In the Gospel at Mass on the Second Sunday in Lent, the Church invites us to accompany Our Lord and three chosen Apostles on to Mount Thabor. To encourage us in our Lenten program of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, She allows us a glimpse of Our Lord’s divine identity in the Transfiguration. As His face shines like the sun and His garments become as white as snow, it is as if a few rays of His Glory manage to break through to stop us in our tracks.
Throughout His earthly life, Our Lord keeps this Divine Glory carefully hidden. This surely has to do with His plan for our salvation. He has not come to dazzle us into submission, with spectacular displays of divine majesty. Rather, He has come to invite us to unite ourselves with Him in faith and love. He unites Himself with our frail humanity in order to draw us into the Mystery of His own divine life. St Paul tells us that Our Saviour came to die on the Cross to make us co-heirs of His glory (Rom 8.17).
So why this extraordinary revelation of His Glory in the Transfiguration? The disciples invited to join Our Lord on the mountain are Peter, James and John – the same three who will very soon accompany Him into the Garden of Gethsemane on Holy Thursday. This display of glory at the Transfiguration is given to confirm them in their faith in the Incarnation. They will see Him suffer in His humanity, and so they are given this glimpse of His Divinity.
But the Transfiguration is also for us. It indicates that we, too, are called to participate in the Glory of the Blessed Trinity. The seeds of this Glory are planted already in Baptism, when Sanctifying Grace is infused into our souls, and we become living temples of the Holy Ghost. However, the splendour of this divine life radiating from the soul remains invisible until, pray God, our souls are elevated to the state of Glory in Heaven. At the end of time, our bodies will be reunited with our souls, when, as St Paul informs us, “the body that is sown in corruption” will be raised in incorruption, power and glory (1 Cor 15.42). Our Lord Himself promises that “the just shall shine as the sun, in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt 13.43).
The Transfiguration reminds us that only a small part of the reality of things is visible to our eyes or detectable to our senses. We cannot see the angels who surround us, or even our own Guardian Angel who is always with us. Neither can we see in any direct way the effects of grace or sin on the human soul. We know in Faith, however, that the angels and demons exist, and that the effects of grace and sin on the soul are very real. This means that it is only through Faith that we are truly able to live in reality, even if now we still see through a glass darkly.
It was for our salvation that Our Lord laid His Glory aside. In the Old Testament God instructs us that no mere mortal man can look upon Him and live (Exod 33.20). Our Lord’s mission is to make God accessible. This is why, in the New Testament, He reveals His Divinity indirectly, through signs and words. His aim is to befriend His disciples on the human level, and to break them in as gently as possible to the Mystery of the Incarnation. It is also essentially important that they should appreciate His authentic humanity, as well as His Divinity.
At the close of time, this era of shadows will come to an end, when Our Lord returns in glory, and His Presence fills the skies from East to West. Then there will be no denying that Jesus Christ is God and Lord of all creation. Meanwhile, we live in faith – the faith that tells us that although Our Lord has been hidden from our eyes since His Ascension, He is in fact here with us now, in various ways. As God, He is of course everywhere. He is alive in a supernatural manner in the hearts and souls of everyone who is in a state of grace. He is present and alive in the most wonderful manner in the Blessed Sacrament.
It is surely a mark of His tenderness and love for us that He disguises Himself on the Altar, under the accidents of bread and wine, even though this means allowing for the dreadful possibility that His Presence might be desecrated. If we could see the glory of what, and indeed Whom, we receive in the Sacred Host, who amongst us would ever dare to approach the Altar for Holy Communion? Which priest would ever be brave enough to take the wafer into his hands and say the words of Consecration at Mass? But He wants us to approach Him. If we are in a state of grace, He actually invites us to receive Him and to eat His Body and His Blood.
It is very easy to lose sight of the divine nature of the Church, when the garments of the Bride of Christ can seem so spoiled by sin and by the scandal of internal politics. Like those disciples who fled when they saw Our Lord crucified, we too can become disheartened and discouraged, even tempted to flee, when we see Christ’s Church suffering because of the sins of Her members. The event of the Transfiguration, however, reminds us to look beyond the wounds and bruises that have been inflicted on the Church by the shortcomings of all of us, and to see the Church as Christ’s Mystical Body on earth which will one day be subsumed and glorified in His Mystical Body in Heaven.
Peter, James and John are given the strictest instruction to keep what they witness in the Transfiguration secret until after Our Lord’s Resurrection. But after that they are to proclaim it from the rooftops. The Transfiguration has a powerful message for us today. In contemporary life it seems inevitable that for much of the time our attention will be focused on the daily necessities of earning a living and getting from one part of our congested city to another. In Lent, however, we are invited to readjust our focus by penetrating beyond the appearance of things, and learning to live our whole lives in the presence of God Who is not only all around us, but also within us. As well as meditating on the mysteries of our salvation, we should also examine the state of our own souls. Is the grace we received in our Baptism still ablaze? Perhaps it is flickering almost imperceptibly like the pilot light in a gas boiler? Or has it been extinguished by mortal sin, so that it needs to be re-ignited in the Sacrament of Penance?
The Transfiguration points us to a glory that God wishes us to enjoy forever in eternity in Heaven. It also indicates an interior splendour that is within our reach in this life. What shall we do about it?
Fr Julian Large