Catholics have a habit of genuflecting or bowing before the tabernacle whenever they enter a Catholic church. This is our way of showing respect to the mysterious Presence of Jesus in the Bread, which has from earliest times, been reserved in case of an emergency, like when someone is dying and there isn’t time to say a liturgy. Every Holy Thursday, at the conclusion of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, however, the priest ends that liturgy by removing the Blessed Sacrament from the tablernacle and tranferring it to another place, in preparation for Good Friday. When the people arrive at the church on Good Friday, the church has been stripped of all ornamentation, there is no holy water, no candles, and the tabernacle door hangs open, revealing that there is nothing there. Yet, most Catholics continue to genuflect even though there is technically nothing there to which to genuflect. It’s something most Catholics do without thinking, probably because they don’t even know why they do it in the first place.
Some Gospel stories are so familiar to us that we hear them and it just seems like the same old story we’ve heard again and again. The transfiguration story is one of those familiar ones: Jesus took three of his favorite disciples up the mountain, his appearance changed, Moses and Elijah were there, the disciples were afraid, and then it was over. Most of can recite the main outline of the story, but not many appreciate the meaning.
On the mountain, as Jesus was praying, Matthew tells us that “He was transfigured before them.” “Transfigured” isn’t a word that you and I use in everyday conversation. No one says, in reference to the excellent meal they had at Eddie Merlot’s, “Wow! I was transfigured by the experience!” Even the Gospel writers have to help explain what they mean by the word: “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” Peter, John and James had seen Jesus day after day for quite a while and they knew what he looked like. What happened to Jesus showed them that there was much more to Jesus than what they could see with human eyes: what they saw in Jesus was what God saw from the beginning, and I would submit, it is how God sees each one of us right now.
If the disciples had any doubts about what was happening, they were soon to comprehend it fully. Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus, and had a conversation with him. The vision lasted only a short time it seems, but its message was clear. Jesus was selected by God to bring the Law of Moses to fulfillment and to surpass the greatest of the prophets in his works. Of course, the disciples had heard Jesus say that he was God’s Son, God’s anointed, yada yada….but now they were finally given a glimpse of what that meant. It was, as Peter blurted out, “good” for them to be there. Good, because the vision was a gift from God.
Peter, who would later become the Bishop of Rome, the first Pope, made a ridiculous offer of setting up lodging for the three gloriously illuminated men, but thankfully, God interrupted him in the form of a cloud. ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him’.”
This is the high point of the story, and shows that everything in Jesus’ ministry has been building to this point. The disciples certainly had no doubt that God’s Son had a mission to fulfill and they certainly realized that they were part of this same mission. God had added the command, “Listen to him!”, and Matthew, always eager to show us that Jesus is the New Moses, provides some evidence for us. In the Book of Deuteronomy, God promised through Moses that he would send a great prophet who would speak on behalf of God. “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me (Moses) from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” God’s message was clear: Jesus is that prophet, the fulfillment of God’s promise, God’s messenger to the world.
When we hear God’s words, “Listen to him,” we feel some of that fear as experience by those disciples. We know that we don’t always listen to Jesus’ teachings, like we say we do. We, like them, have doubted Jesus’ message. We, like them, are ready to desert him when things get rough. God tells us through the example of Jesus how we are to live, how we are to trust in God’s abundance and grace, and sometimes we do believe all it. Other times we don’t. God tells us that the poor and disenfranchised among us are the preferred companions of God, but we sometimes prefer to keep on living our own life, spending money as we see fit, not really taking responsibility for those whom God has given us as sisters and brothers.
The transfiguration story isn’t meant to scare us straight, however, it’s just meant to reveal to us the truth that God sees each of us as his beloved Christ. All who are baptized in Jesus’ Name are now born again as a new creation and are truly the presence of Christ in the world. That is the master plan, plain and simple. The disciples “fell facedown to the ground, terrified,” Matthew tells us because they were overwhelmed by the enormity of the task that lay ahead. Jesus came to them, touched them and told them not to fear. No matter what, we are not to be afraid.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, ‘Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead’.” The glory of the Living Christ wasn’t revealed to inspire fear, it was revealed to inspire confidence. The Word of God is true, Abba God is like our Divine Father, and we no longer need to live in a fear-based relationship with a God who is always looking for a way to send us to hell. Many of us were raised with this notion of God. God loves us so much, we were told, that he will do anything for us, even send us his Son. If we cannot love God in return, however, He will send us to a burning devil’s hell for all eternity. “Love me or die,” seems to be the message. That’s what we were told and even though it doesn’t make any darned sense to believe in a God like that, some of us still carry some of that residual goo around in our souls, always afraid that God is displeased with us, always writing down every little thing we do wrong.
Transfiguration, on the other hand, is what we are supposed to be striving for. We are made in the image of God from the moment of our conception and regardless of what we have done, when God looks at us, He sees only the transfigured image of His own Son Jesus. How different would our choices be if we were able to see ourselves as a transfigured Christ instead of an unworthy sinner, or a mediocre believer, or a stingy giver or a judgmental gossip? How would others begin to see us if we first knew and accepted the truth that we are good and powerful and had a mission from God? How different would our relationships in our family be if we passed on this perspective to our children instead of criticizing or blaming or putting them down when they make normal mistakes? How different would the situation of the homeless, the destitute, the divorced and remarried, the lesbian and gay, the convicted felon be if they could go to the mountaintop—if only for a moment–and see themselves as God sees them: full of divine power, full of goodness, full of transfigured glory?
This past week I had a revelation of my own. The future of this parish is something I pray and worry about, wondering how this is meant to unfold, sometimes fearful of how we will grow to include the hundreds of people in Fort Wayne who are hungering for the very thing we are willing to give them. My revelation came in a flash of understanding: to focus so much on the external aspects of the parish is to overlook the primary reason for being a parish in the first place. We are here to support each other in ministry, to assist and challenge each other to grow in Christ. I have come to see clearly that as we continue as individuals to commit to Christ more fully, the more mundane issues of maintaining a parish will take care of themselves. This was a huge weight removed from my soul, and I trust it was the Holy Spirit who inspired the insight. As we move through the wilderness of this Lenten season, I invite you to look within honestly and consider ways to increase your faith and commitment to Christ. Each of us has come here because we have heard the call of Christ to be more than we ever dreamed we could become. We believe, but sometimes we falter. We are all on the same path, after all, the path from egocentric desires to full transfiguration in Christ.