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Learning to See – A Homily for the Feast of the Transfiguration

August 5, 2017

The Transfiguration, Raphael (1520)

The Feast of the Transfiguration is ultimately about vision. The Lord brought Peter, James, and John up a high mountain in order that they might come to see. Even the word that describes this day bespeaks vision. It is from the Latin transfiguratione. Trans means “across,” and by extension, “change.” Figura means “shape” or “form.” The suffix -ation creates a noun from the underlying verb. Putting it all together, transfiguration was the process by which Christ changed form or appearance. He gave them a glimpse of His true glory. He allowed them to see across (trans) to the other shore, to the true glory of Christ.

So the Feast of the Transfiguration is about vision. Have you seen the glory of Christ? Have you glimpsed God’s glory? Have you looked across to the other shore? It is essential for us to have this experience, otherwise the discouragements and disappointments of life can easily overwhelm us. Only when we glimpse the glory and experience the joy of God can we truly say that our sufferings are more than worth it, that the sufferings of this world cannot be compared to the glory that awaits (Rom 8:18), that our momentary afflictions are producing for us a weight of eternal glory beyond compare (2 Cor 4:17). Have you glimpsed the glory of God? Is this something you even expect to experience? We ought to ask for this wondrous gift because it is essential for us.

Now of course heavenly visions are not something we order as we would a pizza. Although we can and must ask God for this vision, we must also understand that there are things God does to give us this vision, to make this vision grow and sharpen. Notice in the Gospel for today’s Mass that there are four basic ways in which God ushers in this vision, clarifies it, grants it, and helps it to grow:

The CLIMB Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up a mountain to pray. The other Gospels describe this as a “high” mountain.

Tradition designates Mt. Tabor as the place of the Transfiguration. This is no small hill; it is quite a climb to the top! After the long drive to the top in a bus with a special transmission designed for the climb, the view of the Jezreel Valley is like what you would see from an airplane. It probably took the four of them a day—maybe two—to get to the top on foot. They must have been hardy men to make such a climb; they probably had to carry water and other provisions up with them as well.

The point is that the vision they experience comes only after a difficult climb. In our own life, suffering and difficulties usually bring about new vision, open new vistas, and bring deeper understanding. Suffering is not something we enjoy, to be sure, but it is part of the climb.

There is an old gospel song that says, “I’m coming up on the rough side of the mountain!” The paradox announced by the song is that it is easier to climb on the rough side of the mountain; that’s where progress is possible. The smooth side provides little footing and is more dangerous. Although we like a smooth and pleasant life, it actually makes for a more dangerous climb. At the top there is a vision to be had, but to get us there the Lord often makes us climb up the rough side of the mountain. This is what it often takes to give us vision.

The CLARIFICATIONWhile he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.

I have chosen the word “clarification” to do double duty here. On the one hand it refers to brilliant glory shining forth from Christ; the Latin clarus means “bright” and hence clarification refers to Jesus’ shining splendor. I also use the word in the more common sense of making things clear.

Notice that Moses and Elijah are present and conversing with the Lord. While they are historical persons, they also represent the Law and the Prophets. In other words, they represent Scripture.

Part of what the Lord needs to do for us in order to give us heavenly vision is to teach us His Word. As we grow in knowledge of Scripture, our vision grows, our understanding deepens, and we see things differently. Immersion in the Scriptures disposes us for heavenly vision. Notice also how Moses and Elijah (personifying Scripture) give the vision for what Christ is about to do in His final journey to Jerusalem. The vision is of a new Exodus. Just as Moses led the ancient people out of slavery in Egypt by the Blood of the Lamb at Passover and the parted waters (baptism) of the Red Sea, so now Jesus would lead His people out (an exodus) from slavery and sin by the blood of the Lamb (Jesus is the Lamb of God) and the baptismal waters flowing from His parted and pierced side.

Do you see what Scripture does? It gives us vision. It sheds light on the meaning of our life. Scripture is our story. It shows again and again that God can make a way out of no way, that He can do anything but fail. Do you want to see the heavens open and the glory of God be revealed? Then immerse yourself in Scripture. Through Scripture, God clarifies all things.

The CONTEMPLATIONPeter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying.

Now comes the vision! Throughout the difficult climb and suffering, and through immersion in His word, God often grants us this vision. When we see His glory we become fully awake. So great is this glory that Peter, James, and John do not know what to say! Those who have every really experienced a glimpse of God’s glory know that it cannot be reduced to words. It is ineffable, unsayable, unspeakable! There is an old saying: “Those who know, do not say. Those who say, do not know.” Peter is babbling at this point and suggests building booths or tents to capture this glory. He probably had in mind the Feast of Booths, wherein the Jewish people remembered the great Exodus, the time in the desert, and the giving of the Law. It was one of the great festivals of the year. Hence Peter’s suggestion is a way of saying, “Let’s celebrate this! Let’s extend the time in a week-long feast!” But Peter needs to understand that this is but a brief glimpse. There are still troubles ahead and another mountain to climb (Golgotha). For now, though the vision is wonderful.

