Saltem Diebus Dominicis: Your Mountain of Transfiguration

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On this 2nd Sunday of Lent we find ourselves once again on the Mount of the Transfiguration.  Keep in mind that, in the familiar account in Matthew, the Lord did not let His divinity shine out through His humanity.  Rather, He let a little something of His divinity shine forth.  Even that was enough to drop His three followers “on their faces”.

In the region of Caesarea Philippi Christ questioned the disciples about, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” He sealed the deal, as it were, with Peter via his profession of faith (Matthew 16:13).  Six days after that (17:1), Jesus takes three of his principal disciples, Peter with the brothers James and John, up a high mountain.  They see Christ with Moses and Elijah, transformed.  In Exodus 24, Moses carried out the rites to seal God’s covenant with the people in blood and then went up Mount Sinai with three principal leaders, Aaron, and the brothers Nadab and Abihu, and they had a vision of God and Heaven.  After that, Moses stayed on the mountain, which was covered with the glory cloud of God’s presence, and Moses went into the cloud when God called him after six days after that. And then Moses stayed in the cloud for 40 days, while the people saw the mountain wreathed like a devouring fire.  After the Golden Calf affair in Exodus 32 and the renewal of the covenant with the new tablets of the law (34), Moses’s face shone so brightly from his encounter with God that his face was too hard to look at without a veil.

The passage after Exodus 34 has the indications for making the Tabernacle.  Peter, a pious Jew who knew his Scripture, could be forgiven his enthusiastic offer to build tabernacles for Elijah and Moses and Christ.  However, Peter’s equal grouping of the three, as if Christ was just another prophet, shows that He doesn’t grasp Christ or His mission.  Not to mention that when Christ foretold His Passion and Peter rebuked Him (Greek epitimáo, forbid).

All this is to show that there are strong bonds between the actions of Moses and the Father and Christ and the Father on a mountain in the presence of key disciples.  Christ is the new Moses, but far greater.  Moses’s face shone with God’s reflected glory.  Christ’s face shone with His own.  As the voice of the Father says on the Mount of the Transfiguration, “this is my beloved Son.”  Christ is the new Moses and He is also the new Elijah.  In 1 Kings 19 Elijah goes up Mount Sinai for an encounter with God in the “still, small voice” (v. 12).

It is a commonplace now that one reason why Christ took His chief apostles up the mountain and revealed something of His divine glory was to strengthen them in the days to come of His fearful Passion.  Our Lord obviously had good reason to do so, given Peter’s argument and betrayal and the flight of almost all His most trusted followers.  The Lord knew what they could take and what they couldn’t.  Even so, it almost seems like it didn’t work.  One shudders to think about how bad their collapse might have been had Christ not made this zwischenzug before their trials began.  He needed them to stand firm and not see what happened to Him in merely earthly terms.  When we get mired in the earthly, we cannot see the transcendent.  Hence, Christ’s sternness with Peter who wanted Christ to conform to the mission he himself preferred.  Jesus used with Peter the same language He used on the Devil at the end of the Temptations in the wilderness, “Get behind me, Satan”.

Pivoting now to the Epistle for this Sunday, St. Paul urges in the very first part of the reading, to stick to what they had learned from him and his associates, what they had taught “through the Lord Jesus” (1 Thess 4:2).  This is an appeal to continuity with Tradition, which has already commenced.  In effect, “Do not break with what I have handed down!  Do not be backwardists, breaking with Christianity and sliding down into the impure and carnally lascivious ways of Gentile pagans.”  As Paul wrote, God had called them “not for uncleanness, but in holiness” (v. 7).  The centrality of the role of Tradition is, therefore, the lead off in this pericope.  Without continuity, we are in danger.

Our days are not so unlike the pagan times.  These are again pagan times, with all the resultant impurity.  I just read a story from Religion News Service about how Catholics in Rome are sick of the Church and have started up pseudo-cultic worship of the ancient Roman gods.  Everywhere impurity is not just tolerated, it is celebrated.  Through the might of those who control mass media, it is imposed nearly everywhere.  Its ubiquity can obscure hearts and minds and mire them in the earthly, the flesh.  This is not just in society at large; these forces are at work within the Church herself.  Are we sounder than Aaron who made the Golden Calf after having been on the mountain with the vision of God and Heaven?  Are we firmer than Peter the Rock?  We cannot think that our shepherds today are tougher and more solid than the Apostles, who failed and fled.  Yes, they all came to their senses eventually and fulfilled their missions, but not without real risk of failure.  We have at least nineteen centuries of deeper insights gained along the way, and the examples of magnificent saints and miracles to support our Faith.  But we are also in a very dangerous and toxic world today, wherein temptations via instruments of communication dominate people’s wills and agents of the Enemy with global reach work without ceasing to corrupt all that is good, true and beautiful in the name of a godless agenda reminiscent of the machination of the serpent.  And within the Church… corruptio optimi pessima.

Let us take the Transfiguration and the subsequent failures of the Apostles to heart, even while affirming their ultimate success.  We must not be presumptuous about our own strengths and insights.  We need Tradition, continuity, to help us to remain firm.  Cling fast to the Lord’s own words to Paul, which informed his teachings to the Thessalonians and all his communities:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:9-11).

Our Sunday Masses, indeed every Mass and every visit to the Eucharistic Lord, are your Mountain of the Transfiguration.  Perhaps they are not quite as bright and shiny and populated with prophets (especially in some parishes), but they are an encounter with Christ in His, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.  Your good Holy Communions are even greater encounters with Christ’s divinity than the three Apostles had on their Mount of the Transfiguration.  Thank God on your knees for such a gift.

Let Tradition, sound preaching, and devout reception of the sacraments bolster you in our increasingly pagan days, in persecutions to come from without and from within, and for the Passion of the Church which seems closer every day.

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