Transfiguration (February 14, 2021)
Holy Wisdom Monastery, Madison, WI
Paul says in today’s reading from II Corinthians that the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing, because the God of this world blinds them to it. I understand Paul’s phrase “God of this world” as a metaphor for the force or forces that block our awareness of the Transcendent and confine our vision to what we might call the transactional world. I think this force is as real and as powerful today as it was when Paul wrote his letter and that this metaphor is a good name for it, so I will use this phrase throughout my homily. However, the homily is based primarily on the Gospel, which is the story of a mystical experience that unveiled the gospel and revealed the power of God’s love.
The Transfiguration story is very similar to the story of the earlier mystical experience of the disciples at Jesus’ baptism. As in the baptismal story, special signs point to Jesus’ unique identity and the voice of God says, ”This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” But in today’s story, there’s one difference. God adds three words. Listen to him!
If we look at this story in its context, we see that these words are very important. In the scene immediately preceding today’s gospel, the disciples and Jesus are on the way to Jerusalem. As they walk along, Jesus tells them that when they get there, he will undergo great suffering, be rejected by the authorities, and be executed by the state. Peter, speaking for all the disciples, took Jesus aside and rebuked him. Jesus responded “Get behind me Satan. You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In this scene, the gospel is veiled to the disciples. Blinded by the God of this world, they were among the perishing. When Jesus tried to tell them that God’s redemptive love could only save the world through suffering, they could not hear him, because they had been deluded into believing that Jesus would seize worldly power and share it with them. That’s why they were always arguing about which one of them was the greatest, which one most deserved to sit at Jesus’ right or left hand. Now they hear God’s own voice commanding them “Listen to him!”
The disciples thought they understood who Jesus was, but suffering and death didn’t fit in their understanding. They wanted glory without suffering. In his version of this story, Matthew tells us that before God spoke, Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his coming suffering and death in Jerusalem. So, even on the mountain top, the disciples had to face the fact that suffering and death are and unavoidable part of Jesus mission to liberate human consciousness from the power of this world’s God.
But the Transfiguration not only underscores Jesus’ words about his coming suffering and death It also gives the disciples a glimpse of Jesus on the other side of death, a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus; and in that resurrected and transfigured Jesus the disciples catch a glimpse of what, in the end, is the destiny of all creation. The Transfiguration is not a once-and-for-all event that happened to Jesus 2000 years ago on a mountain top Galilee. It is a continuing process going on in us and in the world around us. The entire world is being transfigured and when creation is finished, the whole of reality will reflect the glory we see in the transfigured Jesus.
After their mystical experience, Jesus leads the disciples down the mountain and calls them to be a part of this process of transfiguration—to aid and abet it. As history show us, the vision of Jesus transfigured that they saw on the mountain top awakened in them the faith, hope and love they needed to do that, even after Jesus’ death and even when they face their own suffering and death.
Mystical experiences like the one described in today’s Gospel are important in the lives of all Jesus’ followers. They give us glimpses of God’s transfiguring love at work in the world. These glimpses renew our faith and hope that in the end the transfiguring power of God’s love will prevail. Those who serve the god of this world steadfastly seek to blind us to that power through deceptions and delusions and unless our faith is constantly renewed, we will not be able to resist their efforts and be the transfiguring presences in the world Jesus asks us to be.
No doubt the mystical experiences most of us have will be much more ordinary that the one described in today’s gospel. In fact, it’s probably misleading to call our experiences mystical. For most of us it would probably be more accurate to refer to them as “moments of grace.” Nevertheless, such moments give us glimpses of the beauty hidden in the world, others and ourselves and enable us to see things not just as they are but as they might be, could be, will be. Perhaps in these moments we also see glimpses of how we might help bring about such things. These moments of grace comfort and console us. But they also challenge and motivate us to do what we can to move the world toward that transfigured reality we glimpse in today’s gospel and in our own moments of grace. These moments of grace challenge us to do what we can to make possibility reality. We can do this by faith, but it must be active faith because as James says, “faith without works is dead.” True faith bears fruit in acts of love that transfigure the world by turning possibilities into realities.
It’s said that Michelangelo Buonarrote could see in a block of marble the form of David or Moses, and I believe this is true because Michelangelo was a mystic and a poet. But it took a lot of effort, a lot of suffering and dedication and determination and sacrifice to free that form from the stone which veiled it. Michelangelo saw what could be and brought it to birth. We are all beneficiaries of his unveilings of Truth and Beauty and Love. Another artist, the English priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, also unveils God’s love and its transfiguring power in his poem God’s Grandeur.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell; the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs-
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
We begin our Lenten journey next Sunday. For the next 6 weeks we will be walking the via dolorosa with Jesus. We will experience the smudge and smell of suffering and death with which the God of this world and that God’s worshippers seek to blunt and veil the power of God’s love to transfigure reality. As we make this pilgrimage with Jesus to the cross, may we remember that we are also walking toward Easter and a transfigured world and may our faith in the power of God’s love give us the hope and strength we need to be ourselves transfiguring presences in the world.