“Peter did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”
Curious, strange and fearful things happened on Mt. Tabor. The famous Transfiguration we hear about today becomes something curiouser and curiouser the more one thinks on it. Curious, because it is an event that sees the disciples “terrified.” It leads me to ask, has Christ ever frightened you? We speak of “fear of the Lord” as the beginning of true wisdom: have you ever been wise enough to be afraid of just what the gospel means for you and I, and the world we all know?
In Catholic teaching, the purpose of the Transfiguration was to fortify the apostles for the coming crisis: Peter, James and John were the “inner circle” of the twelve. Pope St. Leo the Great wrote that this revelation was so that “their faith would not be disturbed by the humiliation” of Jesus’ public execution. So, this event is a counterpoint to the coming Passion of Christ. When we think about how it is represented, the Transfiguration is a mirror image of the episode in the Garden of Gethsemane where the drowsy disciples awake to the arrest of Jesus in the night; here they are roused to a glorious vision in the full light of day.
So, again, how strange that in both instances, the reaction is terror. This report of fear would seem to counter that assertion that it was to build confidence. What did they see that made them so afraid?
There’s a psychological term I’m hearing more of lately: cognitive dissonance. It’s an interesting concept and one best that describes a lot of what is going on in certain quarters of western society.
It’s a psychological phenomenon that comes from people trying to hold contrary ideas or conflicting information in their minds. The result of cognitive dissonance can be fear, anger, panic, depression. So, the dissonance needs to be resolved for the sake of peace of mind. That is, something’s got to give, something’s got to go, or else every time the contradiction is revisited an emotional response will arise, and the irrational takes over as the mind tries to square what cannot be resolved, tries to paper over the cracks in the edifice of one’s world view.
This is happening in our politics and secular culture, and we’ve seen the unrest here and abroad. A great deal of the fear and anxiety that finds release in anger and violence is the result of a growing collective psychosis as we find our institutions and political processes don’t seem to work very well, reflect our concerns and priorities, but seem hijacked and under the control of others, an unseen elite, the twitter mob, and so on. This contradicts our democratic convictions and cherished beliefs about our society, its freedoms and how they are guaranteed by such things as the parliamentary and party system, the courts, and more broadly the schools and centres of culture that are to educate and integrate us so as to make it all work.
For a dramatic example from recent history of cognitive dissonance on a mass scale, we need only look to when the utopia that was to have been the Soviet Union failed to materialize. It’s a fair observation that the whole of the Russian people fell into a mass depression that preceded the demise of that regime once harsh reality was accepted. Even more startling is, if you read accounts of the Soviet leadership’s internal discussions, one sees increasing paranoia and delusion among those leaders as the whole system headed toward collapse—very dangerous indeed, to have had desperate men in control of an arsenal of nuclear weapons. It was hard to cope with the fact that all that was believed, taught, fought for, sacrificed for, in both blood and treasure, came to nothing. The psychosis was only relieved once reality was accepted, and the Soviet Empire ceased to be.
I’ve said and written before that the civic religion of the west, of Canada, really has become politics and the divisions are not along denominational lines, but the different competing ideologies. Most people are better categorized as conservatives, liberals or socialists than they are as Catholics, Lutherans or Baptists. Invested in these secular faiths, the impending crisis is one where people either cease in their delusions about the world, and are painfully but necessarily disillusioned, or we plunge into further crises as political beliefs are clung to, and ideologies grow increasingly irrational, even violent as a way to defend them.
It’s interesting to note, that it is people of faith who tend to be far happier and more at peace in times of political and economic stress. By that, I don’t mean they achieve this by just going to church, synagogue or temple, that alone won’t change anything. It’s that they’ve really, at heart, chosen the life of faith. Stake your salvation on Christ, and the world can do what it will.
Getting back to our little group on Mt. Tabor, we have to note that Peter, James and John are still trying to work out just who Jesus is. Now they do this in the context of being people living in the First Century, as Jews in the Galilee, at a time when the Roman Empire was approaching its zenith of power.
