Saturday, March 11, 2017

This Sunday’s Gospel passage is Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, the vision in which Jesus appears in his double nature as a human and the Son of God. The passage is worth quoting in its entirety:

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
"Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
"This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him."
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
"Rise, and do not be afraid."
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
(Mt 17:1-8)

Since, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, this vision follows immediately after a prediction of Jesus’ passion and death, one obvious purpose of the vision is to give the three apostles a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, in order to strengthen their faith in advance of Christ’s suffering and death.

But I came across an additional insight this morning from the theologian John Macquarrie, which I’ll summarize here. The story of the transfiguration seems to express the transition that must have taken place in the disciples, from acquaintance with the human Jesus, to faith in that same Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.

The Transfiguration story begins with the human Jesus who is going to suffer and die; the presence of Moses and Elijah shows Jesus’ continuity with the prophets, human beings who often suffered for delivering God’s message. Suddenly, “Jesus was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” And the divine presence comes in an overshadowing cloud, from which a heavenly voice is heard: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."  

This event may be a distant echo of the experience of the disciples as they came to understand that Jesus was divine. On the one hand he was a weak, suffering human figure, yet in this completely human and suffering figure, God revealed himself and drew near to the disciples.

In the story of the Transfiguration, this realization of Jesus' divine nature seems to come all at once -- notice that the three disciples "fell prostrate and were much afraid" because they knew that no one can see the face of God and live to tell of it. In our own journey to faith, however, the realization comes over time -- maybe over an entire lifetime.

In the transfiguration, “What we see in Christ is the destiny that God has set before humanity; Christ is the first fruits, but the Christian hope is that ‘in Christ’ God will bring all men to God-manhood.” (Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, p. 279, 1966).

From this point of view, the glimpse of Christ’s divinity is intended not only to prepare the disciples for Jesus’ passion and death, but to give them a glimpse of the glory to which God intends to bring every human being one day. It is as if the Lord is saying to us “This is what all of you will look like one day.” (I just re-read a previous post on the Transfiguration from just over a year ago, and found that I offered this perspective there as well, possibly from a different author.)

This divinization of us humans is our story, our destiny. St. Basil once wrote: "A human being is a creature whose whole purpose is to become God." But, clearly, this divinization is God’s gift, God’s work in each of us. During this Lenten season, then, we might try to be more aware of how God-the-Divinizer is already at work in each of us, and we can try to cooperate with that work by our efforts: by opening our hearts through prayer, for example, or by quieting unruly passions through fasting and self denial, or by imitating God's unconditional love for us by performing works of charity.

During this coming week I will try to look at two particular students of mine as people who destined to be transfigured one day into Christ -- and keep in mind that I'm destined to be transformed with them.

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