05 August 2006

Homily - 6 August 2006

Today’s celebration of the transfiguration should give us reason to pause and reconsider whom this Jesus is that we seek to follow. Just what is it that Jesus calls us to do? As the disciples come down the mountain with Jesus today they are confused, baffled and puzzled as to why the glory of Jesus no longer shone before.

Having seen his glory the disciples could not understand what Jesus meant when he told them to keep this event quiet until he should rise from the dead. Indeed, Mark tells us that, as they descended the mountain, the disciples were still “questioning what rising from the dead meant” (Mark 9:10). The disciples did not understand this statement of Jesus because they did not yet understand that the Messiah must suffer and die and so enter into his glory. How often do we, too, misunderstand the mission of the Messiah as well?

If we were with Peter, James and John on the mountain with the Lord standing there with Moses and Elijah I have a feeling that we would say with Peter, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here!” (Mark 9:5). How easy it would be for us to stay in the presence of the Lord to behold his glory, never having to work, never having to fear, never having to feel the pain of love, never having to embrace the Cross.

Yet even so, why were the Apostles “so terrified” at seeing Jesus “transfigured before them”? (Mark 9:6). They would have known well the vision proclaimed for us from the prophet Daniel:

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 (Daniel 7:9-10).
You will recall that Jesus’ clothes, too, “became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). Upon Mount Tabor Peter, James and John were permitted a glimpse of Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God and the King of heaven and earth. As they beheld his brilliant radiance, they began to understand that this Jesus was more than they had previously imagined, his power and his glory far greater than they had expected.

But why does the Ancient One sit upon a throne of fire? Fire has always represented holiness and purity and such a throne demonstrates the absolute holiness of God. In the vision of Isaiah and again in that of John, the angels standing around the throne of God cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3) and “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8)). Three times do they cry “holy” to make known the superlative quality of God; there is nothing holier than God himself and because of this his face radiates with a tremendously bright light. So bright, in fact, that the six-winged seraphim – themselves made of fire – must shield their eyes in the presence of God. When Moses came down from the mountain after speaking with the Lord, he, too, had to veil his face when speaking with the people because his face now shone with the radiance of God, so great is the glory of God.

This helps to explain, then, why “a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; [and] from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.’” (Mark 9:7). Even these chosen three could only look upon the glory of the Lord for a short time.

Let us return now to the vision of Daniel. When the heavenly court was convened, he 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 (Daniel 7:13-14).
For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the phrase “Son of man” was a code word of sorts for a divine figure. In Jesus Christ, the Son of man is the Son of God.

But what is more, after the Father raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, and after Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, he ascended to the right hand of the Father upon the clouds, accompanied by the angels. Seated now at the right hand of the Father, Jesus is Christ the King who governs all things and who will return in glory to judge the living and the dead, whose dominion is everlasting.

The Apostles immediately recognized the glory of Christ and his dominion in the transfiguration and so on the way down the mountain there is no need to question this, but they did not understand that Jesus must rise from the dead, for they did not understand that he must die and so they questioned what this meant.

Pope Benedict XVI recently pointed out that Peter, James and John were each present at both the transfiguration and at the Garden of Gethsemane.

Therefore, it is a question of two very different situations: In the one case, James, with the other two disciples, experiences the Lord’s glory, sees him speaking with Moses and Elijah, sees the divine splendor revealed in Jesus; in the other, he finds himself before suffering and humiliation; he sees with his own eyes how the Son of God humbles himself, becoming obedient unto death… [They] had to discern how the Messiah, awaited by the Jewish people as a victor, was in reality not only surrounded by honor and glory, but also by sufferings and weakness. The glory of Christ was realized precisely on the cross, in taking part in our sufferings (Wednesday Audience, 21 June 2006).
The same is true for us. In the waters of baptism we died with Christ and rose with him to new life. The glory of Christ is realized in us precisely because we share in his Cross.

All those who wish to follow after Christ and so share fully in the glory of his Resurrection must run to the Cross and embrace it. This Saint Francis of Assisi knew well. Just before he received the sacred stigmata – the five holy wounds of the Savior – Francis said:

My Lord Jesus Christ, I pray you to grant me two graces before I die: the first is that during my life I may feel in my soul and in my body, as much as possible, that pain which You, dear Jesus, sustained in the hour of Your most bitter passion. The second is that I may feel in my heart, as much as possible, that excessive love with which You, O Son of God, were inflamed in willingly enduring such suffering for us sinners.
Francis, with the advantage of hindsight, was able to understand what the Apostles were unable to grasp: that glory is revealed precisely in weakness and in suffering. This is the heart of the Paschal Mystery. To this we are called.

To many people today this acceptance of suffering seems rather absurd, foolish and maybe even stupid. But as St. Peter tells us today, “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” (II Peter 1:16). The glory of the Cross comes not from man but from God. It is a glory that the wisdom of this world cannot understand.

Let us then embrace the Cross and realize that “The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself” (II Timothy 2:11-13).

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