In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s gospel reading we have the story of the Transfiguration of our Lord. Jesus takes with him Peter and James and John. He takes them up a high mountain, apart from everyone else. Apart, that is, not only from the crowds, but from the other disciples too. And there he is transfigured before them. They catch a glimpse of his glory, of his true identity. They see Moses and Elijah – indicative of the testimony of scripture, of the Jewish Law and of the prophets bearing witness to Jesus. Peter blurts out something stupid and unconsidered. A cloud overshadows them. They can’t see anything. Its bewildering. They are afraid. And they hear a voice telling them that Jesus is the Son of God, and that they are to listen to him. The voice is hushed. The cloud is lifted. All returns to normal. There is Jesus, looking as he usually does, and they go back down the mountain.
This is always the reading appointed by the Church for the last Sunday before Lent (which begins this coming Wednesday – Ash Wednesday). There may be any number of reasons why our holy mother Church wants her children to hear this story before Lent. But I think one of them is perhaps that it holds before us, frozen as it were in time, what the Greeks called our “telos” – our destination, our purpose, the reason for which we were created, namely, glory. It is a brief glimpse, beyond the horizon of this world, of glorified humanity. And it is also a precursor, a mystical and proleptic interpretation of the cross, another mountaintop on which Jesus will be transfixed, and by which he will accomplish the greatest “exodus” of all, beyond the confines of this world, taking human nature out of the reach of the tyranny of death.
The Transfiguration shows us who Jesus really is, and it shows us our destiny in him. But we only get a brief glimpse. A momentary peak behind the curtain of the universe. And the spiritual life is often this way. I remember once, years ago, when I was staying in Rome, I stepped into a little nondescript church off of a piazza, as much to rest in the cool, dark interior as anything. There was a small group of nuns from Africa inside. They were having a service of adoration. The Blessed Sacrament was in the monstrance on the altar, and they were singing hymns. Outwardly it was really nothing extraordinary. But I was totally bowled over by it. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. A little nun smiled at me and handed me a sheet of paper with the music on it, and I was struck dumb. There was none of the normal, everyday struggle to BELIEVE or whatever. All of the strands of experience I spend my life trying to reconcile were suddenly and completely unimportant. Everything made perfect sense. Nothing really mattered but the Lord, reposing humbly on a humble altar in a humble church surrounded by a handful of his humble disciples, humbly singing humble hymns.
The experience was over almost as soon as it started. A bored looking priest put the Blessed Sacrament back into the tabernacle. A bell rang, and I left the church, stepping back out into the blinding sunshine of a noisy city.
“And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead.”
Bl. John Henry Newman once wrote of why it is that the Lord allows us these brief glimpses of ultimate reality. It is, in a sense, food for the journey. It is to prepare us to see him, as we will see him, beyond the horizon of the world, with unveiled face, in his awful majesty. Newman said:
“In these [brief experiences] is manifested in greater or less degree, according to the measure of each, that Incarnate Saviour, who is one day to be our Judge, and who is enabling us to bear His presence then, by imparting it to us in measure now. A thick black veil is spread between this world and the next. We mortal men range up and down it, to and fro, and see nothing. There is no access through it into the next world. In the Gospel this veil is not removed; it remains, but every now and then marvellous disclosures are made to us of what is behind it. At times we seem to catch a glimpse of a Form which we shall hereafter see face to face. We approach, and in spite of the darkness, our hands, or our head, or our brow, or our lips become, as it were, sensible of the contact of something more than earthly. We know not where we are, but we have been bathing in water, and a voice tells us that it is blood. Or we have a mark signed upon our foreheads, and it spake of Calvary. Or we recollect a hand laid upon our heads, and surely it had the print of nails in it, and resembled His who with a touch gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Or we have been eating and drinking; and it was not a dream surely, that One fed us from His wounded side, and renewed our nature by the heavenly meat He gave. Thus in many ways He, who is Judge to us, prepares us to be judged,—He, who is to glorify us, prepares us to be glorified, that He may not take us unawares; but that when the voice of the Archangel sounds, and we are called to meet the Bridegroom, we may be ready.”
It is in the nature of our Lord to have compassion on us. To strengthen us for the rigors of our spiritual journey. It is the same Lord who said, before he fed the four thousand, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days, and have nothing to eat; and if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way; and some of them have come a long way,” (Mark 8.2f).
We read the story of the Transfiguration as we stand on the near-side of Lent, by way of preparing ourselves for the difficult journey that leads to glory, this forty day fast that leads to the joyful festival of the resurrection. We listen to this story by way too of reminding ourselves of just WHO IT IS that created us, who it is that is calling us, and who it is that accompanies us – Jesus, the King of Glory, and our dear compassionate friend, who is there in his astonishing humility at every moment of our exile in the wilderness of this world.
A final point. The companionship of our Lord can embolden us too. This is a facet of our preparation for glory. We cannot be glorified if we do not first realize our CAPACITY for glory. And we cannot realize this capacity without first encountering the depths of our own (unglorified) humanity. This process can be painful and bewildering – but understanding it for what it is, we see that it is a dimension of God’s enormous love for us, that he takes us through experiences that expose the frightening depths our brokenness – our fragility in the face of sickness, our disappointment in the face of unfulfilled desire, our capacity for being loved in the face of betrayal or the experience of being forsaken. Is this not what the Lenten fast is about? Laboring for “the food which endures to eternal life” (John 6.27)? Is this not the Way of the Cross? And is not this what the Psalmist means when he says: “OUT OF THE DEPTHS have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice…” (Psalm 130).
Listen to this letter that a girl wrote to her friend – and let these be the sentiments addressed to the Lord from your heart:
“At the moment, I really feel the need to talk with you, now that those questions that I kept hidden inside me for so long, closed in and chained, have finally exploded. Finally… Everything conspired and conspires against me, everything; even my mother told me, ‘Don’t worry, this sadness will pass,’ or, ‘Don’t think about it.’ But it has never passed and I have never stopped thinking of it because it’s a gripping need for meaning that never leaves me and torments me every day without letting go, without respite. Everyone has tried to tame me, tranquilize me, keep me from suffering, and make everything more bearable, to sedate a restless heart that however had no intention to stop desiring and asking for more. Then you arrived. I’ve never had a friend like you. You’re the only one who hasn’t been scared of or scandalized by my pain and my desire for the infinite. Nobody has ever looked at me this way. My heart trembled, vibrated like never before. I was suddenly invaded by the bitter awareness that till now nobody has ever looked at me the way I truly desired; everyone has set aside my uncomfortable need, sharing everything with me except what was indispensable. But a life that doesn’t consider my humanity, my most visceral and profound requests, isn’t life, nor is it even death; it’s only a desperate cry. I can’t push aside my search for meaning, otherwise I’ll suffocate. I just can’t go on; everything is equal, flat, useless, boring, and terribly unbearable. The encounter with you created in me a demand for my whole life, every second, and I don’t want to live for anything less. You ignited a passion in me, a gusto never before experienced. I need to have people alongside me who are equal to the thought that dominates my life, people with whom I can talk about what is truly worthwhile. I want to be with you because you don’t reduce me, or deny me, or mortify me; you don’t console me and don’t try to give me an answer. You don’t try to distract me or cheer me up, but you share with me the expectation, the entreaty, the nobility of our pain, the greatness of this unbounded desire and the disproportion it creates. I need you because you make me look in the face… of this terrible but dear pain that makes me so human.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.