four ways to the transfiguration

(cyprian)

I sometimes think I’m reading too much into this, but I keep coming up with the same line of thought over and over, about how we are supposed to share in whatever Jesus experienced. And then I stumble onto it again; as I was preparing for Mass I noticed that the prayer after communion prays that we should give thanksgiving to God “for allowing us while still on earth to be partakers even now of the things of heaven.” While still on earth! Even now! We also heard a wonderful reading from Pope Saint Leo the Great this morning and he reminds us that the transfiguration, which we celebrate today, wasn’t only to soften the scandal of the cross: the transfiguration also showed that “the members of Christ’s Body   could expect to share in the glory revealed in their head.”[1]

So with that in mind I want to start with the second reading today from the Letter to the Philippians (3:17-4:1) ithn which we hear the promise to ourselves, the significance of Jesus’ transfiguration for us: We are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory. This is a passage of scripture that the Church associates with death. When Eucharistic Prayer III is used in Masses for the Dead, the priest can add a little section that includes these words, and we pray that the one “who was united with your son in a death like his may also be united with him in his Resurrection, when from the earth he will raise up in the flesh those who have died, and transform our lowly body after the pattern of his own glorious body.”[2] So the Church takes this all very literally! I am quite fond of that, but I also like to add two caveats: first, that we have no idea what that will actually look like; and secondly, that this is the promise for all creation too, a kind of transfiguration, for all creation is groaning and in agony while we await the redemption of our bodies. So we know the telos, the end-goal––that he will transfigure our lowly bodies into glorious copies of his own. The rest of the story is how we get there.

It’s significant that we hear this story on the second week of Lent, especially if we put ourselves in the shoes of those who are preparing for Baptism at Easter. What does it mean, as the Eucharistic Prayer says, to be “united with Jesus in a death like his”? It means more than the literal crucifixion. It means a whole life of kenosis, a whole life of self-emptying. And that’s what Baptism is all about, dying with Jesus so that our whole beings, even our lowly bodies, can be transfigured by the indwelling power of the Spirit; dying like Jesus so as to live a life like his, to carry in our bodies the death of the Lord, as Paul says, so that our gift to the world will be his life. I see four ways that point toward our sharing in the death of the Lord so as to share in the glory, in some way even here on earth.

The first is the exodus: We are replete with images from the Jewish scriptures in this story of the transfiguration. Of course there are Moses and Elijah, symbolizing the Law and the Prophets, at Jesus’ side, showing how Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the fulfillment of all prophecy. But Moses is especially significant here because we have all manner of allusions to the Exodus. This is one place where the Revised New American Bible has a better translation: Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah about his “exodus.” It’s not enough to say his ‘death’; it’s better to say his ‘passage’; but it’s beautiful to refer to it as Jesus’ ‘exodus’––his own journey, from the darkness of the tomb, from the snares of the nether world, from the snares of death to the glory of the resurrection; from Friday’s ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me’ to Easter morning’s ‘Awake at last I am with you still. Your right hand holds me fast. And then we have Peter making reference to the Feast of Booths, wanting to erect three tents––‘let us make three tents!’ he rather naively says. (The Feast of Booths, of course, is when the Jews spent a week living in tents to remind themselves of the forty years in the desert.) Jesus’ exodus was the passage through this earthly life, with all its joys and pains, glories and sorrows. And certainly it was from the horrific death on the cross and the darkness of the grave to the amazing event of resurrection. The more important question is what is our exodus? What aspect of life are we supposed to leave behind so as to enter into the promised land? And especially from what slavery do we wish to be released so that the body of our humiliation can be transformed into a body of glory?

And that leads to the second way. The reference to the Old Testament that I found especially interesting is the reference to Abraham. And this year, of course, we hear God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 15, that he will take possession of the land ‘from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates, in the midst of the narrative of this mysterious nighttime sacrifice. But the Church doesn’t only offer us a story about Abraham this year (Cycle C) for the Second Sunday of Lent; she offers us a story about Abraham all three years in association with the gospel of the transfiguration. In Year A we hear the call of Abraham from Genesis 12; in Year B we hear the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. This is part of the way to sharing in the transfiguration and glory of Jesus: to be like Abraham who sacrificed Isaac, we have to undergo the death of putting what we love on the altar of sacrifice. In order to become a vessel of divinity, we have to be like Abraham and risk the death of leaving our homeland, our comfort zones, to embark on a madcap journey across uncharted territory, not sure where or what the destination is, but only having the blind faith that the Spirit is leading us. What is the dark way of faith to which we are called? What is it that we love that we need to lay on the altar today and every day?

