The Promise of the Transfiguration

“There will be light again.”

The gospel this Second Sunday of Lent recalls a story familiar to all Christians – the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ in Mount Tabor. Mark writes sparingly about the event:

“After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.  His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus . . . As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

A few years ago, Pope Francis reflected on this event, now commemorated by the Catholic Church as a Luminous Mystery of the Holy Rosary. He summarized the Transfiguration in two words: ascent and descent. According to the Pope: “We all need to go apart, to ascend the mountain in a space of silence, to find ourselves and better perceive the voice of the Lord. This we do in prayer. But we cannot stay there!” He then emphasized that encountering God in prayer should inspire us to “descend the mountain” and “return to the plain where we meet many brothers weighed down by fatigue, sickness, injustice, ignorance, poverty both material and spiritual.”

Pope John Paul II said something similar 40 years ago. He describes this Sunday’s Eucharist as taking us in spirit to Mount Tabor together with the Apostles Peter, James and John, to admire in rapture the splendor of the transfigured Lord. There, “In the event of the Transfiguration we contemplate the mysterious encounter between history, which is being built every day, and the blessed inheritance that awaits us in heaven in full union with Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”

What happens, according to Pope John Paul II, is that: “We, pilgrims on earth, are granted to rejoice in the company of the transfigured Lord when we immerse ourselves in the things of above through prayer and the celebration of the divine mysteries. But, like the disciples, we too must descend from Tabor into daily life where human events challenge our faith. On the mountain we saw; on the paths of life we are asked tirelessly to proclaim the Gospel which illuminates the steps of believers.

Pope Benedict XVI, who succeeded John Paul II and was the predecessor of Francis, invites us tomorrow to focus our gaze on this mystery of light so beautifully described in the gospel: “On the transfigured face of Jesus, a ray of light which he held within shines forth. This same light was to shine on Christ’s face on the day of the resurrection. In this sense, the Transfiguration appears as a foretaste of the Paschal Mystery.” Indeed, according to Benedict: “The Transfiguration invites us to open the eyes of our hearts to the mystery of God’s light, present throughout salvation history.”

Finally, a word from another Saint-Pope, Paul VI who issued in 1964 his first inaugural encyclical on the Feast of the Transfiguration and who, fourteen years later, on the same Feast, passed to eternal life. In that encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, Paul VI writes about the Church in its dialogue with the world. He emphasized how the Gospel reminds us of the need to keep ourselves distinct from the world. By the world, he meant “either those human beings who are opposed to the light of faith and the gift of grace, those whose naive optimism betrays them into thinking that their own energies suffice to win them complete, lasting, and gainful prosperity, or, finally, those who take refuge in an aggressively pessimistic outlook on life and maintain that their vices, weaknesses and moral ailments are inevitable, incurable, or perhaps even desirable as sure manifestations of personal freedom and sincerity.”

But then Paul VI pivoted and proclaimed how the Gospel of Christ recognizes the existence of human infirmities: “It recognizes and denounces them with penetrating and often fierce sincerity. Yet it also understands them and cures them. It does not cherish the illusion that man is naturally good and self-sufficient, and needs only the ability to express himself as he pleases. Nor does it countenance a despairing acquiescence in the irremediable corruption of human nature.” For indeed, “Christ’s Gospel is light, newness, strength, salvation, and rebirth. It brings to birth a new and different kind of life, the marvels of which are proclaimed in the pages of the New Testament.”

This is the promise of Transfiguration: we are children of light and the darkness we might experience today, because of the pandemic and other reasons, is not permanent. There will be light again.

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