Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Transfiguration of the Lord, Year B
August 6, 2006
Dn 7:9-10, 13-14; 2Pt 1:16-19; Mk 9:2-10
1) On the sixth of August each year, the Church, both east and west, celebrates with joy the event of the Lord’s Transfiguration. Most years, this pivotal event in the Lord’s life is remembered at a weekday Mass with relatively few members of the Lord’s family present. Every sixth year it falls on a Sunday, which gives every practicing Catholic the opportunity to reflect on its importance in the life of the Lord and on what impact it should have in our life as Christ’s disciples.
2) In the transfiguration, God the Father allowed Peter, James and John to gain a glimpse of Jesus’ glory. For almost all of his earthly life, Jesus’ glory was hidden under the humble appearance of his human nature. St. Paul tells us that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8 ). Jesus was so humble that he cloaked his divinity in our humanity and even allowed that humanity to bleed and die. But Jesus transfigured by blood was not the whole picture. So to these three apostles, who would all behold Jesus suffering in agony in the Garden, who would descend the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus only to see him climb the hill of Calvary, who would become all too familiar with the frailty of his humanity, God the Father wanted them to see with their own eyes an emphemeral but unforgettable glance at his divinity. Jesus’ clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than any bleach could make them. Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus and, as St. Luke’s account tells us, discussed with him his impending “exodus, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31); in other words, the Passover he would himself lead from this world to the next, from death to life, guiding God’s people to the eternal promised land. Jesus and his two famous interlocutors were surrounded by a cloud, which throughout the history of the Jewish people was a special sign of God’s presence (see Exod 13:21; 14:19; 19:19; 24:15, etc.). But what I’d really like to focus on is what happened next, when out of that cloud came a voice thundering “This is my Son, my beloved: Listen to him!”
3) There are only three times that we hear God the Father speak in the New Testament. The first is at Jesus’ baptism, when he declares that Jesus is his Son in whom he is well-pleased. The last is during the Last Supper, when Jesus asks him to glorify his name and the Father responds “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (Jn 12:28 ). The only other time we hear him speak is in this event of the Transfiguration. God the Father first repeats what he had said about Jesus at his baptism, that Jesus is the Son of God and is the love of his Father’s life. But then this eternal Father of so few words basically zeroes in on Peter, James and John and says something to them that is really quite remarkable when you consider its context: “Listen to him!”
4) Listen to Jesus. What had the apostles been doing for the previous several months but listening to Jesus, listening to his parables, listening spell-bound to his teaching, which they and others were admitting was done with an authority unlike the scribes and the pharisees? Peter had already confessed him as the Messiah. They were obviously paying attention to Jesus. Despite that, God the Father gives one imperative to the three on Mount Tabor and to us today, the only command Sacred Scripture records his giving us, and so we have to pause to consider its magnitude: Listen to Jesus!
5) We live in an age when listening has become far less valued, in an age of talk-radio and television talk-shows where everybody talks but few listen; in an age when more and more people are setting up personal web pages on myspace.com to tell their own stories; in an age of “tell-all” journalism; in a marketing age when we’re bombarded with advertising messages that we often receive uncritically. We live in an era of so much talking and so much noise that it is becoming harder and harder to hear the voice of God which often comes, as it did for the Prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel (see 1 Kings 19:12), in the gentle breeze of the Holy Spirit, in the whispers of daily events.
6) Faith comes, as St. Paul says so succinctly in his letter to the Romans, ex auditu, from hearing (Rom 10:17). From listening to God. Listening to him in silent prayer. Listening to his voice come alive from the pages of Sacred Scripture. Listening to his teaching echoed in the voices of the Pope, the bishops and priests whom He sent out to speak authoritatively in His Name with the promise “He who hears you hears me” (Lk 10:16). Listening to the Lord in what he says to us by daily events, the successes, the Crosses, the persons whom we meet.
7) Faith does not come, on the other hand, from ceaseless banter. Our faith will never grow if we don’t learn how to listen to the voice of the Lord. In order to grow in faith, we need to learn how to tune out so much of the noise of human life at the beginning of the 21st century and learn how to tune into the voice of the Lord. For most of us, that means doing two things.
a. First, it means that we have to make the time to listen to the Lord. We have to turn off the television, or the radio, or the ipod, or the phone, to put away the newspaper, close the magazine, and let go of the things of the world — like what we’re going to have for dinner, or what we’re going to do on the weekend, etc. — for a little while. We need to stop being so busy and stop giving our attention to these things for so much of our day.
b. The second thing we need comes later. Once we’ve got some quiet from all of the spiritual noise pollution that comes from this busy-ness, we then have to do something even more difficult. We have to shut up. We have to learn how to be quiet in front of the Lord and listen for his voice. We have to stop for a while giving him our laundry list of prayer intentions. We have to stop complaining to him about how others we live or work with are behaving. We have to stop telling him what’s wrong with his Church, or with the world, or with particular public figures, etc. We have to stop talking and listen to him, so that he can speak to us in this quiet and whisper to us from within.