A third way that we are led to share in Jesus’ kenosis: note that Jesus hears pretty much the same voice that he heard at his baptism: ‘Here is my servant, my son, my chosen.’ As I understand it, these words are pretty much interchangeable––servant, son, chosen, in reference back to the Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, especially Isaiah 42. If we want to share in the transfiguration we need to be servant-children of the Most High. I always think that the text from Isaiah 58 is one of the most significant texts of Lent, though it goes by on a rather obscure day––the Friday after Ash Wednesday––, but if we are really paying attention it is setting the tone for us. It’s not all about me, and what I do to make myself holy and pure with my fasting and prayer. But Isaiah tells us:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness…[3]

This too is the way to the promise of our sharing in Jesus’ transfigured glory, by being servant.

One last way, a little more subtle: there are two little details that Luke adds to his narrative about the transfiguration that the other gospels do not. First of all is that this transfiguration takes place in the context of prayer: Luke tells us that they went up the mountain to pray, and it happened while they were praying. He also adds the detail that Peter and his companions were overcome by sleep but becoming fully awake they saw Jesus’ glory. I have often thought that this detail refers to something like an enlightenment experience. Maybe the veil is lifted for a moment, and they are actually seeing Jesus for the first time in his real state. But we could also associate it with the trance that fell upon Abram in the first story. In Greek this is translated as ecstasis, an ecstasy, like the ecstasy that comes upon Adam when Eve is drawn out of his body too. I put the two together and think of this as the ecstasy of prayer. When and if we can really surrender our old ways of knowing to the cloud of un-knowing and allow ourselves to be drawn out of our ordinary consciousness. Really, for me meditation is a little death too, letting for of my ego and all the handles I hold onto to control life. This, too, is the way toward Christ changing our lowly bodies into glorious copies of his own, to make ourselves fully available to God in prayer and meditation, to allow ourselves to be transformed by surrender to the immensity of the mystery of God, out of our ordinary consciousness and even be drawn to share the Taboric light. Remember Abba Joseph saying, “If you will, you could become all flame!” This is why the transfiguration is such a popular name for monasteries.

Remember the promise: He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory. The journey of Baptism for the catechumen, and the journey for us from Lent to Easter, is from our earthly life as we know it to our own transfiguration and a share in the resurrection, to new creation. Remember that this event takes place before Jesus’ physical death. There’s a promise there too that just as we can already share in the power of the resurrection, the Spirit of the Risen Christ, this side of physical death, so might it not be that we can also share in the glory of the transfiguration even this side of death? Like the burning bush that Moses saw, unconsumed by the flame, so Jesus now becomes like a burning bush, a vessel of the Spirit, an unconsumed but transfigured vessel of the indwelling power of the Spirit. So we too can be vessels of divinity if we carry in our bodies the kenosis of Jesus so that our gift to the world can be his life. He will transfigure our lowly bodies into glorious copies of his own. What does it mean to be “united with Jesus in a death like his”? It means more than the literal crucifixion; it means a whole life of kenosis, a whole life of self-emptying, believing that God can help us make our exodus from what enslaves us, by walking the dark way of faith like Abraham and laying what we love on the altar; by being servant like Jesus; allowing ourselves to be drawn into the cloud of unknowing in our prayer and meditation.

The transfiguration wasn’t only to soften the scandal of the cross; the transfiguration also showed that “the members of Christ’s Body could expect to share in the glory revealed in their head.”

He will transfigure our lowly bodies into glorious copies of his own.

Image: “Transfiguration,” by Charles Emerson

[1] Sermo 51, 3-4, 8.

[2] I like to think of our own Fr. Vagaggini adding these words with a smile as he composed Eucharistic Prayer III, he who really understood Tertullian’s maxim that “The flesh is the instrument of salvation.”

[3] Is 58:6-8; 9-10.

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