The Tabor Experience of a Good Retreat, Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Our Lady of Grace Chapel, Alma, MI
Retreat for the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma
Feast of the Transfiguration, Year A
August 6, 2014
Dan 7:9-10.13-14, Ps 97, 2 Pet 1:16-19, Mt 17:1-9

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Retreats, at least retreats that go well, are often called “Tabor experiences.” Like St. Peter, retreatants who have a chance to get away from the crowds to spend time with Jesus often say, “It’s good, Lord, that we are here!,” and they want to build booths, or take up permanent residence in their retreat rooms, to keep the experience going and preserve them from having to descend back from the mountain to confront the tasks that await and from which one doesn’t lament escaping. But as we ponder the Missionary Transformation of the Church during these days, it’s important for us to grasp how this retreat, or any retreat, if it’s going to produce the fruit God would like to see, is going to be a “Tabor experience” in multiple ways. Let’s look briefly at nine of them.
  • Retreats like the Transfiguration require exertion — There’s a debate among Scripture Scholars about where the Transfiguration took place since the only thing that the Gospels and St. Peter’s recollection say is that it was a “high mountain.” Tradition and archaeology argue for Mount Tabor, the 1,886 foot high mountain in Galilee where there is now the Basilica of the Transfiguration. If that is true, then it means that Jesus took Peter, James and John to hike up it after a 75-mile journey from Caesarea Philippi over six days with ancient sandals in the midst of a brutal middle-eastern sun. Some say, however, that because there was military fortress at the top of Mt. Tabor at the time and because the text says that they were left “by themselves,” we must be talking about another mountain. The other candidate is Mount Hermon, which is only about 15 miles from Caesarea Philippi but is 11,000 feet above the Jordan basin, something that would make a 75 mile walk perhaps look more attractive! Regardless, there was a lot of exertion required before the the Transfiguration took place. Why did they make it? St. Luke tells us that the purpose was to pray (Lk 9:28). It’s possible, of course, to pray everywhere but Jesus wanted to take them apart from their normal situation, apart from the crowd, so that hey would be able to listen to God more carefully. That’s what’s meant to happen on a retreat for all of us. The Lord tells us, “Ascende superius,” (Lk 14:10) “Friend, come up higher.” He tells us “Lift up your hearts!” and “seek the things that are above” (Col 3:1). To use the words of Anastasius of Sinai from this morning’s Office of Readings: “Jesus goes before us to show us the way, both up the mountain and into heaven, and … it is for us now to follow him with all speed, yearning for the heavenly vision that will give us a share in his radiance, renew our spiritual nature and transform us into his own likeness, making us for ever sharers in his Godhead and raising us to heights as yet undreamed of.” As he would attest, this effort that we make on a retreat to ascend with Jesus is worth it!
  • On retreats, we get to contemplate Jesus transfigured in prayer — When they finally finished their upward climb, Jesus was “was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” Notice that the blinding light was coming from within Jesus, something that was so powerful that it irradiated even what he was wearing. This is something different than happened with Moses when he would ascend Mount Sinai or enter the meeting tent tot converse with God. In those cases, his face was glowing, but it was glowing with a “tan” of glory that came from the outside. In the case of Jesus, who is “Light from Light,” it was coming from the inside out. When we come on retreats, we contemplate that light of Jesus but, more so, we grasp that God wants to irradiate us from the inside out as well. Jesus’ light penetrates our minds, warms our hearts, and purifies our affections. God wants our faces to shine like the Sun with his light from within. God wants even our habits or priestly vestments or clerics to shine and bear more and more resemblance to our baptismal garments. Every retreat is meant to help us rediscover the source of that light, let the light penetrate our interior darkness, and transform not only our flesh but help us to rediscover the brilliant baptismal garments we were instructed to keep unstained as we go out to meet the coming King.
  • On retreats, we learn with Jesus how to converse with Moses and Elijah — In Jesus’ prayer at the summit of the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus wasn’t just thinking about Moses and Elijah. He was speaking to them. And he wasn’t just shooting the breeze, catching up, or making small talk. St. Luke tells us that they were talking about his “exodus” that he was to accomplish in the new and eternal Passover. Jesus was engaging in Moses and Elijah respectively the law and the prophets, all of which speak to how the “Son of Man” foreseen in Daniel’s prophecy in the first reading was going to suffer. The fruits of this prayerful conversation are what Jesus himself would later share with the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, as he explained to them, starting with Moses and the Prophets, how the Son of Man was to suffer (Lk 24:26-27). On a retreat, we, likewise, are called to converse with Moses and Elijah, with the Judges, with the Prophets, with the apostles and with the saints, about what they describe for us of Jesus’ exodus, a Passover in which they now have first-hand experience. But it’s also a time for us, with their help, to ponder our exodus with Jesus. Moses, after all, didn’t cross the Red Sea alone. He brought the Israelites. And so we’re involved in Jesus’ exodus. We prepare together with him. We journey with him. We go into the water of baptism and into the desert of life with him. We deny ourselves, pick up our Cross each day and follow him. And God-willing we will travel with him all the way until we experience his our definitive triumph. Every retreat is meant to help us focus anew on Jesus’ journey and the itinerary we’re called to follow him into the eternal promised land.
  • On retreats we experience how good it is to be with the Lord — When Peter saw the metamorphosis of Jesus’ appearance, he exclaimed, “Lord, it is good that we are here! If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one or Moses and one for Elijah.” Peter was at a loss as to what to do, but a practical man, he felt he needed to do something in his restless joy. He wanted to perpetuate the experience. The Transfiguration was happening on the last day of the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles), held each year not only to thank God for his generosity at harvest time but to remember how he provided for them in the desert; the huts that would be built were a reminder of how the Israelites lived during their 40 year sojourn in the desert, when God himself was tabernacled among them in the meeting tent. What Peter didn’t grasp is hta the tent God wanted him to build was interior. Jesus had come into the world, as St. John tells us, to tabernacle himself among us, to make his tent with us. That’s what we pray in the Angelus, when we say, “Habitavit in nobis”: he wishes more than to dwell “among” us but “within” us. And so when we come on a retreat, we’re called to make booths within us for God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to make tents within us for Moses, Elijah, Mary, Joseph, Peter, the saints, our guardian angel and more. How good it is for us to be with the Lord! How good it is that we remain with the Lord tabernacled within us as we move!
