M OSES AND ELIAS, WHO WERE SEEN IN GLORY, SPOKE WITH JESUS ABOUT THE EXODUS HE WAS TO ACCOMPLISH IN JERUSALEM. The Transfiguration of Jesus is, like all of his mysteries, a source of never-ending instruction as well as of wonder. It presents to us numerous facets that reflect one or other aspect of his person and the message he reveals to us. The fact that it is offered to our meditation by the Liturgy on the Second Sunday of Lent would seem to lend emphasis to the words of St. Luke's account cited above, in that, like Lent itself, they prepare us for the Passion and Death of Jesus.
The consideration that emerges most strikingly as I gave thought to these words is how the very meaning of death is radically changed as Jesus' hidden glory is suddenly revealed for the first time in all its splendor. Obviously, the chief lesson of the Transfiguration is given by the words of the Father proclaiming the Lord as his beloved Son to whom we are to listen. Jesus is Son of God and so is equal to God; in him the glory of the Father is modulated so as to be in some mys terious manner visible for a brief moment to the eyes of men. This revealed truth changes for those who believe it the meaning of life. We are to listen to this Son of God during this life so as to become pleasing to the Father by sharing in his glory. Our life also is to be a transformation, though one that transpires within, not a visible manifestation of God's work in us. At any rate, not a direct vision of that dimension of our being. Accompanying this inner reformation of our heart and soul there is inevitably also a radical change in our behavior; we put off the way of the old man and take on the virtuous ways of the new. We shall return to this feature of the Transfiguration later.
After all, St. Luke recounts first the appearance of Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus about his coming Exodus before the heavenly voice of God the Father is heard after these two pro phetic figures have disappeared from the scene. He adds this detail to the earlier accounts of Mark and Matthew so that we are justified in viewing it as having a particular significance for him. Certainly the subject of their conversation with the Lord had immense significance for Jesus himself. Was this the occasion when he learned of his coming suffering and death as de creed definitively by his Father? There is reason to think so. That would explain too why in the Gospel of Matthew as the Lord descended he mountain after the vision he told them "Do not tell this vision to anyone until the Son of man rises from the dead." (Matthew 17: 9) Mark makes the same point: as Jesus descends he warns his three companions not to speak of this matter until after his resurrection. Jesus does not want his death to be a stumbling block for others as it could well be were they to learn of it in advance prior to the announcing of his resurrection from the dead.
As things turned out, his death proved to be temporarily more than even his chosen apostles, with the single exception of John, could face up to prior to the time he returned to them in his risen state. His concern to keep this revelation of his impending death secret was not based on any vain fear; he knew how great a shock it would be for people to sustain. He felt it in himself, no doubt, at the time. The Transfiguration was a strengthening grace not only for his three inti mate friends and apostles, but for himself as well. He was reassured and his trust in the Father rendered even firmer by what he saw, heard and felt in this opening of the heavens. At the same time, he was also subjected to a confrontation with his coming trial and the temptations accompanying it. Earlier in all probability he had intimations of what was to come upon him at the end. Now, however, what was vague and relatively distant suddenly appears as immanent and bodied out in concrete detail in the course of a conversation with two of the greatest prophets of the chosen people, where the topic was the Exodus that Jesus was to accomplish in Jerusalem.
This word Exodus> means literally exit, the out road or path. There are very specific words in Greek for suffering and death, as Luke knew very well. He did not hesitate to use them elsewhere in his Gospel. If he uses the word Exodus here surely it is in order to evoke the historical Exodus which was viewed primarily as one of the greatest of God's marvelous acts. Moses was its instrument, but the initiative and effective agent was God himself, as is made clear in the Psalms and in the account recorded in the Book that goes by that name. His destiny as decreed by the Father takes on an immediacy at this time when he is also given an assurance of his Father's love and confidence in him. He is now in a position to assume it more deliberately, knowing more of the details and also understanding more fully the meaning of his Passion and Death, not only for him self but for his people, the people chosen by God as His own. These things, St. Luke informs us, were the subject of Jesus' conversations with Moses and Elijah.
