Jesus had just told his apostles that he would be going to Jerusalem to be killed and to rise again on the third day. The Gospel tells us that they were saddened at his words about death and did not understand his words about rising again. Jesus knew it and, as a great act of loving reassurance, he performs the miracle of the Transfiguration. Peter, James and John are with him, the same three that would witness later his agony in the garden. Jesus wants them above all to understand that his death would not be the end. The Transfiguration is a foretaste of the glory of the resurrection, indeed of the glory of the Beatific Vision. That’s why Peter wants to stay on Mount Tabor with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. It is too wonderful to leave.
The Church in her love for us gives us the Gospel of the Transfiguration near the start of our Lenten journey. Maybe we find the path of penance difficult, causing us sadness or a lowness of spirit, just as the apostles were saddened at Jesus’ prediction of his death. Well, we, too, are invited in faith to look upon the Transfiguration to give us courage and hope to keep going. The path of penance will come to an end, but the end will be glorious. In fact, the truer we remain to our Lenten observance, the greater will our experience of the joy of the resurrection be.
But the Transfiguration teaches us many other lessons besides, and here are a few of them.
Firstly, it renders the divinity of Jesus transparent in his humanity. Jesus looked like any other man during his public ministry. The apostles certainly witnessed his divine power in his miracles, but they had to walk by faith when it came to the personal divinity of Jesus. To see that divinity now made manifest in his body confirmed and strengthened their faith. The fact that the voice of the Father said explicitly that Jesus was his Son, therefore divine; the fact, too, that the Spirit is present through the symbolism of the cloud; and the fact that Moses and Elijah appear in conversation with Jesus: these all reinforce for the three apostles that Jesus is, as Peter had confessed, the Christ, the Son of the living God.
The Transfiguration is also a promise, not just of the resurrection of Jesus, but of the future glory and transfiguration of all who believe in him. It is a foretaste of how we will be in heaven. St. Paul tells us in the second reading that in the future, the Lord Jesus will come and transfigure our wretched bodies into copies of his glorious body. Christ is the head of his body the Church. In the Transfiguration, whilst it is the individual body of Jesus which is glorified, it also points to the glorification of his entire Mystical Body, the Church. We have, then, in the Transfiguration another motive for hope: the hope that our bodies will not decay for ever, but that they will be transfigured like that of Jesus, risen from the dead.
Another thing we can learn from the Transfiguration is that the divine power Jesus exercises in this instance is the same that can and will be exercised to transform the entire universe at the end of time. St. Paul tells us that Christ’s power subdues the whole universe. He created it by his word. Its order and beauty, its splendour and majesty are the work of his will. He does not use his power in an arbitrary way, but in a creative and recreative way. He uses his power to give life, to heal, to restore, to fulfil and to glorify. The hallmark of divine power is not so much its majesty but its attention to detail. Its strength is not so much in its force as in its tenderness. The Transfiguration of Jesus is not given to make us feel so far away from it but to reassure us that our very flesh, down to the last hair and nail, will share in the glory of God.
One hugely important way in which Christ exercises his power is through prayer. The Gospel tells us that Jesus went up the mountain to pray and that, as he prayed, he was transfigured. We often speak of the power of prayer. Well, here is what that means. Prayer transfigures the soul and, in the end, the body, too. Prayer is not so much about thinking or talking a lot. Prayer is letting the Spirit of God into our hearts and souls so that we can cry, Abba, Father. Prayer is in other words the living power of God alive and active in us. Prayer is taking time to become aware in silence or in voice that the Spirit of the Son is in me and is uniting himself to my own spirit so that I am able to turn to the Father and address him as one of his beloved children. You could say that prayer is what transfigures the universe, transfigures souls. When we pray, we allow the infinite power of God to dwell and reign within us and to direct us to ask for those things which will allow God to become more transparent in our lives and in our world.
But whenever we talk of the Body of the Lord, we cannot fail to speak of the Holy Eucharist. We often say, and rightly, that the Mass is the greatest of all prayers. In the Mass, the Lord associates us with his offering of himself in the love of the Spirit to the Father for the salvation of the world. It is because of this prayer, which gains its force from the death and resurrection of the Lord, that Christ rose from the dead and now, as a man, exercises the power of God over all flesh and over the universe. At Mass, through the rites and prayers and readings, we are caught up into Christ the King of the universe. This is no more so than at the moment when we receive Holy Communion. For as the host is made up of an earthly element, the bread, and a heavenly element, the risen body of the Lord, so the bodies of those who receive the Eucharist worthily are no longer only earthly but also heavenly. The Eucharist is the secret weapon by means of which Christ transfigures the world, in and with and through us.
All of these sublime truths which the Transfiguration contains and communicates do not mean for a second that we become distracted away from our daily duties and commitments. They are not the opium of the people, as Marx would have had it. On the contrary, precisely because these truths call us to a higher and more glorious existence we must work in the strength they give us to improve and build up our families and society to make them ready for Christ’s return.
And it’s precisely this that we commit ourselves to doing all the more earnestly during Lent. Our daily Lenten practices help us root in the here and now the eternal values and realities which Jesus suffered and died and rose again to make possible for us to own. The Transfiguration of Jesus demands that we work at transfiguring our world and, of course, ourselves by his power – yes, his power, not ours. The day will come quickly enough, as it did for Peter, James and John, when it will be our time to gaze on the glory of Jesus and when we can take up residence in the mansions which his love and joy have prepared for us. Until that day comes, let us work and pray, live and love, suffer and rejoice in the power of our Transfigured Lord.