Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. In her liturgy, the Church puts before us the mystery of the Lord’s Transfiguration twice a year. The first is on the Second Sunday of Lent and the second is on the 6th of August (we are also asked to ponder the Transfiguration when we pray the Mysteries of Light with the Rosary). The feast of the transfiguration recalls the day when Jesus went up Mount Tabor, accompanied by Peter, James and John where he was transfigured in their presence. The episode is in line with other biblical occasions where 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. Here at Tabor, we have another revelation in a place where humanity and divinity meet, where God descends and humanity ascends.
Being transfigured does not mean that Jesus became a different person. Rather it was a moment that allowed Peter, James and John to catch a deeper glimpse of who this man was. From the moment they met him, the disciples knew Jesus only as a man. But then they realized that he was a special human being with an extraordinary ability to communicate, to read hearts, to heal, to forgive and to work miracles that were never a display of power that would lead only to him being admired but were always linked to the people growing in faith. 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 not just in degree but in kind.
The image that all the Gospels use to convey the transfiguration is light. His 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 that Jesus truly was from God and was God. Light also dispels darkness and 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.
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. For C.S. Lewis: ‘We are mirrors whose brightness is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us’ (The Four Loves, p.180)
Here I also think of the Rite of Baptism where the baptismal candle is lit from the Paschal candle and handed to the parents with the words: ‘Receive the light of Christ’. It is like receiving the gift of God’s wisdom and insight that we could not have otherwise. As the light from the baptismal candle is taken from the paschal candle, so our light is taken from the light of the risen Christ. So when Jesus tells us: ‘You are the light of the world’, he commissions us to be bearers of his own light into all arenas of life where we find ourselves – into the great spheres of culture such as education, entertainment, politics, sport, family, schools and parish life. 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 began shone with the radiance of heaven so as to entrance us with the prospect of our own transfiguration in him.
In sum, today’s feast of the transfiguration is about who Jesus is as Son of Man but also as Son of God and fully divine. We begin to understand ourselves and others first as human beings but then progress to understand ourselves and others as beloved children of God who have received his divine life at baptism. Every Christian must keep those two truths before himself/herself – that Jesus Christ is both human and divine and because we have been baptized into him, we share in his divinity in a way that perfects and fulfills our humanity.
Second, it is a reminder to us of Jesus’ victory over sin, suffering and darkness. At the transfiguration, Peter, James and John saw for a moment what would be permanent after the resurrection. They caught a glimpse of heaven and what awaited them. For us too, today’s feast puts before us the final destiny of our journey and invites us to see all suffering and trials in the light of that final outcome when for the saints: ‘there will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever’ (Rev. 22:5).
Third, let us be more aware that we reflect Christ’s light to others by our presence and behaviour. After Moses came down the mountain after meeting with God, he needed to put a veil on his face because of how brightly his face shone (See Exodus 34: 29-35). So too when we pray and spend time in God’s presence, the light of Christ changes us, causing us to become more radiant with God’s grace. For St John of the Cross, God’s light is actively changing us when we encounter Him in his Word: ‘Let God’s Word print itself upon you. Let the Gospel light anoint your mind’ (Ascent to Mount Carmel, II, 3.3). For St John Chrysostom, this process of transfiguration of the Christian is like Christ at his own transfiguration, and is something that happens naturally: ‘It is easier for the sun not to give heat not to shine than for the Christian not to send forth light’ (St John Chrysostom, Homily 20, 4. On the Acts of the Apostles).
Finally, today’s feast is about our call to holiness – a call that is to all the baptised. Holiness is becoming a strange concept in a world that knows God less, invokes him less and talks about Him less frequently. If everything collapses into the horizontal and God is removed from the horizon then holiness loses its meaning. The feast of the Transfiguration takes us to the heart of what Christianity is all about. It is about becoming partakers of the divine nature through Christ and through his Body the Church. It is about becoming participants in God’s light and allowing that light to penetrate every dimension of our humanity in a way that illuminates that humanity and fills us with the joy we look forward to fully in heaven.
Glory to him whose power within us can do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine. Glory to him whose light we have received – he who humbled himself to share in our divinity so that we could share in his humanity.