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Transfiguration, Year A: Keeping perspective

When you’re in the middle of something, it’s easy not to see the wood for the trees. That’s true if what you’re doing is enjoyable or if it’s anything but. And yet it’s part of our human condition that we have to pay attention to what’s in front of our nose. We can’t live with our head in the clouds. What’s required is a balance between dealing with the nitty gritty of every day and keeping clear the point of it all.

August 6th falls roughly in the middle of what we call the 34 Ordinary Sundays of the Church’s calendar. Today would have been the 18th Sunday of the Year if it had not been the Feast of the Transfiguration. If you recall, I mentioned some weeks ago that the green colour of the vestments used during ordinary time signifies the fertility of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who helps us get through the nitty gritty of our ordinary lives and who patiently works with us to develop our spiritual lives.

But as if to remind us not to get lost in the details, the Church throws a flash of lightning into the middle of ordinary time by inviting us to look on the transfigured face of Jesus. At the time of the Transfiguration, Jesus was at a turning point in his public life. Just before the episode on the mountain, he had put the key question of the entire Gospel to his apostles: “who do people say I am?” We know how pleased He was when Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But we also know how annoyed He was when Peter wanted to stop Jesus from going to the Cross. In response, Jesus, not once, not twice but three times instructs his apostles that He must go to the Cross. If he doesn’t, the purpose of His life on earth would be lost: to destroy sin and death and so to make possible for all of us to share in His glory.

Jesus is a good psychologist. He knows the apostles are finding it tough following Him, because He is not turning out to be the political savior they were hoping for. His teaching was simple yet so demanding, mysterious yet clear as day, often beyond their ken and yet strangely attractive and even familiar to their deepest aspirations. They were looking for immediate solutions to immediate problems, and if Jesus did feed the five thousand, it was not to fill their bellies but to make them hunger for Him. If he raised Lazarus, it was not a private deed for a good friend but a sign that He Himself is the Resurrection and the Life for every person. So, the apostles must have been both delighted at his miracles and frustrated because He only performed a few.

So, what does Jesus do? Up the mountain He enters into prayer to the Father, almost like that scene from the first reading when the Son of Man enters heaven itself on a cloud and is brought into the presence of the Father. In response, the Father sends the Spirit to transfigure Him, like the fire issuing forth from the throne of the Ancient of Days also in the first reading. The figures of Moses and Elijah, who represent the Law and the Prophets, clearly give deference to Jesus. They indicate that it is He who is the fulfilment of all that was hoped for by Israel. But Jesus is not only the awaited Messiah for Israel. He is the Messiah of all the Nations. Again, as that first reading puts it: “On him was conferred sovereignty, glory and kingship, and men of all peoples, nations and languages became his servants. His sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty which shall never pass away, nor will his empire ever be destroyed.”

What Jesus was giving to the apostles was a vision, an understanding of the point of His time with them. This visual impression led to a deeper impression on the memory of their souls. St. Peter says as much in the second reading. It was not cleverly invented myths, he says, that he had brought to his hearers. He was bringing them the very word and power of the Transfigured Jesus. And interestingly, Peter encourages his hearers to hold fast to the teaching of the prophets and, we can add, of the apostles, as a light which lights the way through the darkness of our lives until Christ returns. You could say that his reception of the keys combined with his witness of the Transfiguration, and later of the death and resurrection of Jesus, to confer on Peter the authority to impart his own teaching as the light which helps us keep perspective in the midst of what can so often be the craziness of our lives.

As believers in Jesus Christ, as members of His Body the Church, as the people called ourselves to be the light of the world and salt of the earth, we need daily that flash of lightning to turn our eyes to the Transfigured Christ. But we need also to hold fast to the teaching of Christ’s apostles down the centuries since the Ascension. It is a teaching given for our salvation, to keep us on the right track morally and spiritually. It is a teaching guaranteed by Christ himself through the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Its aim is to help us live as God intended: a fully human life on this earth directed to find fulfilment in eternity. It’s sad to note that it has become commonplace even among Catholics today to consider it enlightened to disagree with the teaching of the Church, almost as a matter of principle. There’s nothing new in that, of course. But the times we live in, and the exaltation of personal freedom as the only authority we listen to, make it unpopular if not outrageous to speak of obedience to the truth. The question of Pontius Pilate to Jesus is so relevant today, “Truth? What is that?” Pope Benedict XVI, just before he was elected, decried the weakness of the human mind today which, apart from the world of science, seems no longer capable of knowing anything as definitive. Everyone has “his or her own truth”, to the point that nothing is true and everything is true at the same time. The Pope called it the “dictatorship of relativism.”

But for the true believer, these words of Christ remain trustworthy: “I am the Truth. If you believe my words, you will learn the truth. And the truth will set you free.” Truth is not in the end a formula, but a Person. Freedom in the end is not the rejection of the Truth, but loving obedience to it. The Person and Words of Jesus are preserved in their fullness in the Church’s sacraments and teaching. They shine forth for the mind and heart humble and open enough to receive them. The Transfiguration of Jesus confirms it: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to Him.” It is the Church which proclaims the words of Jesus today and for today. How grateful must we be, how proud, to be counted among Her members! The Light of Christ has not only been given to us to help us live lives worthy of Him, but through us it is given to enlighten others – even to the ends of the earth. 

So, as you allow your own minds and hearts to be enlightened by the Person and Words of the Transfigured Christ and of His Church, let that light shine forth “so that others may see your good deeds and give the praise to your Father in heaven.” Ours is the calling to be an ongoing flash of lightning for our time!