By: Fr. James Gross
After spending last Sunday with Jesus as he withstands temptation in the wilderness, today we journey with him to the mountaintop. We get an inside look at what the Apostles Peter, James, and John were privileged to see. We’ll examine the theological meaning behind this scene, as well as the strength it provides us here and now. But first, let’s step back for a moment to appreciate just how stunning this event would have been.
People who lived 2,000 years ago were just like you and me, but consider how primitive the times were. No one could travel by land faster than a horse could take them. No one could traverse the sea faster than they could sail or row. Maybe most striking of all is the difference in technology in our time. None of the disciples had heard amplified music in stereo or seen either still photographs or moving pictures of any kind. There were no televisions, computer monitors, or movie theaters. The greatest visual wonders of their lives were the products of nature, such as a landscape or a thunderstorm.
Now imagine that we took such a person, with no modern multimedia experiences whatsoever, and brought him to a 3-D Star Wars movie. Talk about sensory overload, right? Now we start to get an idea of how awe-inspiring the Transfiguration of Jesus must have been. Peter, James, and John could never “un-see” or forget such a thing.
In his ministry, Jesus insisted on an absolute standard of humility. When he attended fancy banquets or social functions, they were not of his arranging. Jesus accepted whatever hospitality his hosts might offer (eating what was given to him, sleeping wherever shelter was available, etc.), and insisted that those who accompanied him did the same. To the naked eye Jesus displayed a dignity in how he carried himself, but no trappings of regality or finery.
Hold on to that picture of humility for a moment. Now picture him entering a town in which people have heard about his healing abilities and gathered their infirm family members and friends. One after another, they came away unbound by their former conditions: the blind can see, the deaf can hear, the paralyzed can walk, and so on. And he operated in a seemingly effortless manner. It’s a paradox, isn’t it? A man who embodied deep humility is the same one working such wonders that no one had ever witnessed before.
In this perspective, the Transfiguration of Christ is a gift whereby we can see by means of our human senses the true grandeur of the Son of God. Adding to the sensory overload of his dazzling white garments and the piercing light emanating from him is the vision of two giants of salvation history—Moses and Elijah.
We understand well enough that Moses, through whom God handed down the Ten Commandments and many other precepts besides, represents the Law which gave the nation of Israel its distinct identity. However, Elijah may not seem to us an archetypal prophet. His story is not contained in a book of the Old Testament named for him, but in the Books of Kings. For Jews of Jesus’ time, though, Elijah’s legacy loomed large. He faced down enormous opposition, from kings and peers alike, in his fidelity to God.
What did it mean to behold the transfigured Jesus standing as equals alongside these singular heroes? An ecstatic Peter can hardly put it into words. In fact, his first inclination is to perpetuate the scene. “Let’s build a little village on this spot and dwell together like this forever!” We are sympathetic to his reaction, but as the Father declares that the world must listen to His Son and the vision dissipates, the three Apostles realize that they cannot stay on the mountaintop. Their brothers and sisters in the valley below need to hear their teachings and encounter the grace of God for themselves. Only in heaven will Peter’s request eventually be fulfilled.
Lastly, the Transfiguration uniquely prepared these men for the passion Our Lord would have to undergo. Before much longer, Jesus would be arrested, condemned in a sham trial, scourged, and crucified. John fled, but amazingly returned to the cross of Christ. At least Peter came back to the high priest’s courtyard, even though in fear he denied even knowing the Lord. As for my namesake, James, once he headed for the hills that Thursday night, heaven knows where he was.
But here’s the key: in the face of the disastrous events, in spite of their fleeing Jerusalem, they came back together by Easter Sunday. Yes, they locked the door and suspected that the authorities might hunt them down next, but they were with each other. We can be certain that the vision of Christ’s glory was seared into the consciousness of Peter, James, and John, and from this vision they clung to the hope that the Son of Man could indeed rise from the dead, as He Himself had foretold.
Bringing all this into the present day, what does the Transfiguration of Jesus mean for us? Our Savior is a savior because he suffered for us. In worldly terms, to triumph means that we come through unscathed: we bypass any obstacles that would touch us. The path the Father chose for Jesus is a scandal that contradicts worldly logic, but it gives us a tremendous example. We can unite our hardships, heartaches, and disappointments, meaningless though they may seem, with the sufferings of Christ. And by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we know that those obstacles will pass away.
There’s hardly a better way to describe this mystery than what St. Augustine once said: We gave the Son of God, in our fallen human nature, the ability to die. He gave us, in His divinity, the ability to live with the Trinity forever.