Transfiguration: To See with New Eyes

Lord, it is good for us to be here!

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine  March 12, 2017

“Lord, it is good for us to be here!” These words, spoken by Peter on behalf of the disciples in today’s Gospel, express my sentiments well as we come together today (at St. Gabriel’s) to celebrate this Eucharist (Mass of Anticipation). 

The readings from scripture we have just listened to are not primarily historical accounts recording narratives about the central figures from our faith tradition: Abraham and Sarah, Paul, or the disciples who accompanied Jesus up the mountain to his transfiguration.  For those of us to whom these documents are part of a living faith tradition, they are so much more than that: God’s living word, cutting more sharply than a two-edged sword, revealing the hidden thoughts and depths of our hearts. 

As such, they invite us in: to reflect on our own lives in their light, to allow them to illumine our own experience, and most importantly, to guide that experience into the fullness of truth and life that God desires us to know and to participate in.

Today, two great stories of our faith – the Genesis account of the call of Abram, and Matthew’s telling of the transfiguration of Jesus – are proposed for our meditation.  They invite us to deepen our faith in the only way faith can really be deepened: by a growing trust and openness to the One who speaks to us in his Word, who invites us to establish our lives on the solid foundation of a relationship rooted in faith, hope and love. 

What must it have been like for Abram to receive this call to leave behind his country, his family, all that was familiar to him, and journey into a distant and unfamiliar land?  (Link with the experience of my ancestors – the Ryans of Co. Tipperary, the Wilkinsons of Liverpool, the Baillairges of Poitou-Charentes, the Lafontaines of Normandy).   What must it be like today for those who risk life and limb to leave behind beloved homelands which have become places of war and famine and devastation, who seek out a better future for themselves, for their children and grandchildren? 

Like Abraham and Sarah, we too are invited to respond to God’s call to venture forward: to share in a greater reality and an expanded vision.  Listen to the promise: “I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing … in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  God offers us a deeper, fuller life: not in the sense of material wealth and prosperity, but a future full of hope.  Hope not just for me, for us, for those “like us”, but for all peoples: it is a blessing that can and must bring life to others too. 

But in order for this blessing to become possible, we have to leave something behind.  For some, it is literally their country, in the geographical sense.  But for many of us, to leave behind “our country” is to begin to detach ourselves from those things on which we have relied for security and comfort: our ideas, our prejudices, our self-righteousness, our fears, our dependence on the love and approval of others, our desire for certainty.  It can be a call to let go of a job that has become soul-destroying, a toxic image of God which blocks our human and spiritual growth.  There are many such countries God might be inviting us to leave behind, so that we can move forward into life: fullness of life, life experienced as compassion and forgiveness, of service and self-giving, of acceptance and inclusion.  This gift is never meant to be “just for us”.  By necessity, it changes our way of being with others, of being in the world, so that truly: “In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

How do these changes become possible?  What has the power to shake us out of the complacency and comfort of our everyday lives to set out on a new adventure, to risk everything, to respond to this divine call to go forth? The book of Genesis doesn’t spell it out in detail: it just says “The Lord said to Abram.”  And concludes, “So Abram went, as the Lord told him.”  Yet something very powerful must have happened inside Abram – and Sarah, too, for presumably she went along willingly – to give them the courage to set out on this adventure, to endure the disbelief and possibly the ridicule of their families and their countrymen, not quite sure where they were going or how God was going to provide for them.

Perhaps it was an experience not unlike that lived by Peter, James and John in today’s Gospel.  An experience so wonderful, you don’t want it to end.  What have those experiences been for you?  A beautiful sunset?  The sense of really being heard and accepted by a friend?  The ecstasy of falling in love?  An exceptionally fine glass of wine (or whisky)?  A beautiful dream from which you wake up?  An inflow of strength in a time of a trial?  , A quiet moment of prayer after communion?  A walk in the woods where you feel a sense of inner peace: at one with God, at one with the universe? 

