Gen 15:5-12, 17-18; Ps 27; Phil 3:17-4:1; Lk 9:28-36
Today’s passage about the Transfiguration occurs right after two important gospel events: 1) Peter’s confession of faith in the divinity of Jesus, and 2) Christ’s prediction about His own Passion and Death. The Transfiguration is the bridge between these two realities; it’s a foretaste of Christ’s glorification, yet His suffering is still present. Jesus appears in glory to Peter, James, and John to confirm their belief in his divinity, and also to strengthen them for His impending death, and their leadership of the early Church. Later, He would take these same three apostles into the Garden of Gethsemane, and, although they’d run away in that moment, Peter would remember the Transfiguration for the rest of his life (2Pet 1:18).
Appearing alongside Jesus are Moses and Elijah, who were both well-known miracle workers who fasted for forty days. In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus also fasted for 40 days. Moses represents the law and Elijah the prophets, summing up the entire Old Testament, which Jesus fulfills. Only St. Luke tells us what they were discussing: “They were speaking about the exodus he would accomplish at Jerusalem”—meaning, His death. So even during this glorious event, Jesus was thinking about His death, the reason He became man. There are two other “hidden” characters in this scene: the voice and the cloud. The cloud symbolizes the Holy Spirit, while the voice from the cloud is God the Father, repeating those familiar words: “This is my chosen Son. Listen to Him.” ‘Listening to Jesus’ enables us to enter into relationship with God our Father, who then says the same thing about us: “You are my chosen Son; you are my chosen daughter.”
The Transfiguration happens within the annual Jewish feast of Tabernacles, an agricultural feast which commemorated Israel’s wandering in the desert, when the people lived in tents. Some Jews believed that tents would be the dwelling places of paradise. By speaking about building three tents, Peter wants to give permanence to this vision; he thought the time of glory was here to stay. But Peter misunderstood the vision, because Jesus still had to descend the mountain in order to suffer and die. Jesus shows us that we enter into glory only through suffering. Even for Our Lord, there is no glorification without the cross.
At the end of the gospel passage, the three apostles see Jesus alone, looking as He always has. The glory will take permanent form only after He suffers and rises from the dead in Jerusalem. And so we see a major contrast between the Transfiguration and the account of the Passion: here, Jesus is privately revealed in glory, shining in dazzling white, standing on a high mountain, surrounded by light. In His Passion, Jesus is publicly humiliated, with clothes torn and divided, surrounded by criminals and darkness (Office of Readings). On the mountain today, light pours forth from Christ; on Calvary it will be blood. God always shines upon us; but the rays of His glory sometimes take the form of light, and at other times take the form of suffering. Think of that moment: Jesus on the cross—the very darkest moment in human history, the apparent defeat of the Son of God amid dark clouds and evil. And yet! When everything seemed against Him, when his defeat seemed sure, He rose from the dead. The moment of his “defeat” was only hours before his ultimate triumph. When facing difficulties, we should recall this important lesson, and apply it to our own lives.
Peter, James, and John were privileged to witness this extraordinary event. In our first reading, Abraham also experienced something extraordinary—entering a sacred agreement called a covenant. A covenant is different from a contract, because a contract is an exchange of goods (time, money, and the like), while a covenant is an exchange of persons. Abraham is our father in faith. But before he was called Abraham (“father of a multitude”), he was known as Abram (“exalted father”). Both names are ironic, because at that point, he had no children. However, because he believed that God could do incredible things, he was rewarded with a son, Isaac, even as an old man. Two mysterious things occur in the first reading: 1) God enters into a covenant with Abram through a strange ritual, called “cutting a covenant”, when both parties would walk between the two parts of a dead animal, as if to say, “Let me die like this animal if I’m ever unfaithful to the covenant.” But notice who goes between the animal carcasses: God, in the form of a flaming torch! In other words, there is no possibility that God will be unfaithful to the covenant and the promise He made to Abram. 2) The other intriguing detail is that God promised to multiply Abram’s offspring like the stars of heaven. While it’s impossible to count the stars, “‘Just so,’ God added, ‘shall your descendants be.’” And Scripture says, “Abram put his faith in the Lord.” The only problem is: God took Abram outside during the day! For later in the reading, we hear, “When the sun had set and it was dark…” So Abram is a man of faith, not because he believed God based on what he could see, but because he believed God on what he couldn’t see. He couldn’t even see the stars, yet he still believed God’s promise about countless descendants. That takes immense faith.
