His Transfiguration, and Ours

This week, as we prepare for the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, we remember, as Pope Francis says, that “Each man and woman has a personal encounter with the Lord. A true and actual encounter that can radically change one’s life. The secret lies not only in being aware of it, but also in never forgetting it, so as to preserve its freshness and beauty.”

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

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Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear (GS 22)[1].

When we encounter Jesus Christ, we encounter ourselves. Ourselves, that is, not as we are but as we are to become. Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, in its most famous passage, states that “Christ…fully reveals man to man himself…” His words and actions are normative. They reveal to us how to live an authentically human life. The sentence continues “…and makes his supreme calling clear” (GS 22). Jesus, in revealing His own glory, reveals also the glory that is to be ours.

So it is at the Transfiguration. The Apostles privileged to witness that event certainly knew our Lord better as a result. The human veil over His divinity was for a moment lifted and they beheld His heavenly splendor. John would write years later, “We have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (Jn 1:14). And so also Peter: “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pt 1:16).

But not only His glory and majesty. They also beheld the “upward call” of every Christian. To behold Christ in glory is to behold our final end. Saint Augustine says that the transfigured Christ reveals what His Body is to become. We are to be transfigured as well. The purpose of everything in our faith — of all doctrines and sacraments — is to change us “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).

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Peter intuits this call and thus desires to remain on Mount Tabor, in the presence of the transfigured Christ: “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here” (Mt 17:4). Perhaps Peter’s words are ill-timed. But his response shows how the human heart ought to respond in the light of Christ’s glory: This is what I have always desired…I was created for this…I want to remain in this presence. To behold is to be held.

Further, ours is to be not only the glory of Christ, but also the testimony of the Father. We are to hear the words of the Father applied to ourselves: “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (cf. Mt 17:5). Again, the entire Christian life can be understood as the progressive knowing of ourselves as the Father’s beloved children. This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased. The project of the Christian life is to train our ears to hear these words and our hearts to accept them.

And yet in this encounter Peter also receives what appears to be a rebuke: “He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him'” (Mt 17:5). “Listen to Him” is an odd command at the Transfiguration. The event involves sight, not hearing. We would expect “Look at Him.” Why then the command to listen?

We can take “Listen to Him” in the broadest sense: we ought to heed Jesus’ every word. But in the context of the Transfiguration, this command refers to our Lord’s Passion. The journey up the mountain had followed Jesus’ first prophecy of His Passion: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21). The Apostles — and especially Peter — had received this poorly. Worse still, Jesus then spoke about the need to follow Him in this suffering: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25). It was hard to listen to these words.

Now, at the Transfiguration, the Father’s voice resounds — Listen to Him — to confirm what the Son had said. Peter, who wants so much to remain on the mountain, must first learn the path of the Passion. It is a command to believe Jesus’ words not only about His own death and resurrection, but also about our need to follow Him. Jesus is transfigured to reveal the final goal: glory. The Father’s voice is heard to highlight the means to that end: the Cross. Listen to Him…because the Passion is the path to glory. That He shares with us the glory of His transfiguration means also that we must share in His Passion.

To encounter Christ is to encounter ourselves. When we behold His glory, we learn our lofty calling and goal. When we listen to His words we learn the path to such glory. The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light (GS 22).


 

[1] Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI, December 7, 1965. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html

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