So, too, for us who are privileged to get a glimpse of glory. It does not mean that we are fully in Heaven yet. For, us, too there are other mountains to climb and valleys to cross. But oh, the glimpse of glory; do not forget it! Let it sustain you in difficult times as it must have sustained Jesus in His passion.

The COMMANDWhile [Peter] was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

Now comes the great glory cloud (the shekinah) that overshadows them. This vision has been wonderful, but God has more than bright lights to show them. The vision He confers gives direction as well as light. His direction is clear: Listen to my Son. Not only does this instruction complete the vision but it also ensures greater vision in the future.

If we obey Jesus Christ, we will see greater and greater things (Jn 1:50). If we follow Him, He will lead us to the light and we will see all things by it. Note this, though: where Jesus leads is not always easy. In order to obey the Father’s command that they listen to Jesus, they are going to have to accept Christ’s instruction that they follow Him to Jerusalem and the cross. Only in this way will they see all things by the light of Easter glory.

Do you want to see? Then be willing to make the climb with Jesus. He gives us vision if we climb. He gives us vision if we are immersed in His Word, which is Scripture and Church teaching. If we but take up our cross and follow Him through His passion, death, and resurrection, His greatest vision lies ahead for us. Happy Feast of the Transfiguration! May God grant us vision.

Comments (5)

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  1. Mike Mulcahy says:

    Msgr. Pope,
    Thank you for the many fabulous commentary on the Transfiguration. As a lifelong Catholic I still missed most of the beautiful insights you have provided. The music/video is a perfect complement to the article.

  2. Todd says:

    Mountain climbing documentaries can offer some interesting lessons. So what mountain do we so often hear about in our day? Mt. Everest. The highest altitudes are called the “death zone.” These heights are dangerous to men as without the assistance of carried oxygen bottles, men begin to literally die. There is a medical term for this but without oxygen we just cannot survive at those heights. Due to a lack of oxygen not a few men have become confused and just sat down and died on that mountain. So long as they have oxygen and do not run out of it – they’re fine. They can summit and still make it home. They say most of the deaths occur on the descent. Perhaps I should say that again, most of the deaths occur on the descent.

    Thankfully, on God’s Holy Mountain the summit – is – Home. Heaven. So we can continue climbing without ever descending – through, with, and in Jesus, a share in His Divine Life (sanctifying grace).

    I believe the more you or I grow in holiness the more urgent of a target we become for principalities and powers – fallen angels and the devil. Any competitive strategist is going to focus on taking out the leadership or top performers. Pray for Priests!

    I also believe that without oxygen – The Holy Spirit – Ruach Hako’desh – “the Breath of God,” we won’t make it. Without the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit (see Theological Virtue of Hope #1817), we will not survive the equivalent death zone, as it were, of the Spiritual Life. We must not rely on our own strength, but trusting in the promises of Christ, rely on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure if this is a good comparison but I can’t help but think of the dark night of the soul – a trial to show you what is in your heart. The only authentic “descent,” I can “see,” in the Spiritual Life is the requisite “dying,” and rising that occur. The picking up of our Cross daily and following Him requiring a “dying,” a “death,” a “decreasing” of us, and our illicit desires, and a rising a “increase,” of Him – Jesus.

    Otherwise we’ll become confused, lethargic, and just sit down. Keep climbing my brothers!

    • RAY - PORTSMOUTH - UK says:

      Thank you, Todd, for a truly spiritually uplifting and rounding-up ‘Coda’ to Msgr Charles’ great ‘Main Theme’!
      I loved the video choral music also and, as a musician, I would round my little reply up with a ‘coda’ of my own – a well-known comment attributed to the great conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, when he said to the orchestra he was rehearsing, “Although it would be nice to be together all the way – I’m not really too much concerned about where you all are in the middle, just so long as we all ‘end up’ together in the same place!”
      To use your words, Todd, “Keep climbing brothers!” Let’s all pray that we will all finish together on the same summit!
      God bless Todd – and all . . . .

  3. Peter Wolczuk says:

    “they probably had to carry water and other provisions up with them as well.” Probably seems to be an excellent choice of word(s) here because Christ could surely have miraculously acquired water for them, if he chose. However, that may not have been the case because it would likely reducing the amount of subjectivity in the experience … which brings me to,
    “The point is that the vision they experience comes only after a difficult climb. In our own life, suffering and difficulties usually bring about new vision, open new vistas, and bring deeper understanding. Suffering is not something we enjoy, to be sure, but it is part of the climb.” The tough part adds subjectivity – as in – if I were to read a book on how to drive a tractor trailer type truck, that was written be several of the world’s best tractor trailer drivers and edited by a master of the art of writing text books, I would objectively know a whole lot about the skill’s involved but; when I sat in the driver’s seat, started the engine, put it in gear and let the truck out … the subjective would be just beginning.
    Concluding with an interesting, and seemingly related, Old Testament reference, “Exodus 34:29-35.

  4. alle says:

    And we continue to celebrate the Transfiguration, in the Eucharist of
    every Holy Mass… Deo gratias!