[This is a homily for the feast of Our Lord’s transfiguration, which I gave in 2003.]
Our Lord Jesus Christ was transfigured, the Gospel [Mt. 17:1-9] says, “six days later.” Six days later than what? It was six days later than Peter’s confession of faith. It’s important to see the connection here, because there was a great revelation on Mt. Tabor of who Jesus is— and six days before, He had asked them, “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter came up with the right answer, but even he, as when he was on Mt. Tabor, “didn’t know what he was saying”—because when he saw who Jesus really was, that was another story! That was the revelation greater than simply something that came to him intuitively or as an inspiration from God. So, six days after the question was raised, “Who am I?” He showed them who He was, on Mt. Tabor.
Now, it’s also significant that it was Mount Tabor where this revelation took place. It says: “He took them up a high mountain apart.” Now, in practically all religions, mountains are sacred places, not only because of the great strength and majesty and glory that a mountain has just by its sheer magnitude, but by the fact that it’s high, that it comes close to the sky, where God dwells (so it was thought), so that a mountain is the closest place on earth to heaven. And so on mountain tops, theophanies happen: God manifests Himself.
We see it in our own Scriptures, in the Old and New Testaments: Mt. Sinai, where God revealed Himself to Moses, and also to Elijah. And so, here we have Mt. Tabor, a place where the disciples were going to witness this manifestation of God. They had to go up a mountain, a sacred place that was close to God.
It’s interesting, too, that Moses and Elijah, who had seen these mountaintop theophanies, appeared with Christ on the mountain, to the disciples—and that was a message for them. It was not merely that Moses and Elijah were there as representatives of the Law and the Prophets, which were fulfilled in Christ, though that’s certainly true, but it’s also telling the disciples, “Look: God appeared to Moses on a mountain. God appeared to Elijah on a mountain. God is appearing to you on a mountain, through the Lord Jesus Christ! And Moses and Elijah are there to testify to that, to say, ‘Yes: the same God that appeared to us on a mountain, is now appearing to you on a mountain—shining through the face of Christ.’”
There’s something else interesting that happened. I’ve probably read this passage dozens of times in my life, and there’s something that I just noticed for the first time, yesterday, when I was reading the text to start preparing for this homily. I’d never noticed this before, and it contradicts the iconography and the liturgical texts. When you look at the icons of the transfiguration, what do you see? You see Christ radiant with the glory of the Father, and the disciples, seeing that glory, falling down on their faces, unable to bear the sight. And you hear in the liturgy, “when they saw the light of his face and the glory of God, they were filled with awe and fear, and fell to the ground,” etc. But that’s not what the Scripture says!
The Scripture says—well, first of all, it describes what happened when Jesus’ face was changed and shone with light, and his garments were bright, and the rest. But it informs us that only later, while Peter was still talking, this bright cloud came and overshadowed them, and the voice of the Father came, and “when they heard the voice they fell to the ground in awe.”
Now that’s very interesting! I’m not sure exactly what it means, but they didn’t fall to the ground when Christ was blazing with glory, which they saw with their own eyes! Peter was merely coming up with this silly idea about putting up tents on the property! But when they heard the Voice of the Father, then they fell to the ground, in awe. Now, I don’t know how precisely to explain this, but there are a couple of things that come to mind.
One thing is (and we have no idea of what that experience was like for them), it could be, maybe those guys had gotten so used to seeing Jesus perform all kinds of extraordinary wonders—raising the dead, and healing, and doing all kinds of things—maybe it was like: “Well, now He’s shining with glory!” One more great thing was happening. And so Peter said, “This is really so good! Let’s build some tents here!” Maybe that’s so. And maybe at that moment they still didn’t realize what it meant, that Jesus was “the Son of God,” meaning God the Son!
But then, when they heard the Voice of the Father, there was no mistaking it: this is God. The great God of Sinai and the Creator of the Universe, all of a sudden spoke to them,and they heard it! Something about that Voice of the Father put more awe and trembling in them than the vision of the glory on the face of Christ. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but that’s what the word of God says happened, so I think we should believe it.
