The Transfigured Christ

JESUS TOOK WITH HIM PETER, JAMES AND JOHN HIS BROTHER…AND HE WAS TRANSFIGURED BEFORE THEM. The theme of the second Sunday of Lent focuses our attention on the glory of the Savior, Jesus, who is truly the Son of God. He who is about to go to his death, passing through much suffering and humiliation, is not a failure, not a man abandoned by God. Rather, he is the beloved Son entrusted with carrying out the mysterious plan of redemption for the glory of his heavenly Father. We are to look to him alone for our fulfillment; he only is to be the focus of our attention during these days of Lent. In presenting the mystery of the glorious Transfiguration of Jesus thus early in this season, the Liturgy instructs us that Lent is not only a time for penance but of prayer, even of solitary and contemplative prayer. St. John Damascene observed in connection with the Transfiguration that Solitude is parent to prayer; prayer, on the other hand, is the revealing of divine grace (Homilia in Transfigurationem Domini, 10 PG 96: 561). The contemplation of our Savior in glory strengthens us on our way. By turning the eyes of our heart enlightened by faith to his hidden glory we follow him more surely through the trials of this life to return to the Father. In listening to the words of Jesus, in obedience to the Father, we ourselves become pleasing to Him and are shown the path that carries us safely to our goal. This is my beloved Son in whom I take delight, listen to him.

Everyone needs some guiding vision in life in order to be fully alive. Only when we are enlisted in the service of such a dominant goal can we engage our whole being effectively in our daily tasks. The revelation given to every follower of Christ in his transfiguration is of such a transcendent order that it can adapt all kinds of legitimate work and interests to its service. Each of us must discover the specific work and kind of life that serves to advance us in the way leading to the vision of the glory of God shinning through the body of Christ.

The transfiguration itself was but a brief interlude in the life of Jesus. Its significance however perdures even to the present time, for it opens up into the mystery of the divinity of Christ made present permanently in his human nature. It is thus associated with all the events and mysteries of the Lord Jesus. In fact, one of the aims intended by the three evangelists who narrate the story of the transfiguration was to indicate that Jesus was already divine before the resurrection. His divinity was not conferred upon him as a reward for his obedience unto death; rather, it is inherent in his personality. To state it more precisely, his very personality is divine by its nature. He is the well-loved Son of the eternal Father from all eternity.

While St. John does not depict the transfiguration as such, he conveys the same message, explicitly in his Prologue: In the beginning was the Word… and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh. So thoroughly does the glory of the Son of God shine through the person of Jesus and in his actions that even his humiliations and passion cannot obscure it. The cross itself is already a lifting up that reveals the majesty of divinity.

The purpose of the transfiguration, then, is to alter the way that the apostles view the cross of Jesus and all that accompany it in the way of rejection and suffering. It shows us that far from representing a failure, the passion of Jesus is the fulfillment of the Father's plan of salvation. When we, together with the apostles, are told by the voice of the Father: listen to him what we hear from Jesus' lips is: Do not tell anyone about this vision until the Son of man rises from the dead. The vision of light is given so that the coming passion will be seen in the perspective of God's redemptive providence. The glory revealed on the mountain soon passes from sight but remains in the hidden background against which the hour of darkness unfolds in the course of the sufferings and death of the redeemer. In the hour of suffering faith must rely on memory of this revelation and all that it suggests in the way of paradox and a higher wisdom than can be divined by the mind of man alone.

Though this teaching proved too much for the apostles at the time, yet the evangelists remembered this lesson well after the resurrection. Each of the gospels makes this same point with an emphasis on one or other aspect of the event in view of the purpose they had in writing their proper account. Later generations appreciated the fundamental role of this mystery and with the passing of time developed its implications in thought and in act. Numerous texts that give explanations of the role and significance of the transfiguration in the spiritual life have come down to us in writing. Material evidence that later Christians had a strong appreciation of this event exists in the form of the Church and monasteries built atop Mt. Tabor, the highest mountain in Galilee which was considered the site of this vision. A convent of Franciscan monks remains there today next to the remains of the medieval Benedictine monastery built during the time of the crusaders' Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Origen, in the third century, wrote one of the more profound and suggestive commentaries on this mystery. One of the original insights he puts forth is the observation that Jesus appears differently to various observers. For, he points out, the text does not say simply of the Lord that he was transfigured, but adds before them. He draws the following conclusion.

