Sunday, August 06, 2006

Reflection: The Feast of the Transfiguration

Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John,
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no fuller on earth could bleach them....

As they were coming down from the mountain,
he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what rising from the dead meant.

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration - in the East, the Metamorphosis. This is one of my favorite feasts in the liturgical calendar. I especially like the way that Mark tells the story in his account which was read today at Mass. So, here, a reflection on the matter.

* * *

Earlier this week, a friend of mine and I were discussing the upcoming Feast of the Transfiguration. With his typical candor and honesty, he remarked that he feared he would not be able to embrace the celebration fully, because he lacks an "internal sense of the Resurrection."

The comment made an impact on me, and I began to think about what he said. Of course, we could all use a better internal sense of the Resurrection - a more immediate sense of its reality and it's power in our daily incarnate existence. But my friend had the insight to know that the event on Mount Tabor of Christ's transfiguration is linked very closely to the mystery of the Resurrection.

Of course, Christ's command to keep the event a secret is part of the continuing theme of Mark's "messianic secret." But, I imagine the confusion of the disciples in this case was more than simply a confusion about the identity of their teacher. They'd seen Him perform miracles - they'd seen Him raise others from the dead. But what was probably most confusing was this reference to resurrection in connection with the transfiguration which they had just seen. In other words, they were probably not so confused as what it "meant" as in literal meaning - but rather, what was the full import of this strange sight. They most certainly would have thought back to Daniel's messianic prophecy about the "one like a Son of Man" ascending before the throne of the Ancient One. They were probably convinced that this Teacher of theirs was the Messiah - the one who made the lame walk, the blind see, and the dead rise from their graves. But the dead they had seen rise from their graves had been essentially the same - they had not appeared so differently as Christ did when He was transfigured before their eyes. So, what, then, did He mean in this moment by mentioning "rising from the dead?"

The answer would come, as Jesus said, when He had suffered death on the Cross and rose that first Easter morning. Greeting many of His disciples, Christ was unrecognizable to them. He looked radically different than the Christ they had known. He needed to show His wounds in order for some to know Him. He could enter locked rooms and appear and disappear amidst them. To the majority of His followers, this change must have been very confusing indeed. They must have asked the question "What does this transfiguration mean?"

In Peter's letter today, we see the synthesis of the two questions: What is meant by rising from the dead? And what is meant by this transfiguration? The answer, we read, is that both realities are linked.

The Resurrected Christ had a glorified body, recreated from the tomb. It was not the same body, resuscitated, as had been the case with Lazarus and Jairus' daughter. It was a new creation of a new order, fulfilling and completing the old order. Even though His clothes on earth would not have had the splendor that they had on the mountain, Peter, James and John would surely have recognized Christ in this new form from the vision they had seen that day alone with Him. The brief transfiguration that they had seen was not permanent. Christ would ascend to the Throne of the Most High and receive dominion and power over all. And they would now know that this permanent transfiguration began with the Cross.

"Rising from the dead" does not simply mean recovering from the temporal event of death, only to suffer in another time. That is mere resuscitation - a miracle, yes, but far less than a resurrection to glory. The apostles knew, after seeing Christ rise from the dead, than this Resurrection meant so much more. And the "so much more" that it meant was revealed in part by the miracle of the Transfiguration. Christ was not merely restoring the old order to the same sort of life. He was bringing the Law and the Prophets (signified by Moses and Elijah on the Mountain) to fulfillment in a new order. The life to which He would restore those who believed would be a new life of eternal glory with Him before the throne of God.

But just as Christ's outward appearance after the Resurrection was not fully what it had been in the Transfiguration (and the latter itself not a complete image of Christ as He is in Heaven), so we only catch glimpses of that glory during our earthly life. It is difficult, therefore, to have and maintain an "internal sense of the Resurrection," if we're honest with ourselves. Sure, we profess to believe in the Resurrection of the dead. But if we stop to truly contemplate that mystery, it is difficult not to let our sight be clouded by the veil of this world and what is passing away. Peter knew this when he wrote: You will do well to be attentive to [the prophecy we have received] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. In the Liturgy of the Hours today, we are reminded that the splendor faded over time from Moses's face after his transfiguring encounters with the Lord. Peter's advice to us is to remember the moments of splendor and to not let time efface them in our memory, even if there is less to see of that glory in the passing world.

So, my reflection on this day is that we all do, indeed, need an internal sense of the Resurrection and that we need to meditate on the Transfiguration in order to facilitate this. I have found it fruitful to medidate on the Resurrection with particular remembrance that it is not merely the restoration of life which Christ granted to others before His Passion. Even if I can't fully imagine what the Resurrection truly is, it helps to wonder at the great things it surpasses, and know it to be more. Secondly, I think that the Transfiguration teaches us that we must understand the Resurrection as the completion and fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. When Peter, James, and John saw the Resurrected Christ for the first time, they probably remembered in their minds the vision they had of Elijah and Moses standing at His side. And I think it should be the same for us. We should see Moses and Elijah at the side of the Risen Christ; we should learn the Old Testament well and read Paul carefully in order to understand how the "old dispensations" have been supersceded by the New Covenant in Christ's Blood. Only then will we fully appreciate the magnitude of our sharing in the New Covenant, and of the glory that awaits us if we suffer with Christ and persevere to the end.


Post a Comment

<< Home