in our Gospel today, Jesus reveals to Peter, James, and John that what you get is infinitely more than what you see. The language the scripture uses to describe the Transfiguration is full of awe and wonder, to those who have ears to hear.

In the Old Testament, Moses would talk with God in the Tent of Meeting. When he would come out, his face would shine with such splendor that the Israelites insisted that he veil his face. Jesus’s face shows this same divine radiance, not from who he was talking to, but from within himself, his own divine splendor. 

His clothes became dazzling white, an outward sign of heavenly purity and glory, as the saints and angels are shown to have, and as we symbolize in the white albs we wear as a sign of our baptismal purity, our participation in the heavenly glory of the resurrection, which is foreshadowed in the mystery of the Transfiguration.

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A cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.” The frightening cloud of divine glory envelops the disciples, and they hear the Father’s voice instruct them, “This is my chosen (beloved) Son; listen to him.” This is the same smoking and fiery cloud we encounter in the first reading, that showed God entering into a covenant with Abram. The same pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night that protected and led Israel from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, and enveloped the summit of Mt. Sinai as Moses entered into the covenant of the Exodus. It’s the cloud that rested upon the Tent of Meeting, and that filled the Jerusalem Temple when it was dedicated and the Ark of the Covenant set in its place. It’s more than just a cloud. It’s the Holy Spirit of divine presence and power. 

Peter says to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter is often said to just be dumbfounded and speaking nonsense. But, according to Dr. Brant Pitre, there’s an interesting connection.  The Feast of Booths or Tabernacles was a joyful celebration of families staying in tents around Jerusalem, re-enacting the journeying conditions of the exodus. And in ancient Jewish tradition, the Feast of Tabernacles was also seen as a kind of anticipation of a new exodus to the glory of a new Promised Land. Peter’s response of connecting this event of the Transfiguration with the Feast of Booths then makes sense, even if he didn’t fully understand what was happening.

St. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray. Jesus is often presented as getting up early, and going up a mountain to pray. Mountains give a sense of being closer to heaven, a meeting place of heaven and earth. Image result for dante purgatorioYou can imagine the sense, in the quiet darkness leading up to dawn, the solitude high in the ascetic ruggedness of a mountaintop. In Christian mystical tradition, even as far back as Moses atop Mt. Sinai, the spiritual journey often uses the image of ascending a mountain toward purification and divine encounter. You might think of Dante’s Mount Purgatorio, and Paradiso. You might think of St. John of the Cross’ “Ascent of Mount Carmel,” or Thomas Merton’s “Seven Storey Mountain.” This is of course not unique to Judaism or Christianity. Many other religious traditions, both ancient and modern, share the idea. Not that God or heaven are up in the sky, or that we can, through our efforts, climb to heaven. But the image is so prevalent that there is something of the transcendent that speaks to our heart of the longing to ascend, toward our ultimate destination and purpose.

St. Luke is also the only one that tells us what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking about: They “spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” (Perhaps this is why Peter thought of tabernacles). We’ve talked many times of the promise that God made through Moses that God would eventually raise up a prophet like Moses himself. This prophecy was the seed of Israel’s expectation that the Messiah would be like a New Moses, who would lead the People of God on a new Exodus, to a new Promised Land. The text of the Transfiguration reinforces this connection. We heard the voice of the Father from the cloud proclaim, “This is my chosen (beloved) Son; listen to him.” In Deuteronomy 18:5, which was the prophecy of the new Moses; that one day a figure like Moses would come, Moses tells the Israelites, “You are to listen to him, you are to heed him.” So Jesus is being revealed here as the new Moses, and even more, as the son of God.

So what is this Exodus that Moses and Elijah were talking about with Jesus? Here on this mountain of the Transfiguration, they were talking about what would take place on another mountain: on Calvary, Golgotha, the mountain of the Paschal Mystery, the suffering, crucifixion, and death that Jesus would endure at Jerusalem. This would then make the way to the fulfillment of the law (represented by Moses) and the prophets (represented by Elijah). Perhaps this is why Moses and Elijah vanish, and Jesus remains. Jesus is, on one hand, the fulfillment of the law: He is the giver of the new and perfect law of divine love. And on the other hand, Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophets: He is the Word of God incarnate, the perfect revelation of God. And Jesus, who is God, will put his divine Spirit into the heart of each member of the New People of God, the New Israel, the Church. This, then, is the means of the New Exodus, not a journey from a place of slavery to a place of liberty, like from Egypt to Canaan, but the spiritual journey (up the mountain) from a condition of slavery to a condition of liberty: from the slavery of sin, to the perfect freedom of heavenly grace. The new Promised Land isn’t a new earthly land, it is the kingdom of God, the wisdom of God, the love of God, in the hearts and minds of the followers of Christ. It’s the heavenly reality, infused into our material reality, making everything more than it appears to be.