These moments in our lives can be termed TRANSFIGURATIONS.  They lift us up out of the cynicism and busyness of our everyday lives.  They grace us with an awareness of God's glory in the very heart of our experience.  In our full and busy lives, these moments can seem very few and far between.  Often, we are so preoccupied by our many concerns and projects that we fail to see them; we give up looking for them, stop believing that they are even possible.  We often forget about that easily-overlooked gift of the Holy Spirit: what our parents called “the fear of the Lord”, but which our children are taught as “wonder and awe”, the ability to see the glory of God in the midst of the hustle and bustle of our daily lives.

There is another extreme, of course: that of pursuing those moments, clinging to them, using them to escape from the problems of our daily lives.  Like Peter in today's Gospel, when we have this experience, we want to build a tent, settle in for the night, prolong the experience, make it last as long as possible.  Have you ever felt that way – at the end of a really good book or film, or a great song that stirs your soul, or a holiday that has been a time of joy and discovery, or a weekend away with a beloved spouse or best friend, delighting in each other’s company? 

We all know this feeling.  But once we've begun to cling to an experience, when we think that we have some inherent right to have it, to own it, to control it, we cease seeing it for what it really is: a gift from God.  It's like chasing after a butterfly, or catching a soap bubble, or tracking a deer – you capture the butterfly, and you crush it; you touch the bubble, it bursts; you come one step too close, and the deer disappears into the woods.  The challenge is to enter fully into the experience, to enjoy it and treasure it while it lasts, and to fully let go when it passes.  And believe me, this is easier said than done!! 

We can spend our lives chasing after “peak experiences”, or alternately, denying their existence.  But in the end, what we are called to is  Transfiguration: not as a one-off event – now you see him, now you don’t – but as an ongoing dynamic at the very heart of faith and life.  These more dramatic events reveal to us a dimension of our life which, though often veiled from our sight, is nonetheless available to our experience.  Transfiguration is not so much an event outside of me, but a transformed perception through which I begin to see God at work in all things, in all events, in all people, in every aspect of our personal and communal lives, in the universe he created.  It is the world-view of the contemplative, the artist, the poet, the mystic.  It is an invitation to leave behind the narrow country of my ego and my self-obsession, to step out into the deep beauty of God’s world and to see it through God’s all-loving, penetrating vision. 

For in the end, it is Love that transfigures us.  It reveals to us a beauty which cannot be captured by a computer screen or glossy magazine or flickering TV image, however High-Definition.  And it was the love of Jesus – love for his disciples, his people, for all of struggling humanity – that allowed him to go to the Cross, and to do so willingly.  Why did Jesus ask Peter, James and John to be with him on the mountain that day?  Perhaps he felt it would be easier for his friends to understand and accept his destiny, his decision to be faithful to his Father even unto death, if they had a taste of the glory of the Resurrection to come.  Perhaps he knew that at some deep level, this event, this experience would register.  That even if they couldn't yet see it, eventually they would understand that his glory and his Cross were not opposed, mutually exclusive, but two different expressions of his total love for us, two successive steps in his promised victory over sin and death.

Jesus' Transfiguration is a call to us to allow our own lives to be transformed, to be infused with a new hope, a new light.  This, in the end, is what Lent is about: it is a season of transformation, a time in which we invite the Lord to transform us, by making room for him in our hearts and our lives, by accepting to meet him in the totality of our lives: the shame as well as the glory, the Cross as well as the Resurrection.

In his famous "I have a dream" speech, Martin Luther King proclaimed, "I've been to the mountaintop ... and I've seen the glory."  For Dr. King, the mountain was not a nice, safe refuge from the pain and strife of a messy, unjust world; the dream was not a fantasy-world into which he escaped, but a profound belief that the peaceable kingdom, the universal brotherhood for which he had prayed and worked for so long, would one day be a reality: in God's time, if not his own.  More than most of us, Dr. King knew that the path to glory led necessarily through the Cross.

What is revealed in the Transfiguration is what the Anglican poet Malcolm Guite has called “the Love that dances at the heart of things.”  May the words of this sonnet open for us a transfigured vision of faith and of life:

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.