It would seem that one of the points that took on fuller significance in Jesus' mind was that his suffering and death represented the fulfillment of the promises given through Moses at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. What he was to suffer was for the sake of the people of God, establishing them in security in the promised land after freeing them from the slavery of sin. His imprisonment was to be our liberation; his resurrection our title to enter into God's rest in glory. That would seem to be the way that Luke envisaged matters and explains why he refers to the death of Jesus by the term Exodus, instead of death. This implies then that his departure from this world is not primarily the work of his enemies, the religious and civil authorities who had him crucified. They are but instruments in the plan of the almighty and all-wise Father. The Exodus effected by Jesus is God's plan of redemption and that is the mystery that at Tabor was revealed to him in the course of his conversation with Moses and Elijah, men who spoke for God fearlessly and with pure hearts.
This consideration adds a new depth of meaning to the declaration that came immediately after the vision and the conversation of the great prophets with the glorified Savior. When the Father ac knowledges Jesus as the beloved Son to be listened to, this declaration is a response to Jesus' ac ceptance of the Father's plan as now revealed to him. Not that there was doubt about his total obedience before. However, in his humanity the events and decisions of our Lord were acts that he had to decide upon and agree to. They were freely made and carried out, and so they were meritorious. As he yielded himself in time and place to the manifestations of the Father's will and plan he sanctified his life and his humanity and gained merit as man in his own name and on be half of all who were to accept him. The voice from heaven on this occasion is an acknowledgment of this meritorious acceptance by Jesus of the greatest and most demanding act of his life, his pas sion and death.
The implications of this mysterious Transfiguration, then, include not only the promise of a future glorification for Jesus following his death, but also a change for us who believe in him in the meaning of our death as well as of our life. Death is not so much an end as a new beginning; it is the setting out from a place of unfreedom to the land of promise where "God will be all in all ", as St. Paul in his 1st Epistle to the Corinthians (15: 28) puts it. If death is an Exodus for Jesus, it becomes an Exodus also for those who follow him by faith and lives conformed to his teaching.
This is certainly the view that Jesus himself took of death. It is also the way he taught his disciples to consider it. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear Him who has power to destroy the body and soul in Gehenna.
Jesus' resurrection was to give a radically new meaning to death. His teaching confirmed the conviction, held by such Jewish believers as the mother of the seven Maccabe martyrs, that death is not the end but a passage into a world belonging to God. Our Lord's emphasis and consistent insistence on this belief gave it a higher authority. But it was only his resurrection that effected the actual transformation of death as the entrance into the Kingdom of the Father, where his glory is the light of all its citizens. The Transfiguration is a preview of this new state of affairs; the actual inauguration will take place at Easter morning when Christ rises from among the dead to enter into his glory. At that time our death too assumed a new significance which we are free to accept and to adopt as our own Exodus that brings us to our promised land.
There is a major condition for such a transposition of the significance of death. If it is no longer to mark the final end of our personal existence but rather the beginning of the state of perfect free dom and glory then we must partake by faith and good works in the passion and death of Jesus and hold firm to our hope in him through all vicissitudes. There is a vivid expression in the Epistle to the Hebrews (3: 14) that states this truth by way of summarizing the whole of our hope. We have become partakers of Christ, according to the Greek version. The Syriac text has a more vivid way of expressing the word for partakers. It reads literally: we are mixed or blended with Christ (ethchalatan), suggesting a more involved, more personal and intimate union with him than the Greek. The text goes on to add that we must continue with the same firm adhering to him until the end that we had in the beginning of our conversion. Thus it is highly appropriate at this second Sunday of Lent when we still have before us an extended period of following our Lord to his passion and death and are tempted at times to grow weary and to relax our efforts.