  • On retreats we enter into the cloud of God’s presence — While Peter was still speaking, God did something to make him still: “A bright cloud cast a shadow over them.” That cloud was the shekinah, the sign of God’s presence that accompanied the Israelites for 40 years in the desert. It’s a “cloud of unknowing” but a same time a cloud that helps us to get to know God personally. God wants to surround us with his graces. Anastasius of Sinai indicates to us what our response should be on a retreat: “Let us run with confidence and joy to enter into the cloud like Moses and Elijah, or like James and John. Let us be caught up like Peter to behold the divine vision and to be transfigured by that glorious transfiguration. Let us retire from the world, stand aloof from the earth, rise above the body, detach ourselves from creatures and turn to the creator, to whom Peter in ecstasy exclaimed: ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here.’”
  • On retreats we hear God the Father’s voice speaking to us about his Son and about our response to his Son — A voice came from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!” In the scene at Caesarea Philippi six days earlier, Jesus asked who the crowd said he was and who the apostles confessed him to be. Here God the Father answers his Son’s question and makes plain his Son’s identity. But then he gave a powerful command, the only imperative God the Father gives in the New Testament, one that at first is exceedingly strange: “Listen to him!” What had Peter, James and John been doing for the past two years but listening to Jesus? They had been hearing him preach in the synagogues. They had been hearing him preach on mountainsides. They had been hearing him preach on grassy plains. They had been hearing him preach from boats. They doubtless had been hearing him teach them personally all along their lengthy journeys crisscrossing the Judea, Galilee, the Decapolis, the Golan Heights. But God the Father knew that even though they were hearing his Son, they were not grasping the message. They were particularly tone deaf to what Jesus had said about his own way of the Cross and theirs. So after allowing his Son’s glory to be shown for a little while, after having confirmed that Jesus was indeed God, God the Father called the three apostles truly to listen to His Son, to believe in Him, to do what he says with confidence. Yes, his Son would suffer and die. But he would rise from the dead three days later, triumphant. Yes, they would likewise need to suffer and die, they would need to deny themselves and crucify their earthly desires, but they, too, would be raised triumphant, saving their lives precisely through losing it. The Transfiguration of Jesus in glory was meant to confirm their faith that Jesus really was who he said he was and that they should trust him, listen to him, and follow him up close, even when what he says challenges their faith. A retreat is an opportunity for us to experience and share the Father’s pleasure in Jesus and his pleasure in us. It’s an opportunity for us to listen to Jesus much more carefully, to delve more deeply into his word written for us in Scripture and whispered to us in prayer.
  • Retreats are occasions for us to be filled with awe — The text tells us that as soon as God the Father had spoken from the cloud, the three “fell prostrate and were very much afraid.” In the Old Testament, there was the idea that if one saw God one wouldn’t be able to survive, so other was God’s holiness. If someone said God’s name, because the name represented the person, they would have to die. They couldn’t imagine a theophany they would survive. They fell down, however, not of servile fear for their lives but out of reverential awe. In most languages there is a distinction between fear of punishment (for example, miedo in Spanish, medo in Portuguese and paura in Italian) and fear of not being worthy to be in another’s presence, a type of holy intimidation (timor, temor and timore respectively). That’s what he apostles had, what Christian tradition describes as the Holy Spirit’s gift of “fear of the Lord.” This is something for all of us to grow in during a retreat. We should never take the extraordinary privilege of being in the presence of God for granted, which sometimes can happen in the routine of day-to-day life that we can walk into God’s very house and converse with the Creator and Savior of the world. Retreats are times for us to grasp that we ought to reply to the Lord with proskinesis, the reverence of adoration.
  • Retreats are chances for us to recover our simplicity — St. Matthew tells us that Jesus came and touched the apostles as they were prostrate on the ground, and when they raised their eyes “they saw no one but Jesus.” There was a return to simplicity! Like Mary of Bethany, like Mary of Nazareth, like so many saints, they saw Jesus and were able to block out all the rest. This is one of the real goals of a retreat. This doesn’t mean that we forget others, but that we see Jesus in them and them in Jesus. This doesn’t mean that we forget about our duties and the things waiting for us upon our return, but that we relate them to Jesus and seek to fulfill them through, with and in him.
  • Retreats are opportunities for us to prepare for Calvary and at the same time to strengthen us to announce Jesus’ resurrection — The evangelist tells us that as they were descending the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” It was clear that they had ascended the Mount of Transfiguration in order for Jesus and the three apostles to be prepared for Jesus’ exodus, when he would ascend Golgotha. That’s a preparation all of us need as Jesus beckons us to follow him along the way of the Cross and assures us that unless we pick up our Cross daily and follow him, we cannot be his disciple. The Preface of today’s Mass says that there are basically two purposes for the event and the annual celebration of the Lord’s transfiguration and one is precisely to help us deal with the shock that the Cross is to our system. Jesus “revealed his glory in the presence of chosen witnesses … that the scandal of the Cross might be removed from the hearts of his disciples and that he might show how in the body of the whole Church is to be fulfilled that so wonderfully shone forth first in its Head.” Retreats are meant to help us ascend our own Calvaries with Jesus and to recognize that as we do that it is the path of glory, the way of being filled with Jesus’ transfigured splendor. And since Jesus has already raised from the dead in fulfillment of the glory shown on the Mount of Transfiguration, rather than telling “no one” Jesus wants us to tell everyone!
  • The greatest means by which we enter into all of these nine realities is not by our annual retreat but by our daily participation in the Mass. It’s in the Mass that Jesus is transfigured not in glorious light but under the humblest appearances of simple food. It’s here that we make the exertion to lift up our hearts. It’s hear that we enter into Jesus’ own prayer. It’s here that we hear the Old Testament law and prophets point to Jesus. It’s here that we rejoice at how good it is and how lucky we are to be in Jesus’ presence. It’s here that God the Holy Spirit overshadows not merely the priest and the altar to make bread and wine Jesus’ humbly transfigured body, blood, soul and divinity, but after the consecration hovers over all of us to make us one body, one spirit in Christ. It’s here that we listen to Jesus as he says, “This is my Body,” “This is the chalice of my Blood” and “Do this in memory of me!” It’s here that we look on no one but Jesus as we behold the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. It’s here we fall down on our knees in reverential awe. And it’s from here that we descend the mountain to go to all nations and share the joy of Jesus’ love and the power of his resurrection. It’s here, in short, that God seeks to transfigure us to become more like Jesus. In the Prayer after Communion, we will ask God the Father, “May the heavenly nourishment we have received, O Lord, we pray, transform us into the likeness of your Son, whose radiant splendor you willed to make manifest in his glorious Transfiguration.” It’s here that God changes us into the likeness of Jesus, as we become — as you pray each morning — “living signs of the resurrection and of its treasures of virginity, poverty and obedience” and “mirrors of the divine beauty.”

