Saturday, August 05, 2006

His Face Shone Like the Sun

On Sunday we celebrate the great feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord, which is the patronal feast of our monastery. Six days before Jesus was transfigured on Mt Tabor, Peter had pronounced his famous confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Now, on the holy mountain, Jesus confirms Peter’s confession, by showing him what it means that He is the Son of God.

Perhaps Peter simply understood Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah of Israel—and He was that, but much more. Peter had met a man at the shore of the lake of Galilee, followed this man on his mission of preaching and healing. Yet even in recognizing in this man the Son of God, I think that Peter, without the benefit of our theological tradition, did not quite identify Jesus with the Holy and Transcendent God of the patriarchs and prophets. So Jesus did something to help change all that.

The evangelist Matthew tells us: “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as the light.” There was quite obviously something more to the Son of God than the Messiah of Israel! On Mt Tabor the glory of God shone forth from the humanity of Jesus, and the disciples were struck with awe and wonder as the voice of God spoke through the shining cloud that overshadowed them. So I think the apostles had to reflect a little more about just what “Son of God” meant.

The transfiguration was a moment of revelation—not only of the divinity of Christ but of the plan of the Father for the salvation of the world. First of all, the appearance of Moses and Elijah indicate that Jesus’ coming was in continuity with, and the fulfillment of, all that God had formerly revealed through the Law and the Prophets. In the Divine Liturgy, there is a prayer after Communion that begins: “O Christ our God, You are the fulfillment of the law and the prophets and the Father’s whole plan of salvation…” That is precisely what is being communicated on Mt Tabor at the time of the transfiguration. For it was not only that Moses and Elijah appeared, but the Father Himself spoke and approved the Person and mission of his beloved Son. When Moses spoke with God on Mt Sinai, his face shone when he returned. But that was only a reflected glory. When the face of the only-begotten Son shone on Mt Tabor, it was with a Light generated from within, from his own divine nature.

We have to look to Luke’s version to get a couple other details of this revelation. What did Jesus have to do to fulfill the Father’s plan of salvation? Luke says that during the transfiguration Jesus was speaking to Moses and Elijah of the “exodus” that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Of course that reminds us of the first exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The Passover lamb was slain, and its blood protected the chosen people from destruction. That was the key event, the defining moment in the history of the people of God, and henceforth God would be known as “the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” After Jesus’ exodus in Jerusalem, the apostles would henceforth preach him to the nations as the Lord who was crucified and who rose from the dead, whose Blood saves us from sin and eternal death. The plan of the Father, which was dramatically initiated in the first exodus, was to be definitively fulfilled in Christ’s death and resurrection, and Moses and Elijah appeared to confirm it on Mt Tabor. This is part of what Jesus meant when he said He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.

There is another element associated with the exodus which helped reveal the mystery of Jesus’ divine sonship to the disciples. In chapter 24 of the Book of Exodus, God called Moses to come up Mt Sinai to meet Him and to receive his divine commandments. A cloud surrounded the mountain, and Moses entered into the cloud to meet God. On Mt Tabor a brilliant cloud overshadowed the mountain, and Luke tells us that the apostles, in fear and trembling, entered into the cloud.

There they heard the voice of the Father testifying to his divine Son. They received no commandments written in stone, for the living and eternal Word of God in the flesh was standing right before them, and the Father simply instructed them to listen to Him. Moses could only bring the words of God down from the mountain, but the disciples could hear the words of God continually from the lips of Jesus. A new revelation, a new covenant was being enacted by Christ, one that would be fulfilled at the last supper and on the Cross. Moses spilled the blood of sacrificed animals on the altar and proclaimed: “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you.” At the last supper, Jesus took a cup of wine and said: “This is the blood of the covenant; the new and everlasting covenant; this is my blood, which is shed for you.”

The significance of entering into the cloud in the presence of Jesus and of hearing the voice of the Father could not have been lost on the disciples. They knew what it meant to go up a mountain, enter a cloud and hear a thundering voice. Perhaps they realized that they were suddenly in over their heads, that this mystery was too grand, glorious, and intense to endure for very long. So Peter, somewhat beside himself, thought that he could somehow manage or contain this mystery by enshrining it in booths, monuments. There, now they could fondly remember what had happened without actually having to endure it any longer! But Jesus didn’t even grace his request with a response. He wasn’t interested in monuments; He wanted the disciples themselves to be interiorly transfigured by the experience, to keep it alive, and eventually to share it with the world—as Peter indeed did, when he wrote of the experience in his Second Letter. The message from the Father was: now you know who He is; listen to Him. Then the blinding light and the cloud disappeared, and only Jesus was left.

We must carry the mystery of transfiguration within ourselves, for it is the goal, as well as the process, of spiritual life. We are gradually being transfigured, until the day when its fullness is revealed. But this will only happen if we take it seriously, climb the mountain, enter the cloud, listen to the word of Christ and follow Him, even unto the Cross. It doesn’t happen by default or by just showing up for services. You have to want it, more than anything else, and you have to consistently employ the means given by God through the Church to open our hearts to the truth and love of God, to clear away all that keeps us blind to his glory, to make an interior space where God is pleased to dwell and to be revealed to others.

We are his beloved sons and daughters. Let us remember our dignity and act accordingly—put away all pettiness, self-indulgence, and excessive concerns about ourselves. Stop looking at yourself and your own needs, says the Gospel. Look at Jesus, whose face is shining like the sun! He will make all things new for you. Seek first his kingdom and He will take care of you. If you can’t trust Him you have no business calling yourself a Christian. So rise to the occasion, and have no fear. The Lord is with us and calls us out of ourselves into life in Him—the only life worthy of the name. St Paul says Christ will transform our lowly bodies into images of his glory; and Jesus confirms it when He says: the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of the Father (Mt. 13:43).