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Transfiguration Sunday: “We Have the Prophetic Word Made More Sure”

This Sunday we observe the Feast of the Transfiguration rather than the “green” Sunday after Pentecost, being the 10th.

This Feast of the Transfiguration has a complicated history. First, in Rome there were celebrated on 6 August the feast of the martyrs Pope Sixtus II and six of his deacons, slain that day in the persecution of 258. One of those deacons is celebrated separately and with great honor in Rome, as you can tell the great number of churches dedicated in his honor: St. Lawrence, Deacon 7, roasted on an iron grate three days after his spiritual father and brethren because he gave the Church’s goods to the poor rather than to the Roman authorities.  What got Sixtus and the others killed, by the way, was his refusal to obey a government decree forbidding celebration of Mass in the catacomb of St. Callixtus. Think: a bishop and priests refuse to lockdown their churches because of COVID. Okay, the analogy might limp, but even limping gets us to the goal.

In the ancient Roman Church today was much given to the memory of St. Sixtus and the six with processions and liturgies at the necropolis of St. Callixtus (and of St. Praetexatus where two of the deacons were interred). Pope St. Damasus, famous for making beautiful Latin poetic inscriptions at important sites placed this stone there in their honor, having the immortal Sixtus speak to us from the grave:

At the time when the sword of persecution pierced the breast of our holy mother the Church, I was Pope, and here, where now I am buried, I was teaching the law of God, when suddenly the soldiers entered and seized me as I was seated in my chair. The people would have offered their own necks to the executioners, but when the Pontiff saw that they would have robbed him of his palm, he of himself offered his head to the assassins, lest in their uncontrollable fury they should do some hurt to the others. Christ, who in life everlasting gives the reward of virtue, testified by miracles to the merit of the Pastor. Now he watches from heaven over his numerous flock.

God does not cease to watch over us, not when the bishops are good, not when the bishops are bad. He is our constant when fragile men are swept into the raging currents of the world.

Our historical look at this Feast continues with the introduction of the Transfiguration. For centuries Greek Christians had a feast on 6 August which celebrated a military victory over the Turks. Hence, Pope Callixtus III instituted the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord in 1457 in thanksgiving for the victory. This had the effect of overlaying and suppressing the Feast of Sixtus and his deacons, which was reduced to a commemoration. The Transfiguration, however, was assigned to celebration at the Lateran Basilica, since that Roman Cathedral is primarily dedication to Our Lord.

The first reading for the Transfiguration is from 2 Peter 1:16-19. Let’s have the text in the RSV.

[Beloved] we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

The Apostle is surely moved deeply once again as he wrote these words. You can hear it even millennia later and in translation. It thrums with mighty conviction.

In the Gospel account from Matthew 17, we read of how the Lord’s appearance was transformed and Moses and Elijah appeared. There was shining glory cloud of God’s presence and, finally, the booming voice of the Father.  The Father speaks only three times, at the Lord’s Baptism, here on the mount of the Transfiguration, and then in Jerusalem to signal the beginning of Christ’s Passion. Peter, with John and James were eyewitnesses and earwitnesses to this turning point in the Lord’s earthly ministry.  After the Transfiguration, Christ is on the road up to Jerusalem.  Again He will be raised up, “glorified” on a mountain between two figures.

It is often explained that Christ allowed something of His divinity to shine through his mortal flesh so that the Apostles would be strengthened against the horror of His Passion. Peter, too, is writing to strengthen the brethren in time of persecution. Pope St Leo I, “the Great” (+461) preached sermons on the Transfiguration which we still have in their glorious Latin originals. He said,

The primary purpose of the transfiguration in the mind of Jesus was this: that His disciples should not take offense when He would die on the Cross nor that the humiliation of the passion He so freely embraced should shatter their faith; for the majesty of His hidden dignity had previously be manifested to them. Nevertheless, the Lord is no less mindful of His Holy Church; for by that same act He sought to flood her with hope in the transfiguration of the whole Mystical Body; because the glorification of the Head must some day beam forth unto the glorification of every member.

If there is something I would like you to take away from this reading, it is that. The mystery of the Lord’s Transfiguration was for the strengthening of His Apostles, but also the strengthening of us all who are members of His Mystical Person, the Holy Catholic Church. The Passion will come to us all, as individuals and as a Church. We are probably in the onset of that Passion now, as we can tell from the anger and fear of the persecution of certain sectors of the Church by those who should have their pastoral care in the hearts. We too can and must take heart, Christ’s Heart for our own breasts, from the Transfiguration: a tiny hint of the glory to come.

The Transfiguration was a critical moment in the “priestly formation” of the Apostles, and through them of bishops and of priests. The lay faithful also share in Christ’s priesthood by Baptism, which allow them to offer pleasing sacrifices.

In our hearing of the first reading, the Epistle, we have a perfect preparation for the reception of the Gospel and its description of the historical event.

In our holy rites of Mass, we have the opportunity of an encounter with Mystery that can transform us, provided we are actively receptive, participating fully in a way that is conscious, intentional. The mysteries are made present to us and we to them. Sacramental reality is not less real than sensible reality. We must, over time, attune ourselves to it, which requires also spaces of silence, the veiling and unveiling of things, the difficult elements that bring us out of ourselves to grasp the otherwise untenable. Something akin to, but more than, the Transfiguration occurs at Holy Mass. In each of our Masses we are enabled to have an encounter with Christ even more explosively transforming than what happened historically on that mountain.

Finally, listen to Peter:

And we have the prophetic word made more sure.

Don’t we, too? We have some twenty centuries of divinely guided reflection on all that happened in that historical time frame, with the added benefit of have those realities truly made present in our sacred liturgical worship.

Take heart. We must have our Passion in the Church because Christ had His Passion.  He knew what we would need, each one of use, chosen by Him to be born into these days and places and not some other.  He gave our forebears what they needed and we learned from them. He gives us now all that we need for what we must face now. It may have seemed a curious, perhaps puzzling and maybe even annoying thing to have to go up that mountain for Peter, John and James, and our own tasks and trials today can puzzle us too. Take heart.  We have the prophetic word made even more sure!


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