It also takes faith to believe in the Church that Christ founded. The Church is divine, because her Founder is divine, even if the divinity isn’t visible now. Peter, James, and John all saw Christ’s glory on the mountain, and the others witnessed the many miracles that He performed, but only one of the Twelve remained with Jesus in His hour of need. So even the Lord’s hand-picked apostles abandoned Him, but the Church continued, because she’s the Body of Christ, not some merely human institution. I’ve heard that some people are walking away from the Church at this painful time because of the human sins and failures. What’s completely ignored is the divine side of the Church, for example, the glories of the Eucharist. Like with Abraham, God enters into a covenant with us through visible signs—today, we call them sacraments. God gives Himself to us, and we’re expected to give ourselves entirely back to Him. Most often, though, we see only the visible, human side of our faith—the human failures of the Church or the visible Eucharist, which looks like a piece of bread. And that can easily make us shift our expectations into the human realm. It always pains me to hear people say, “Mass is boring.” But the liturgy isn’t meant to entertain us—it’s meant to glorify God. So what are we putting in? That includes a joint effort—not just the priest or the musicians or the assembly. Ultimately, Jesus Christ is the one offering the sacrifice. If we do our best to praise God individually, then we’ll be praising God collectively. But if we consistently arrive late or leave early, dress very casually, are busy checking our phones, failing to join in the hymns and prayers, or tune out during the homily…..then it makes sense why we don’t “get anything out of Mass.” In the Mass, we are privilege to be present at the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. So our minds shouldn’t be occupied with earthly things, but as St. Paul said, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” God has called us here today, and praise God that we’ve responded to that invitation. But that’s only the beginning; He wants to take us so much deeper. So we can’t stop at the bare minimum or limit God’s ability to work because of our lack of faith. The earthly realm should serve to elevate our minds to heavenly glory, to catch a glimpse (like Peter, James, and John did) of heaven on earth. We’re asked to make an immense act of faith in the Lord, not based on what we can see (a piece of bread and some wine), but based on what we can’t see (the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus). And if we truly believe that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ, then that makes all the difference in the world, particularly how we approach the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Every so often, and it’s been happening here with alarming regularity, someone finds a Host stuck in a hymnal or underneath a pew. Or someone attempts to leave church without having consumed the Eucharist. This is a sacrilege—a tremendous affront to the Lord. We must consume the Eucharist immediately after receiving It, not back at the pew, and not outside either. So please help us; if you ever notice anything like this, please immediately inform an usher or a priest. Together we have to guard the sacredness of our Lord’s Eucharistic presence.
The Eucharist is tangible proof of God’s presence with us. Today, Jesus comes to us under the appearance of bread and wine. We can’t see his dazzling garments, nor do we hear a voice from a cloud. But the Eucharist is a foretaste of future glory, the spiritual food that will lead us to everlasting life. By receiving the Eucharist, we become more like Jesus—we become sharers in His divinity. Do we truly believe that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Are we spiritually prepared to receive Him? After this mystical experience of encountering Him in the Eucharist, we have to come down the mountain and return to our homes and our jobs, for we haven’t reached the end of our journey. The Transfiguration anticipates the immortal triumph of the Christ’s Resurrection, and becomes a symbol of our own resurrection, when Christ will change our mortal bodies to be like His own glorious body. God’s presence, action, and glory have broken into our world. He is so near to us—in this Mass, He becomes our food. So may we put our faith in the Lord’s Eucharistic presence and give ourselves entirely to Him in this sacred banquet, where we catch a fleeting glimpse of heaven on earth.