Monday, February 22, 2016

Second Sunday of Lent: The Transfiguration of Christ

The Gospel reading in both Traditional and Novus Ordo Masses for the Second Sunday of Lent was the Transfiguration of the Lord, from Chapter 17 of the Gospel of St. Matthew (Traditional) or St. Luke (N.O., year C for 2016.)  Here is the passage from Luke, in the RSV-CE translation.  (I know the "official" translation for the United States is the RNAB, but I simply cannot bring myself to use it. Bad enough that I have to listen to it at Mass.  The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of First Things magazine, used to call the NAB translation "unfortunate."  He was, of course, being charitable.)
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah,  who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.  Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.  And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli'jah" -- not knowing what he said.  As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.  And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"  And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. Lk 9:28-36.
I have always found this account, essentially the same in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, to be both puzzling and slightly amusing in its depiction of Peter's reaction to the vision.  First, the puzzle: How did Peter (and, presumably, James and John also) know that the two men were who appeared with Jesus were Moses and Elijah (or Elias, in the TLM translation)?  Both had been dead for centuries, and we can be fairly certain they were not wearing name tags.  Was this knowledge simply placed in the Apostles' consciousness by Divine action?  That's the best option I can think of, since none of the Scriptural accounts tell us what happened.  Second, the humor: Peter's offer to build booths (or tents, or tabernacles, again depending on the translation) for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, resembles nothing so much as the babbling of an extraordinarily frightened man.  Luke even seems to make reference to this, noting that Peter spoke "not knowing what he said."  The common homiletic suggestion that Peter was trying to "preserve the moment" assumes, in my view, a most unrealistic degree of calm acceptance of the miracle on Peter's part.  Keep in mind that Peter was a manual laborer, accustomed to such tasks as repairing his fishing boat and sewing torn nets.  Confronted with the astounding vision of the transfigured Christ and his two unusual visitors, it seems natural that he would fall back on something he knew-in this case, suggesting the building of a temporary shelter, as a sort of defense mechanism against the power of the miraculous vision.  We see in this story and elsewhere in the Gospels plenty of evidence that Peter was, despite his clear position as the leader of the Apostles, just an ordinary man, a sinner like the rest of us, and here, his instinctive response totally missed the point of the whole event.  My reaction probably would have been even worse.  In any case, I tend to imagine Jesus doing a divine eye-roll at the apostle's tent-building suggestion, even though he must have known in advance that it would occur.  So much for the humor.

The homily I heard this week concentrated on the Father's command, (This is my Son...listen to him!), a sound and salutary point.  We were reminded, among other things, that the intended audience of the Father's voice was not only Peter, James and John, but all of us who live and have lived through the millennia since the time our Lord walked this Earth. We believe, after all, that Sacred Scripture is the living Word of God, through which the Triune God speaks to us every time we read or hear it, and it greatly behooves us to pay attention!

But as always with the Scriptures, there are layers of meaning here, and there is only so much that even the most effective preacher can say in ten minutes or so; thus, we are always called to enter more deeply into the Word than is possible during the short time allotted for the Liturgy of the Word and the homily.  In this instance, let's take a look at how St. Thomas Aquinas discussed the Transfiguration in his greatest work, the Summa Theologica.  Among many other points, the Angelic Doctor suggests that the Lord's glorified appearance was a foretaste of that which we all hope to attain, the resurrection of our own bodies in eternal glory and the "beatific vision" of Christ:
"Therefore it was fitting that He should show His disciples the glory of His clarity (which is to be transfigured), to which He will configure those who are His; according to Philippians 3:21: "(Who) will reform the body of our lowness configured [Douay: 'made like'] to the body of His glory." Hence Bede says on Mark 8:39: "By His loving foresight He allowed them to taste for a short time the contemplation of eternal joy, so that they might bear persecution bravely." Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III.45.1 (Emphasis added.)
In addition, St. Thomas draws an allegorical (or is it anagogical?) comparison with the Lord's Baptism, in showing how both events, which he calls the "first regeneration" and the "second regeneration", reveal the Holy Trinity:
"Just as in the Baptism, where the mystery of the first regeneration was proclaimed, the operation of the whole Trinity was made manifest, because the Son Incarnate was there, the Holy Ghost appeared under the form of a dove, and the Father made Himself known in the voice; so also in the transfiguration, which is the mystery of the second regeneration, the whole Trinity appears--the Father in the voice, the Son in the man, the Holy Ghost in the bright cloud; for just as in baptism He confers innocence, signified by the simplicity of the dove, so in the resurrection will He give His elect the clarity of glory and refreshment from all sorts of evil, which are signified by the bright cloud. Summa Theologica, III.45.4. (Emphasis added.)
Thus, as we enter the second full week of the discipline of Lent, aided by the exegesis of St. Thomas, the story of the Transfiguration gives us spiritual meat to replace whatever we sacrifice (including, of course, abstaining from meat at least on Friday, if not other days of our own choosing), by pointing our hearts to the purpose of our journey--to reach the eternal home where:
"[t]here shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever." Rev. 22:3-5.

God's blessings to all, for a holy and rewarding second week of Lent.

Laudator Jesus Christus!

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