Here, I think, is a lesson for us: that we ought to pay more attention to the word of God than to any sort of extraordinary experience that we might have in our lives. Maybe once or twice in your life you’ll have some great, extraordinary experience of the glory of God. But the word of God, the voice of God is here in the Scriptures, available to us every day, all the time. That’s the message that the Father gave: He didn’t say, “Watch Him shine!” He said, “Listen to Him!” “Hear His words, and do them.” (Well, Jesus added the “do them” part later…)
That may be one of the things that the evangelists, and the Holy Spirit through the evangelists, want to tell us: focus on the word of God, the Voice of the Lord, and follow—and don’t merely say, “I wish I could see the glory.” Well, do what He says, and you’ll eventually see the glory.
When it was over, “they came down from the mountain.” If we ever do have these great and glorious experiences, we’re still going to have to come down from the mountain. We’re still going to have to get back, roll up our sleeves, and get back into the nitty-gritty of daily life, of sacrifice and service for others. But it’s going to be with our eyes on Jesus, as we go about the tasks of our daily faithfulness to God.
Finally, this transfiguration is something that we should look at too, at least briefly, in the meaning of the term and how and where we see it in the Scriptures. The Greek word for “transfiguration” is metamorphosis (which we’ve taken into English), and this is what happened to Christ: there was a metamorphosis, which means literally a “change of form.”
As we know from St. Paul, in the letter to the Philippians, although the Son was in the morphe, the form, of God, He did a kind of “anti-transfiguration” thing—a “downscaling” kind of metamorphosis—He took the form of a man, “of a slave.” Then, on Mt. Tabor, He changed form again: He returned, so to speak, for that moment of manifestation, to the form of God, showing that He was still in the form of God, but made it more obvious to them that this was the case.
Now, we too have a metamorphosis to undergo, in our own lives. The term for transfiguration (metamorphosis) appears in the New Testament only twice, outside of the transfiguration accounts themselves in the Gospels. Once in chapter 12 of Romans, where it refers to a kind of intellectual and moral transformation; and once in the third chapter of Second Corinthians, where it refers to a kind of mystical metamorphosis, in the context of the going from glory to glory, beholding the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces, and reflecting it as in a mirror.
In just those two places, we have the culmination of what our spiritual life is supposed to be: it’s supposed to be a metamorphosis, a transfiguration—intellectually, morally, spiritually and mystically—into that full image of God in which we were created but which we obscured by our sins, but that has to shine forth again.
You know, metamorphosis is also a term that is used in zoology about what happens to a caterpillar when it becomes a butterfly: the change that happens in the chrysalis is called the metamorphosis. The caterpillar begins as a lowly thing, creeping on the ground, yet it becomes a beautiful creature: a glorious, colorful butterfly.
And so we “caterpillars” are called to become “butterflies”! We’re called to undergo, to enter into, to allow ourselves to be “metamorphosed.” God has to do that, but we have to be disposed to that, open to that, willing to accept whatever it takes. But with the grace of God, we will become spiritual butterflies: and we will rise and fly to God, without fear, as Jesus said, keeping our eyes fixed on Him, and being transformed, transfigured, from glory to glory, until we perfectly reflect that image of God in which we were created. We, like Christ, will shine forth the glory of the Father, in honor of Him, and in love of Him, and as our ultimate joy and fulfillment to be with each other, all of us radiating the glory of God and expressing our eternal joy and thanksgiving that He has chosen us, that He has called us, that He wants to take us apart to go up the holy mountain!
That’s something that you can’t always do, just anywhere. God is everywhere present, as we always say, but you can’t always find Him deeply enough in the workplace, or on the highway, or in the shopping mall. He is in all those places, but if you really want to go deeply into that mystery, you’ve got to go up the mountain; you’ve got to be taken to “a place apart” with Him. That’s where the work, the metamorphosis, will begin. It will be carried out in all the other places and activities of your daily life, but we have to keep returning to that place and renewing our strength, renewing our desire, renewing our love for God, so that we can experience that ultimate transformation—for His glory, and for our everlasting happiness.