To those who ascend he is now not known according to the flesh, but is understood to be God the Word, and is believed and honored according to the form of God. Before these Jesus is transfigured and not before those who are below, living a carnal lifestyle (Comment. In Matthaeum Tomus XII PG 13: 1069).

This is a shrewd observation that is based on a fundamental principle of the spiritual life that our Lord himself respected. Only those with pure hearts can see God; only those who are truly seeking God with simplicity can recognize the true identity of Jesus. Thus it happened that he left the others at the foot of the mountain, and took with him three specially chosen disciples. Origen also states explicitly that even if others who are not properly disposed should be present when the Lord is transfigured they would not be able to behold him in that state. The Word reveals himself diversely according to the dispositions of each. This principle holds in all spiritual matters. We are capable of perceiving the things of the spirit only in so far as we are predisposed to recognize the truths set before us. Encounters with the Lord in prayer, with the word of God in the liturgy and in Scripture confront various individuals with the same truths but each receives it in keeping with his proper grace and dispositions of soul. Origen waxes poetic in making this point.

Jesus' clothing also appears white as light to those who are taken aside by him on the high mountain. The garments of Jesus are his words and the letters of the Gospels by which he is clothed. The letters of the Apostles also, which set forth those matters pertaining to Jesus I consider to be his clothing that appears white to those who ascend the mountain with him. But at times there are differences in the whiteness.

At the same time, it is by contemplating the light of the Transfiguration in prayer and meditating on the person of our Lord with faith and desire to draw nearer to him that desire and dispositions are purified and intensified. Spiritual capacity is not a static structure but is rather a dynamic power that increase with use of our faculties. Lent is a season when we are to strive with a greater earnestness to keep our attention and desire centered on the Lord Jesus and the light and truth he imparts to those who truly seek him. This is one of the lessons to be drawn from today's liturgy.

A second insight that derives from this vision of the light of the transfigured Christ is the awareness of our own darkness and our need for spiritual strengthening and purification so that we might be more worthy of sharing in this vision eternally. The transcendent beauty of the glorified Lord reveals to us at once our potential and the great distance we have to travel to arrive at the purity of heart that is fit to see God. In the reflection of the knowledge deriving from contact in faith with the Lord we experience our lowliness and weakness. The path that ascends the mountain where we can finally see the light of glory is traversed by the courageous acceptance of the manifold limits and defects of our state. This is the paradoxical way of ascent through descent into lowliness of spirit. St. Benedict speaks of it in chapter seven of his Rule for Monks.

If then, brothers, we wish to attain to the heights of the greatest humility and to arrive speedily to that heavenly exaltation to which one ascends by humility in this present life, then by the ascent of our actions we need to erect that ladder which Jacob saw in his dream, on which angels ascended and descended.

The recognition and acceptance of this radical truth is a critical moment in the spiritual life for everyone. For the monk it determines at some point in his life whether he perseveres in the monastery until death, seeking God with all his heart. Most will have to face such a decision more than once in the course of their life. The encounter with this choice of a life lived in a hidden and essentially solitary search for a fulfillment that seems to evade one's grasp time and again requires an act of commitment that is essential to continuing spiritual progress.

Nothing is easier than to find good reasons for not entering upon so radical a way of lowliness. In marriage the temptation is to project onto the spouse or the children the frustrations that arise from the limits of family life and the inevitable sacrifices of preferred activities and interests. Only those who look into their own soul with honesty can discover there their deep-rooted selfishness and egoism. Such attitudes insist on realizing a kind of fulfillment that matches one's own preferences. In order wholly to enter into the lifelong work of transformation that is a function of Christian marriage a person must acknowledge that what had once been a legitimate aspiration is so no longer; it must be renounced if he would remain true to his call. For the monk, the same kind of temptation arises in relation to the community or the superior or the lifestyle which, for all of us at times, is felt to be a constraint on our own creativity and fulfillment. The experience of such a trial is in fact an invitation to growth through humility and faith. Anyone who advances in the way of the Spirit will sooner or later be confronted with this invitation to renounce what he had seen as his own course to fulfillment.