8 ) Jesus never tells us merely “do what I say” but always “follow me!,” and in this two-fold task activity to help us to grow in faith through listening to God’s worth, Jesus is simply asking us to imitate his example. It’s very interesting that the first time we see Jesus acting for himself in the Gospels, he who is God’s definitive Word in whom the Father said everything, is found in the Temple in the midst of the scribes and the Pharisees, not talking, but as Luke tells us, “listening to them and asking them questions” (Lk 2:46). He was listening! Countless times during his life he went away from the crowds to be alone in prayer, either out on a boat, or away in the desert, or up on the mountain. He had to get away from the crowds, not because he didn’t love those in the crowd, but because their constant clamoring and noise would prevent his hearing His Father clearly enough so that he could love and serve them better. We see this again in today’s Gospel, when Jesus takes Peter, James and John away to the top of a high mountain to pray. It’s no coincidence that he was transfigured during a time of prayer, away from the crowds. It’s also no coincidence that the three apostles encountered the Lord in glory only after considerable exertion, only after hiking up a steep hill. The Lord was teaching us an important lesson: that if we wish to see him as he truly is, it will come only after we make the effort to leave the crowd behind, when we make the time to spend time with Jesus in undistracted prayer. In transfiguring His Son, God the Father was not only glorifying Jesus, but also teaching the three apostles, and us through them, what we need to do to encounter the Lord as he really is. And then once we have seen him without the veil, then the Father says, “Listen to him!,” because now we will know to whom we’re listening.
9) Jesus’ transfiguration is supposed to lead to our transformation through listening to Christ. Like Ezekiel, we’re supposed to eat the scroll of the Word of God and let it become part of us (Ezek 3:1). Like Mary, we’re supposed to listen so attentively to the word of God, to treasure it in our hearts and put it into practice, that the word will literally take our flesh and dwell within us. Jesus’ word is supposed to be the guiding light of our entire life and make us lighthouses for others in the midst of the tumultuous seas of the world. St. Peter tells us this in the beautiful second reading today, in which he reflected on the confirmation the Lord’s transfiguration gave to all of Jesus’ words. He said, . It’s supposed to become the guiding light of our entire life. St. Peter describes this in the second reading: “We had been eyewitnesses to his majesty. For Jesus received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘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. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. YOU WILL DO WELL TO BE ATTENTIVE TO THIS as to a LAMP SHINING IN A DARK PLACE, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Jesus’ word is a lamp shining in the darkness to guide us to our heavenly home.
10) Therefore, if we really believe that Jesus is God, if we sense his divinity penetrating through his humanity and ours, then we will listen to and act on what he says. We will base our lives on what he has told us about heaven, about hell, and about judgment. We will act on his words about mercy, that unless we forgive those who wrong us seventy times seven times, that we will never experience the consoling joy of his own mercy. We will remember his words about trusting dependence on God, that we should never worry, because our Father in heaven loves us and knows what we truly need even before we ask him. We will heed what he says about the importance of prayer, and how we should pray. We will live and echo what he has unequivocally revealed about marriage as the indissoluble union of one man and one woman. We will make him in the Eucharist the single most important reality of our life, since he said “I am the bread of life,” and revealed that “unless we eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, we will have no life within us” (6:53).
11) As we solemnly mark the great feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, God the Father is calling us to adjust the frequencies of our attention span and hearing. The Transfiguration was a manifestation of the glory of Jesus here on earth, a foretaste of the glory of Christ’s resurrection, and therefore a foretaste of heaven. Heaven, the glory of the resurrection, is the reason why God created us in the first place, and the reason why he reveals himself to us, so that we might live for ever with him in that eternal kingdom of love. The Lord at all times is whispering to us directions how to get there, but the signal sometimes is faint and to hear it; we have to concentrate on it, to find in that signal our real treasure and the frequency for our heart. At this Mass on this great feast day, in which we receive the Risen Lord transfigured and appearing not in glory but humbly as if mere bread and mine, we can ask him to transfigure us and our lives so that we may be true antennas of the divine message, receiving God’s signals and then re-broadcasting them out to a world that so desperately needs to hear them.
12) If we keep this imperative that God the Father gave the Apostles on Mount Tabor and gives to us again today, then it is our great hope that we will hear God the Father speak again, saying to us the words for which our very ears were made: “You are my beloved Son, you are my beloved daughter, in whom I am well-pleased.… Come inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world.”