Mass Readings for the Feast of the Transfiguration:
Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14 Psalm 97.1-2,5-6, 9 2 Peter 1.16-19 Matthew 17.1-9
The Feast of the Transfiguration is a celebration of a special revelation of Christ given to his closest disciples before the first Easter; that is, before the Resurrection. It confirms what they likely thought of Jesus as a great prophet, but then exceeded their expectation. Jesus in his person is the intersection of the law and the prophets expressing them perfectly; and they, Peter, James and John, see this fully even as they struggle to grasp the significance of what that means.
This is one of the great themes of the Transfiguration – it is about what is seen in the person of Jesus; and whether or not we can understand what and who we are looking at. This is not a “transformation” – Jesus does not become something or someone else. A transfiguration is literally a change in appearance, not in substance (the opposite of what happens in the consecration of the Eucharist). While still recognizably Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, he appears as the Messiah, the Son of God. Now, we can discuss whether or not this transfiguration objectively happened, or if it was an interior vision that the three disciples shared. That is, if we had a video camera there that day, would it have recorded the transfiguration? Or was it the subjective yet common experience of Peter, James and John? Faithful Christians, without going to Mount Tabor, see in the person of Jesus what these three saw. Not literally, not so dramatically, but we perceive it and in our confession of faith we say that Jesus is the one spoken of in the prophets, the one who is the fulfilment of the law. And like Peter, James and John, we’re still trying to grasp what that means, and apply its truth to our lives.
Not everyone sees this, nor recognizes Christ in his body today – his body being the Church. This is what people should see when they look at the Church, Christ embodied in the men and women who claim discipleship, who offer themselves in ministry, who make witness by lives that glorify the Lord. And I am not speaking here of our failings as his disciples, of our hypocrisies and our sins that cause scandal– I’m referring to those who act faithfully in service of the sick and those in prison, in defense of children both born and unborn, in advocacy for the oppressed, in asserting the dignity and distinctiveness of women, in working for justice; all the activity and ministry we see in Jesus’ activity in the gospels. Often in our world today, these efforts are understood not to be good, but actually evil because they are opposed to what is being advocated today by the powerful, by the media, by the social justice crowd as the real solution to our ills as individuals and as a society. That is, they ostensibly share the same aspirations to alleviate suffering, render justice, etc., but regard Church’s teaching and action as either intentionally or unwittingly aimed at bringing about the opposite, and so we are the enemy.
This raises the problem of perception: formed by our experiences (including our traumas), and our education (including instances of indoctrination), we become individual subjects who have a perspective on the world around us specific to each. No two of us sees the world exactly the same way; and frankly we see only a tiny portion, and even that we see “as in a glass darkly”; but can we, nonetheless, see the truth common to us all?
Indeed, this is the great problem of post-modern thinking which is so fashionable among the governing elite; and it’s the source of their crippling neurosis: the doubt that we can know reality, that we can agree on the truth of things, and so, do what is right and good. Can we know anything for sure? Or do we, as so many people are asserting today, shape the moral universe by force of desire and will into whatever we want? That is live by the rule, to quote Shakespeare’s most famous neurotic character Hamlet who said, “there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet, Act 2 sc. 2) No truth, just opinion; no justice, just power; no authority, just the triumph of will.
I’ve mentioned Tom Holland before. He is the classical scholar who wrote a book a few years ago entitled Dominion. In it he argued that for all the apparent secularism and atheism of our age, Western civilization is still profoundly Christian. That is, our values are definitely derived from the gospel and not any other philosophy. He’s written a new book entitled Pax, and it’s about the golden age of Rome; that is, the pre-Christian Roman Empire. In a recent interview, he said he was at pains to write it in such a way so that readers could grasp how utterly different that civilization was from ours, almost to the point where one might think the Romans were aliens on another planet. For instance, where today every political party, every ideology, to be in the least acceptable must at least pay lip service to the ideas of justice and peace, equality and dignity of all persons, Romans would scratch their heads. And as for lifting up the lowly, freeing the captives, and so on, that’s not just insane, its seditious and disloyalty to the emperor.
He then went on to say that we’ve arrived at a cultural dilemma.
Christianity is inherently revolutionary. It is forever opposed to power, exercised by whomever because it recognizes power as corrupting and always needing to be kept in check. And that is the role of the Church, the Church as all the faithful, to keep power in check through our living lives of faith and hope and love; that the ruling principles of our society must be in absolute terms those of truth and justice and service, service being an expression of love for others.
We are to revolt against rulers who lie, mislead, deprive of us of our rights, insult our dignity, use violence and the threat of violence to compel the obedience of everyday people, spy on us, intrude into our private lives, and so on; but our rebellion cannot use these methods, the weaponry of a state and a leadership that is about power and control. No, the “weapons” at our disposal are instead charity and service, mercy and reconciliation. Within Church history we see faithful men and women come to the fore and bring, by the power of God’s love, the Church back its Apostolic mandate and away from the temptation to play the game of power – people like Pope Gregory VII, Peter Damian, Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. John Henry Newman, Dorothy Day, and so on.
But Holland asks, what happens when the latest revolution not only aims to overthrow the current hegemonic power, but also aims at overturning the legacy of Christ, destroying the foundational values upon which everything, including the legitimacy of their rebellion stands? So many of today’s revolutionaries are sawing off the limb of the tree they are sitting on. As Holland puts it, the latest iteration of Christian revolution and reform is different because it seeks to purge itself of Christianity.
And once that limb is sawn through, and we all tumble to the ground, once the foundation collapses and the whole edifice crumbles, what then will we build on? I daresay, from what I know of today’s ideologies, be it neocon or woke, neofascist or neoliberal, at the heart of them all is not love of humanity (regardless of what they claim), but the will to power over others. That is why I’m always fearful of the Church being seen to take sides, to be globalist or nationalist, populist or among the elite. We are called to stand apart from this; and then to assert the primacy of truth, love and justice in any society that would call itself civilized. When people, dazed and confused in our times look to this body of Christ, I would hope they see someone tired and worn out from travels in the world teaching and preaching, healing and casting out demons, like our Lord in today’s story, yet still leading them up Mount Tabor and to a glorious revelation. Will they see, as did Daniel, the Ancient of Days, the true foundation of the universe, and so the true and proper foundation of human life? Will they see, as the three disciples did, Christ who is the prophet who calls for justice, the lawgiver who judges according to truth and love, the saviour and redeemer who gives completely his life for the sake of the life of the world?
It is for us to show this, to somehow, by our faithfulness, by our discipleship, by our persisting in the works of mercy both spiritual and material – in the face of the world’s dismissal of us and sometimes its violent opposition – to keep Christ before others, and so make it possible for others to catch a glimpse of who is really at work in the world, to see us yet see unexpectedly who really is there, Christ Jesus our Lord.