Transfiguration of Our Lord
Forty days before the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 14 September, Holy Mother Church gives us to celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of Our Blessed Lord. The church of Rome, from the most remote antiquity, has honoured this mystery on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, but this feast, of a much more recent origin, is beloved to us all, because the transfiguration of our Lord is truly one of the great moments of theophany, on a par with the Epiphany and the Baptism of Our Lord. The liturgy indeed uses for this feast the same words that she does for the Epiphany, when it says that on this day Our Lord appeared to the world.
Indeed, in this mystery the Saviour wanted, for a few brief moments, to unveil the glory which He has from all eternity with the Father, but which was hidden under the mortal flesh that, for our salvation, He had deigned to assume. He took mortal, passible flesh (that is to say, flesh that can suffer and die) in order to redeem us from our sins and open the gates of eternity. But before He did that, it was His benevolent will to make known to us His majesty. The divinity shines out on this day so that, whatever trials we must endure, the passion that each us us must live, we may never forget the vision that is given, and so move forward in faith and love. The mysteries contained in the transfiguration of Our Lord are multiple. Today, two of its most important aspects will hold our attention.
The first is that this event is one of the most significant actions by which God reveals Himself to the world. Our Lord Jesus Christ reveals His glory, which as He Himself tells the apostles at the Last Supper, was received from the Eternal Father before the creation of the world (cf. Jn 17:5). He reveals to the apostles and through them to us, the divinity itself. Through the Transfiguration, God eternal speaks to the world and manifests His presence in and through Christ. Furthermore, through the bright cloud of the Holy Sprit and the voice of the Father, the Trinity of Persons is made known to us.
We need to stress this point. In a world that is always looking for some novel way to find life and happiness, it is our duty to remind the world that in and through Jesus Christ, God’s revelation to us is complete. As St John of the Cross famously wrote: God has spoken only once in His Son and in that Word all has been said. We need not, nor may we, look for anyone else. It is for this reason that in a pluralistic society, while we strive to live peacefully with all sorts of people, while we seek to initiate dialogue with atheists and members of other religions, we can never leave aside nor can we allow to be overlooked or diminished in any way, this fundamental truth, which was marvellously expressed in the Declaration Dominus Jesus which was published on this day 23 years ago, under the authority of Pope John Paul II and signed by Cardinal Ratzinger: “As a remedy for this relativistic mentality, which is becoming ever more common, it is necessary above all to reassert the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ. In fact, it must be firmly believed that, in the mystery of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, who is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6), the full revelation of divine truth is given: No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him (Mt 11:27); No one has ever seen God; God the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has revealed him (Jn 1:18); For in Christ the whole fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form (Col 2:9-10).” Quoting the Second Vatican Council, the declaration goes on: “By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines forth in Christ, who is at the same time the mediator and the fullness of all revelation… To see Jesus is to see His Father (cf. Jn 14:9). For this reason, Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through His whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and finally with the sending of the Spirit of truth, He completed and perfected revelation and confirmed it with divine testimony… The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away, and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Tim 6:14 and Tit 2:13)”.
You may recall the dialogue Pope Benedict XVI gives in the first volume of his life of Christ. He refers to a book by the Jewish scholar Rabbi Jacob Neusner, in which he imagines himself in the crowd while Jesus is delivering the Sermon on the Mount. He is touched by the beauty and the purity of what he hears, but at the same time he is troubled. After spending the day in an interior dialogue with Christ, he retires for prayer and Torah study with other Jews in order to discuss with another rabbi all that he has heard. The rabbi cites from the Babylonian Talmud: “Rabbi Simelai expounded 613 commandments given to Moses, 365 negative ones for the number of days of the year and 248 positive ones corresponding to the parts of man’s body. David came and reduce them to 11… Isaiah came and reduced them to 6… Isaiah again came and reduced them to 2… Habakkuk further came and based them on one: The Just man shall live by his faith”. Neusner continues with this dialogue between the two rabbis:
“So, is this what the sage, Jesus, had to say?”
Not exactly, but close.
What did he leave out?
Then what did He add?
Himself.” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 104-105)
The rabbi had understood perfectly: the centrality of Jesus gives everything a new direction. Perfection, the state of being holy, holy as God is holy, now consists in following Jesus. Unfortunately there are many who find themselves in this or similar categories today. They admire Jesus, but do not have the courage to accept Him as Lord. And that is precisely why the Transfiguration. In it, the Saviour leaves us no doubt about the matter: all that God reveals about Himself is there, in the Word Incarnate, and all worship of God and love of God consists in being in communion with Jesus who, both God and man, can take us humans into the very heart of the Godhead. That is what the Transfiguration is about.
The second aspect of this mystery that I suggest we reflect upon today is that God became manifest in and through the humanity of Christ, that is to say, through his soul, but also through His body, through His flesh and bones. From this perspective, it is providential that this feast falls on the beginning of the novena for the Assumption of Our Lady in which we will turn our eyes to the glorified body of Mary Immaculate. Why is this so important?
Quite simply, because God’s creation is good. The human body is good. There is nothing dirty or ugly or impure about what comes from the hands of God. Our flesh has been soiled through sin, but God wants us to be with Him in the glory of Heaven with our bodies, and our earthly pilgrimage has as its primordial task the purification of the stains that we have allowed our flesh to be contaminated with, so that, as St Paul tells the Philippians, our Lord can “reform our lowly body, made like to the body of His glory, according to the operation whereby also he is able to subdue all things unto Himself” (Ph 3:21).
This is of vital importance for our world. As it becomes more and more evident that the rejection of God leads to the rejection of man, and that the worldly and false glorification of the flesh as an idol leads to the corruption and demise of the flesh, our world must recover confidence both in God’s loving plan and in the inherent goodness of our lowly bodies, destined to be glorified with Christ and Our Lady in eternity. this is why our holy father St Benedict tells us in the prologue of the Rule that “we must, while there is still time, while we are in this body and can fulfil all these things by the light of this life, hasten to do now what may profit us for eternity”.
It is only once we have contemplated at length this marvellous mystery of God’s revelation and our exalted dignity that our perspective on life changes completely and we become capable of sharing with others the incredibly good news.
So, my dear Friends, as we sit at the Lord’s feet today and contemplate His glory, as we find ourselves saying with St Peter that it really is good for us to be here, let us ask Our Blessed Lady to help us, to renew and deepen our faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ and in the fulness of divine life that He has come to give. Let us ask also for the grace to live in a dignified manner, honouring the body God has given us, our own and that of others, destined as they are to be transfigured, that is to say, to become like the glorified humanity of our sweet Saviour, that now reigns in the glory of the Eternal Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, that very same flesh that is given us in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, our solace and joy in this land of exile, the seed of eternal glory that will one day blossom and bear fruit in the eternal kingdom that God our Father is preparing for us His beloved children. Amen.