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1
DN 7:9-10, 13-14

As I watched:Thrones were set up
and the Ancient One took his throne.
His clothing was bright as snow,
and the hair on his head as white as wool;
his throne was flames of fire,
with wheels of burning fire.
A surging stream of fire
flowed out from where he sat;
Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him,
and myriads upon myriads attended him.
The court was convened and the books were opened.As the visions during the night continued, I saw:One like a Son of man coming,
on the clouds of heaven;
When he reached the Ancient One
and was presented before him,
The one like a Son of man received dominion, glory, and kingship;
all peoples, nations, and languages serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 97:1-2, 5-6, 9

R. (1a and 9a) The Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth.
The LORD is king; let the earth rejoice;
let the many islands be glad.
Clouds and darkness are round about him,
justice and judgment are the foundation of his throne.
R. The Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth.
The mountains melt like wax before the LORD,
before the LORD of all the earth.
The heavens proclaim his justice,
and all peoples see his glory.
R. The Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth.
Because you, O LORD, are the Most High over all the earth,
exalted far above all gods.
R. The Lord is king, the Most High over all the earth.

Reading 2
2 PT 1:16-19

We did not follow cleverly devised myths
when we made known to you
the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For he received honor and glory from God the Father
when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory,
“This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven
while we were with him on the holy mountain.
Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.
You will do well to be attentive to it,
as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

MT 17:1-9

Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
“Rise, and do not be afraid.”
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.As they were coming down from the mountain,
Jesus charged them,
“Do not tell the vision to anyone
until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”