They’re men who have become somewhat disillusioned with the leadership of their day: the Herodian princes, the Temple priesthood, the scribes, and the leaders of the different factions like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots.
They have a vision of what the perfect world ought to look like; and its not one they dreamed up on their own. This has been given to them, transmitted down through the centuries. The world will be alright, with God in His heaven, once Israel is independent, free and autonomous, the Temple cleansed of corruption and a true son of David seated on the throne around which the reconstituted twelve tribes will gather. That’s what their aiming for through their own small efforts. Jesus, rather unaccountably, this carpenter from Nazareth, might just be the person to bring this all about, they think.
So, there’s already been a revolution in their thinking to which they’ve adjusted. Let’s give them credit for that.
So, when on Mt. Tabor, they see Jesus in the company of Moses, the great lawgiver, and see him speak with the great prophet Elijah, they’ve got to figure they’re seeing Jesus getting the political endorsement par excellence. Elijah and Moses symbolize the totality of their tradition: The Law and The Prophets.
Peter is obviously excited about this. He wants to build an encampment right there. It’s as if he expects the world will come to them, will gather around Mt. Tabor, and see what he is seeing. He’s fitting all this into the great project, the rebirth of Israel as a sovereign political state; but also, as a great spiritual beacon for humanity.
However, the very next line of the gospel after this is, “Peter did not know what to say,” and then the statement that the three disciples were “terrified.”
What happened? What have they realized? What isn’t adding up? What can’t they square? Reconcile?
In the gospel of Luke’s version, there is a line that hints at the explanation—it isn’t here in Mark’s account: it tells us that they overhear what Jesus and Moses and Elijah are talking about. That leaves them in silence, and then terrified. They are talking about Jesus’ impending passion, what is coming.
Now this, in all the gospel accounts comes right around the time Jesus is being more explicit about the necessity of his death, so that he might be resurrected. In Mark, the Transfiguration kicks off this difficult teaching. In Matthew and Luke, it happens in the midst of Jesus taking up this theme, and we read about the disciples’ resistance, about Peter’s refusal to hear it, even as they are coming to call Jesus the Messiah.
What the Transfiguration does is not simply reveal Jesus as the glorified Christ, but it opens to Peter, James and John, the true meaning of the scriptures, the Law and the Prophets. Like so many, they’ve selectively read, screened out, interpreted away what they did not want to see, hear or read about what God has really called them to, who the true Messiah really is as the model for humanity, the divinized human person: it is something that requires dying to this world so that death itself is transcended, and world put in its proper place. This repeats over and over in the gospels, with Jesus teaching disciples who don’t want to hear it; most famously, after His resurrection, teaching the pair of disciples on the road to Emmaus who still haven’t grasped the good news, and remain fixated on the tragedy of the cross and Jesus’ apparent defeat.
This past week the RCIA, the group preparing to become full members of the Catholic Church, were taught the litany of humility. This prayer has been attributed to Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val (1865-1930), Secretary of State of the Holy See under Pope Pius X. [I will post the full text on the parish website.]
It’s a prayer to be relieved of the desire to be loved, extolled, praised, honoured, consulted, preferred and approved of—the rewards the world pays to the human ego; it further asks to be relieved of the fear of being despised, ridiculed, forgotten and so on… the very stuff we see in today’s “cancel culture” that terrifies so many into silence in the face of evil, and to their peril, cooperation with evil.
These are our primordial desires and fears that spring from our being social animals who live in families, communities—what does it mean to call a man Lord who rejects all these things?
Every expectation that Peter, James and John had is overturned. The man who was to lead them into the new world as they imagined it was indeed going to lead them into something new, and wonderful, but it’s not what they ever imagined they would want. Yet how can they refuse to listen to Him and fail to obey: He is the Son, the Beloved. God says, “Listen to Him!”
How confusing. How frightening. How terrifying. But, in the end, how liberating, how freeing, how greater than any humanly imagined world—an eternal existence in the love of God, through a love for God that makes the praise and honour this world can offer less than nothing.
Much of what I’ve written/said reflects ideas found in Gaudium et Spes, in particular n.10 of that document of the Second Vatican Council. Have a read of it here.