Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
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.”
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Spring is supposed to be here in three days. I don’t know if this was one of the darkest winters in history, but it sure has been one of the coldest on record! We might have even set some records for snowfall. The snow is beautiful when it first comes down, covering the earth in a pure blanket of white. But after months of cold, when the snow has turned to a dirty, slushy and crusty consistency, it’s easy to get sick of it all. When I was in college, we called February the Dark Ages. By this time each year, we were sick of the cold, the dark, and the overcast skies.
That’s how this winter felt, like the Dark Ages. So, when the Sun came out this last week, it was like a promise of better days ahead! On Saturday, it was sunny and relatively warm, so I opened up the doors to the back porch and let the sunlight – and the fresh air—into the house to sweep through and freshen things up. I knew then that the Sun and the warmth were temporary, that another cold snap was coming in, but I recognized that the brief respite, the warmth and Sun, were a promise of warmer days ahead.
In the same way, Jesus’ Transfiguration is a promise of better days ahead.
Just before the Transfiguration, Jesus had told his disciples of his coming persecution, that He would have to suffer and die. “What?!” They must have been despondent! But now, Jesus treats Peter, James and John to a view of things to come, a promise of His glory. They witness Jesus transformed into His divine, glorious appearance, shining brightly, brighter even than the Sun!
They witness Jesus, the fulfillment of both the law and the prophecy, speaking to the Fathers of our Faith who delivered both the law and prophecy—Moses and Isaiah. This Transfiguration is His promise to us! Not only will we witness Christ in His glory, but we will transformed–physically–to a glorious appearance. The Catechism calls the Transfiguration “a foretaste of Christ’s glorious coming, when he ‘will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body.’”
Peter is so taken by this experience that he seems to blurt out nonsense about building tents. In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, it tells us that Peter “did not know what he was saying.” We know that Peter has a habit of putting his foot into his mouth. In fact, not long before the Transfiguration Jesus rebukes Peter, telling him “Get behind me, Satan!”, because of something Peter said. So maybe Peter was just speaking to fill in an awkward silence.
But we also know that Peter has shown an openness to the Holy Spirit. Just before the Transfiguration, Jesus had asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am.” Peter responded, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus tells him. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Peter was open to the Holy Spirit, which revealed Christ’s true nature to him.
So I wonder if Peter, at the Transfiguration, was again open to the Holy Spirit. And because of the Holy Spirit, he recognized that the Church – and our relationship with Christ and each other – is not a spectator relationship. We are not called to watch, but to act in the Spirit. And perhaps Peter was moved by the Holy Spirit to say something, to be part of the worship he was witnessing.
And what Peter, James and John witnessed was more than just a momentary transformation of flesh and blood, but a promise.
“The brightness was … the manifestation of His true divine nature. For Peter, James, and John, it was also a glimpse of the glories of heaven and of the resurrected body promised to all Christians.”
Jesus will later warn his disciples of the suffering they will experience:
“Watch out for yourselves. They will hand you over to the courts. You will be beaten in synagogues. You will be arraigned before governors and kings because of me, as a witness before them.”
The “glimpse of the glories of heaven”, then, was given to Peter, James and John to bolster their faith in the coming days of persecution, which begins with Christ’s agony in the Garden, and continue even to the persecution of the Church today. Pope Francis tells us that there are more Christian martyrs dying for our faith today than in the early centuries. God’s promise, as manifest in the Transfiguration, is for us. But God promises more for us who persist in our Faith.
God has given us other signs of His promise, including the rainbow, which he showed to Noah as a sign of His covenant with Noah. And in Ezekiel, the rainbow is compared to a vision of brilliance much like the Transfiguration: “Just like the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day so was the appearance of brilliance that surrounded him. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.” (Was Ezekiel’s vision describing the Transfiguration?)
How appropriate it is that God give us His promise in the form of light. And that Jesus–transformed–appears as the full spectrum the rainbow, all colors of sunlight recombined. Think of what sunlight does for us.
- Sunlight disinfects: “The ultraviolet radiation in sunlight does work as a natural disinfectant and is used regularly to disinfect drinking water in countries such as India, Kenya, and Peru.”
- and “[A study ]suggests the sun’s UV rays inactivate the chickenpox virus on the skin before it has a chance to transmit to another person”
- Sunlight cleans and bleaches: “This photochemical change is what causes stains to disappear on soiled laundry and brighten whites. Left in the sun for several hours, the ultra violet radiation will also kill the bacteria on textiles and other household goods.”
- Sunlight nourishes: “Vitamin D is recognized as the sunshine vitamin.”
- Sunlight soothes: “[W]hen sunlight touches our skin, a compound called nitric oxide that helps lower blood pressure, is released into our blood vessels.”
Like the early Spring sunshine, Christ’s Transfiguration promises us light that does more than brightens the day. He will nourish us. He will cleanse us. He will purify us. He will calm us. That is the light He offers us.
And when we lose a loved one, we recognize this promise and sustain each other when we pray for the decease: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
And so, when we each suffer our spiritual winters, we must remember God’s promise. In his address before the Angelus on August 6, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI said, “we urgently need to emerge from the darkness of evil, to experience the joy of the children of light!”
But also, as we are called into the New Evangelization, we need to recognize when others are in the darkness of their personal winters. And then we need to reflect the light of the Transfiguration to show them the promise of their salvation.