The whole of our life is markedly influenced by the way we envisage death. Ben Sirach realized how important it is that we not put it out of mind, lest we be taken unawares and unprepared. Remember that death does not tarry, he admonishes us. (14: 12) St. Benedict took this advice to heart and wants his disciples to do the same. He recommends that monks are To keep death daily before their eyes. (Ch. IV. 47) Interestingly, the saying just preceding this one refers to eternal life: To desire eternal life with all spiritual longing. The fact that we are aware that we shall leave behind all that is of this world helps us to evaluate our activities and relationships in keeping with their transient role for our development. Detachment from possessions while using the things of creation as helps to attaining to an ever fuller knowledge of God and attachment to Him is a constant challenge to us, to the very day of death. Remembering our mortality assists us to find the determination we need to follow through with such an arduous undertaking. What we choose to engage our energies and interests in is determined in good part by this consciousness that our days are limited and that in the end we shall have to account for the manner we employ them. It is an important aspect of discernment and prudence, in fact, to recognize what should be focused on and what eliminated.
The monastic perspective has always kept its attention on the end of all things of this creation in their present form and on the second coming of the Lord in judgment. At that time he will appear, as he does in the Transfiguration, in glory. But then he shall not be left alone as he was when Moses and Elias departed and the voice came from the cloud. Luke tells us that after the voice came only Jesus was there. At the end he will be accompanied by countless angels and the multitude of the elect. This eschatological event is what stands behind the memory of death and is to be maintained before they eyes of the spirit according to the best monastic traditions. I was struck recently in reading Merton by a passage in which he states that if he had to choose between con templation and dedication to the eschatological realities, he would choose these last things every time. That is soundly Catholic and monastic thinking about priorities. But, of course, the graces of contemplation are strong supports for the hope that at the end we shall find ourselves called be Christ to enter with him into the kingdom prepared from all ages by the Father.
Very early the followers of Christ devoted a good deal of reflection to the meaning of this mystery of the Transfiguration for their spiritual life. Every feature of this vision was carefully noted and made the topic of comment, for no detail of so great a revelation was considered to be with out its significance. Not only the brilliant light that dazzled the eyes of the apostles, but also the voice of the Father that bore witness to him as the beloved one made a particularly striking impression. Surely, one of the most profound and engaging observations on this event was made by Origen, as far back as the third century. Origen notes that in Matthew's account of this event, after saying "Jesus was transfigured" he adds, as Mark had done earlier, "before them". He sees in this phrase an indication that the Word appears differently to different persons. Only to the eyes of those who ascend the mountain does he appear transfigured in glory; to those who remain on the plain, un able to ascend, he is perceived only in his lowliness. His observations remain worth noting today, revealing how our own capacity to see the Lord for who he is can be transfigured as we grow.
But if you are able to understand the differences of the Word, that he is announced in the foolishness of preaching to believers, and is preached to the perfect in wis dom, you will see how the Word has the form of a servant before beginners, so that they say " We have seen him and he had no beauty or appeal." But he comes in the glory of his Father to the perfect, who are going to say: "And we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (Comment. In Matthaeum Tomus xii.30 P.G. 13:1049).
Origen is on very sound ground in making this point, as anybody who has preached or lectured to a variety of audiences has had occasion to experience. There is not only question of different per sons reacting in contrasting ways to the same words, or to the person delivering the message; often it happens that some people hear things that were not said at all, others fail to perceive what was said quite distinctly, or hear it in such a way as to distort the intent of the speaker beyond recogni tion. Take the following as one example among many. A man I have known many years as a faithful Catholic, father of children, left his wife after 30 years of marriage and was living with a younger woman. I had occasion to meet him socially and, in the course of our conversation told him that "I felt concern for his soul," adding that I hoped he could get back together with his wife. This passed in an atmosphere of cordiality with not the slightest indications of resentment or ten sion. Not long after I was told by someone close to him that I had said he was going to hell.