In our second reading, Paul writes to the Philippians about many who are trapped in their slavery. “Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their “shame.” Their minds are occupied with earthly things.” St. Paul is speaking of those who live in servitude to their sensual appetites, their lust for earthly delights, the “Triple Concupiscence” we talked about last week: pleasure, possession, and pride/power. They are “enemies of the cross.” They resist the invitation to embrace suffering and self-denial. “Their end is destruction.” They could be free, if they only embraced the cross and denied themselves, gaining control over their appetites. Related imageOnly God can heal our disordered souls. But it is up to us who are sick to acknowledge our sickness, to decide we no longer want to be sick, to go to the Divine Physician who can heal us, and then to do what He tells us, to be healthy. St. Paul tells us that if we want to stay healthy, Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us.” In other words, look at the example given to us by the saints. Copy their virtues, imitate their practices, learn their lessons. The saints are the “cloud of witnesses” who have run their race well, have won the crown of salvation, and cheer us on our way.

In Luke’s Gospel, after our reading of the Transfiguration, it says, Jesus “set his face to Jerusalem.” From here, Jesus leads his disciples on their journey to the events of holy week. Luke connects the two points—the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion—with a straight line. The Church gives us the Gospel reading of the Transfiguration for the same reason: That as we journey through Lent to the sorrowful passion of Jesus in Jerusalem, we remember the true reality: that Jesus is who we have seen in the Transfiguration, he is divine glory hidden in human flesh. And so it may seem like Jesus has lost control as all the terrible things happen to him. But the true reality is that Jesus is always in control. He chooses to allow what happens to happen. His plan is not thrown off. What happens during Jesus’ passion is accomplishing the plan that God has been laying out since the Garden of Eden. In the contradiction of the cross, Satan’s cleverness is checkmated by God’s wisdom.

Adam had been the high priest and king of creation. When he fell away from God, all creation shared in the Fall. And here’s the real point of the Church giving us this reading: If the New Adam, Jesus Christ the king and high priest of the new creation (the restoration of creation), is himself infinitely greater than his material appearance (in meaning, being, and dignity), then all creation also shares in being infinitely greater than its material appearances.

That which has the material presence of bread and wine on the altar, has the true reality of Christ’s nourishing and saving body and blood. The Church, which has the material presence of an archaic, sin-ridden, rules-imposing human institution, has the true reality of the mystical body of Christ, the perfect, sinless mystical Bride of Christ, led and protected by the Holy Spirit, to perfect union with her Bridegroom. That act which has the material appearance of a person having water poured on them, has the true reality of the spiritual death of a son of Adam and spiritual rebirth of a son of God by adoption through Christ, a new member of Christ’s mystical Body. 

And you, each of you, who have the material presence of a supposedly meaningless blob of tissue, that is here today and gone tomorrow, you have the eternal and true reality of the image of God. You have infinite dignity and meaning, which demands respect and protection. You have a divine intention for your life. The suffering and sacrifice you endure is not meaningless; it is the way, the injection site, for the grace Christ earned on the cross to enter into your life. And so even in our Lenten penances, our suffering, our longing, our sometimes feeling lost and unforgivable, our sometimes feeling helpless against our relentless desires for sin, even now, we can sing with joy, for all this is God’s plan for uniting His divine strength into our human weakness, and our receiving his infinite mercy. It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give thanks to the Lord, our Holy Father, our almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord. Because of him, everything is more beautiful than it seems.

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Finally, whereas the Gospel and the Old Testament readings give us things for meditation, to ponder with our minds, the responsorial psalm helps us understand what God wants us to do with our will. What should it stir up in our affections toward God, as we ponder these mysteries, as we hear these words? 

Psalm 27 sings, “The Lord is my light and my salvation… Of you my heart speaks; you my glance seeks. Your presence, O LORD, I seek. Hide not your face from me...” So the story of the Transfiguration should move us to desire to see what Peter, and James and John saw: to see the face of the Lord, to let the Lord be our light. Ultimately, the glory of the resurrection isn’t just going to be our resurrected bodies, and an end to death and suffering. The true happiness of the resurrection is the Beatific Vision, it’s the “seeing God, face-to-face”. So do you long for that? Do you want that? Is that your goal in life, to see the Lord face-to-face? Do you seek his face? That’s what the Psalm is trying to stir up in our hearts for today, as we ponder the great mystery of the Transfiguration.

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