There is nothing new in the strong pull for personal fulfillment that results from a planned development we can readily understand and find congenial to our talent and character. From earliest times the Gospel made it clear that monogamous marriage required a strong faith and special grace from God so that the partners might overcome such self-concern and self-will. Persevering in a lifelong commitment of any kind is possible only to one who is willing to learn, to make sacrifice even of what is good, and so to be gradually transformed through exchanges with those with whom he lives. St. John Damascene saw that one of the operations effected by contemplative prayer is precisely this rising above one's self-concern. For this is required the cultivation of charity, which is the fulfillment of our true self.

Why did he lead his disciples up the mountain? Scripture in its moral sense refers to the virtues as mountains. The apex of all the virtues and, as it were, their citadel is charity…. Accordingly, it is fitting that we leave behind all worldly concerns of the earth and pass beyond the body of lowliness as we ascend to the highest and divine eminence. There we may behold at last those things that transcend every other view (Homilia in Transfigurationem Domini, 10 PG 96: 561-2).

The early monks understood this this with great clarity as well. The Sayings of the Fathers include many instances where monks became discouraged by the demands of their calling and were strongly tempted to change their cell or their monastery or simply to quit monastic life altogether. Choosing to remain required an acceptance of the limits imposed by their vocation, and a renunciation of possibilities for cultivating certain talents that could not be realized in the way the subject had come to believe to be essential for his personal welfare. This inevitably entails an acceptance of the cross and the way of faith and humility. Here is one instance.

A brother was tempted in the past by his thoughts for nine years to such a point that in his anxiety he despaired of his salvation and condemned himself: "I have lost my soul and since I am dead I shall return to the world." And as he took off he heard a voice on the road: "The temptations you have put up with for nine years were your crowns. Return then where you were and I shall deliver you from your bad thoughts." (Les Sentences des Peres du Desert, Solemnes 1966, # 42, p. 111).

One of the major functions of community life, whether in the monastery or in the family, is to bring us to this state where we must undergo a radical change of heart in order to be faithful to the commitments we have freely made. This is a subtle truth that is all too rarely noticed. We rightly expect help from those with whom we cast in our lot for life. The problem comes when the help we receive does not conform to our expectations. The difficulty is more intense when the situation in which we find ourselves seems to be an obstacle to our growth. Actually, this is the point at which we are brought by design in God's loving providence so that we might enter upon a more profound purification in faith.

For the person who insists on moving ahead in life from success to success, adhering only to those commitments that match his felt needs and measure up to his demands and aspirations remains in delusion. We can discover the depth of our need for God and for grace only when we have arrived at the limit of our forces. This happens to everyone who lives to be an adult sooner or later in life. Monastic life is so structured as to hasten the process and lead to an early and direct acceptance of the way of dependence upon God's mercy as the basis of one's hope. Andre Louf has pointed out that the chief function of the ascetic life is to bring us to this realization of our utter dependence on the mercy of God as we experience our own limits and needs.

The early Cistercians had such a conviction about these truths that they developed their spirituality precisely as an exploration in faith of the misery and lowliness of the human condition. St. Bernard defined humility in terms of this experience. Humility is that virtue by which a person grows vile in his own eyes through a most true self-knowledge (De Gradibus Humilitatis et Superbiae, 1.2 PL 182: 942). Thus it is this emptying out that represents the critical phase of the monastic life. As a person enters upon this way he finds himself quite unsteady, feels limited and faces a future that seems to frustrate his fulfillment as he has hitherto conceived it.

The support of a community of brothers, of a Rule and an experienced superior are welcomed by those who in faith recognize and accept this experience for what it is: an invitation from the Lord to enter upon the transformation for which he was destined by baptism. The vision of Jesus in glory takes on a fresh significance for one who finds himself in this condition. He knows by experience how utterly dependent he is upon grace and the mercy of God, the grace that the Lord obtained for us by his passion death and resurrection. Christ Embraces Bernard

For this way of humility, as St. Bernard stressed so cogently, is the way of truth: cognitionem veritatis fructum esse humilitatis (knowledge of truth is the fruit of humility[op. cit. 1.1]) The truth about our self that is reflected in the light of Christ raised up in glory. He is the joy of all those who prove faithful in seeking him where alone he can be found, in a meek and humble heart, enlightened by the inner light that shined on his chosen ones on the mountain.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger</P>

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