Fr Billy Swan
Last year on vacation, I climbed Carrauntoohil, the highest mountain in Ireland. It was an experience that was rewarding but even more so, spiritual. Knowing that every other person in the country was below me with only God above me was a wonderful moment of awareness and prayerful intercession for all the people of our nation. The spectacular views on display while climbing gave a sense of true perspective, immensity and wonder before the beauty of God’s creation. Near the top of the mountain, the light was suddenly blocked out as we entered into thick cloud. Despite the loss of light and impaired visibility, we just kept climbing, one step at a time. Eventually the shape of a large metal cross emerged before us that marked our arrival at the summit. There, I prayed the fourth Luminous Mystery of the Rosary, the Transfiguration, the feast the Church celebrates this week.
In Scripture, God reveals himself on mountain tops. In the Old Testament, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and in the New Testament, Jesus gives us the beatitudes after ‘going up a hill’ (Matt. 5:1). Jesus died on the hill of Calvary where the fullest revelation of his saving love took place. With the transfiguration on Mount Tabor, we have the revelation of Jesus’ divinity that shone through him as a blinding light for Peter, James and John to behold (Matt 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-10; Luke 9:28-36).
The image that the Gospels use to convey the transfiguration is light. Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. This is appropriate for light allows us to see what is already there. Jesus was always divine, but people could not always see his divinity. On the top of Mount Tabor, it became clear to Peter, James and John who Jesus truly was – God from God and light from light as the Creed tells us. This light shone out from his humanity and concrete existence. God’s light shone through him and not apart from him. This point is crucial as we understand our lives in Christ. God’s grace and light shine through our humanity and make it radiant. As Romano Guardini explains: ‘What is revealed here is not only the glory of pure, angelic spirit but of the spirit through the body, glory of the spiritualized body of humanity’ (The Lord).
Being transfigured does not mean that Jesus became a different person. Rather it was a moment that allowed the disciples to catch a deeper glimpse of who this man was. On Mount Tabor, Peter, James and John were privileged to have confirmed what they intuited - to see and experience how Jesus was not just human but also divine – not just like other human beings but different from others in kind and not just degree.
This radiant light from Christ has the peculiar quality of attracting those who behold it and absorbing the beholder into its brightness. We think here of Moses who ‘as he came down from the mountain, did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God’ (Ex 34:29-35). Exposure to God’s light communicates some of that light to us.
In the early Church, St Basil declared that the Holy Spirit shines on believers and ‘illuminates them like the sun’ (On the Holy Spirit, 26, 61). For St Irenaeus, the light of Christ that shines on us, both penetrates us and enfolds us: ‘The light of the Father passes into the flesh of Christ; and from Christ it shines forth upon us, so that each of us is enfolded’ (Against the heresies, 4, 20, 2). He goes further to say that as we behold God’s light, we come to partake in it: ‘Just as those who see the light are within the light and participate in its splendor, so those who see God are within God and participate in his splendor’ (Against the heresies, 4, 20, 5).
The implications of this are immense. It means that when we encounter God in prayer and participate in the liturgy, we are absorbed into his light and become luminous with it. Like Moses, this illumination happens whether we are aware of it or not. St John Chrysostom was convinced that ‘it is easier for the sun not to give heat and not to shine than for the Christian not to send forth light’ (Homily 20, 4. On the Acts of the Apostles).
Like created light it allows us to see all there is to see. With the light of Christ, we see into the heart of reality in all its dimensions, the physical and metaphysical. In fact, St John used the image of light for God himself when he wrote that ‘God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5). It is by his light that we understand and see everything else.
At our baptism, our parents received our baptismal candle that was lit from the Paschal candle. This gesture symbolized the truth described by C.S. Lewis, that ‘we are mirrors whose brightness is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us’ (The Four Loves). In the words of the baptism liturgy, we have been enlightened by Christ.
St Catherine of Siena understood this. She once wrote: ‘For by the light of understanding within your light I have tasted and seen your depth, eternal Trinity, and the beauty of your creation’ (Dialogue 167). Here Catherine is teaching us that once we stay close to the source of light who is Christ, we will be given a share in his understanding, wisdom and enabled to see how all the elements of God’s universe find their place. As the moon reflects nothing of its own light but only that of the sun, so we reflect the light of Christ to the world by turning towards him.
Therefore, when Jesus calls us to be ‘the light of the world’ (Matt. 5:14-16) it is his light that we are called to radiate and not our own. He commissions us to be bearers of his own light into the arenas where we find ourselves – into the great spheres of culture such as education, entertainment, politics, sport, the internet, family, school, university and parish life to name but a few. In these places we are called to carry Christ’s light so that others might be attracted to that light too. With the encouraging words of St Paul, we are to ‘walk as children of light’ (Eph. 5:8).
This is what it means to be holy. Holiness is to take on the nature of Christ and to become luminous with his grace. That is why many representations of the saints in sacred art display them with a halo, or an arc of light, around their heads and bodies. At the transfiguration, Jesus’ radiance with the light of heaven entices us and excites us with the prospect of our own transfiguration in him.
There is, however, another feature of this divine light that I was reminded of as I reached the summit of the mountain. The experience of the disciples was that of light but lurking around the edges of the story is darkness and suffering. There is a parallel between the luminous glory of Tabor and the terrible darkness of Calvary that was to follow. Yet for John in his Gospel, God’s glory shone out from this terrible darkness with the greatest love that the world has ever known. Being enlightened by Christ does not mean that we are spared from times of darkness and suffering. Like walking in the thick cloud near the summit of the mountain, there are times when all we can do is put one foot in front of another, keep trusting and keep walking.
Furthermore, participating in Christ’s light is not about a constant search for consoling luminous experiences. There are moments of darkness that we all need to contend with. Experiencing God is not about leaving darkness behind so as to obtain light but allowing God’s presence in the dark to purify our egos and be pruned of possessive desire. In this way we seek, not the consolations of God but God himself. Divine light is disconcerting, but it humbles our pride and frees us from possessive desire in a way that changes us to become more radiant images of Christ himself. In the words of St Peter as he interpreted his experience on Mount Tabor: ‘You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and morning star rises in your hearts’ (2 Peter 1:19).
On the feast of the Transfiguration, we join in praise of the God who is light and who allowed that light to shine from the humanity of Christ on Mount Tabor. We give thanks for the gift of that light that we have received at baptism and that we joyfully bear to all. As we navigate experiences of darkness and suffering, may we come to believe that God still loves us in the night as his grace purifies us, changes us and unites us more deeply to himself.