This strong tendency to perceive words and events over-subjectively, along with certain prejudices and other conditioning factors, leads regularly to quite distinct perceptions of the personality and even the appearance of the speaker. We are much more subject to such pre-judgments and affec tive factors that condition our experiences of others than we are aware. This applies not only to our human relationships, but also to our life of prayer and generally in our dealings with God. The prophets had a hard time of it due to this human characteristic, and Jesus himself encountered it repeatedly, and reacted to it with vigorous language at times. The Lord notes this fact and com ments on it at some length, and then cites Isaiah's bitter words to the same effect.
I speak to them in parables because they do not see when they look, and do not hear or understand when they listen, so that in them is the prophecy of Isaiah ful filled which says:... For the heart of this people is dulled and their ears too heavy to hear. Their eyes are closed so that they may not see with their eyes nor hear with their ears and understand with their heart and so be converted that I might heal them (Mt. 13:13- 15).
Even though Jesus explained his parables to his apostles, yet their understanding also was limited by similar factors. While they were able to grasp a good deal of the Lord's teaching, and certainly appreciated him deeply as a person, yet they proved unable to hear his most important disclosure, and as a result were unable to recognize him as carrying out the Father's plan in his passion and death, so humiliating for him and his followers. The revelation made at the Transfiguration was provided them precisely to overcome these limitations. However, even with the help of that extraordinary event, they were not able to perceive the Lord's hand in the essential work of his mis sion, as he carried out the plan of the Father. Only the resurrection provided adequate light and strength for a true, more adequate perception of the Word made flesh and become obedient unto death for those who are immeshed in the nets of the senses. That includes us no less than the apos tles. All of us are limited in our grasp of the divine plan; we have serious limitations in our under standing of the world that surrounds us. That remains the case even when our own interests are at stake. This is true not only for us who have but average intelligence, and good, but merely common gifts of nature, but as well in the case of persons with superior gifts. It would seem that having extraor dinary gifts, in fact, can prove a liability when it comes to the question of living happily in one's personal life. Indeed, for those who are closest and should be dearest to highly gifted persons, association with them has often proved to be more a source of distress than of joy. The biogr phies of so many men of genius witness to this fact. Not only artists, of whom many of the most gifted lived very unhappy lives, but even men of affairs and politicians whose practical gifts would seem to assure personal happiness, have failed to make good choices in matters that were essential to their personal happiness.
We see today in our country many of the best educated, intelligent and privileged men of power who through bad judgment as to their true interests end by ruining their good name, losing their influence, causing immense pain to their loved ones and misery to themselves. When we consider how many such persons have gone through such a cycle in the last decade or so, and reflect on their advantages and gifts, we may well fear for our self. One of the more surprising aspects of our human condition is the fact that we seem unable to learn much from the unfortunate experiences of others; some of us cannot even manage to learn from our own past mistakes and failures, and, as a result, go through life repeating them in substance, though the circumstances change.
Learning to live wisely, to be able to recognize what is true and good at its real value is, in fact, a worthy achievement, even a noble one. It requires courage to confront the limits we find in our selves and to accept them. To take responsibility for our mistakes, to acknowledge our failures and even our sins against God, require a certain confidence as well as humility and a strong sense of truthfulness. Anyone who habitually practices such honesty deserves our respect and will soon gain the confidence of those he lives with, and will spread the joy of living in God's favor.
The Transfiguration of the Lord is set before us today, in this early part of Lent, to give us such confidence as to face our own weaknesses and the demands of confronting life and death in all truth. The vision of Jesus in glory is meant to encourage us to follow him as he confronts his passion and death in fulfillment of his Father's plan. We need to be sustained by this vision of his glory so that our faith in his certain victory will prove strong against all temptation, and sustain us in moments of discouragement and weakness. Let us keep our eyes on him who not only calls us to follow after him, but accompanies us on our way. In this way shall our ears be trained to hear his words and our eyes prepared to behold his light when he comes in glory to take us with himself into the eternal presence of the Father of Lights.Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
© Abbey of the Genesee: All Rights Reserved
|Home Page||Index Page||Archive Page|