by Br Julian McDonald cfc
While Jesus was praying, his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Luke 9, 28-36
Over the years, I have had the privilege of forging friendships with about six or seven different artists. Those friendships opened up for me opportunities to not only view their works but to engage in discussions of how they developed and expressed their creative genius. On many occasions, I came away from those engagements with a clear awareness that something of the spirit and personality of those artists was clearly observable in their work. And isn’t it true that, when we are very familiar with families we see reflected in children many of the characteristics of their parents – facial features, voice timbre, mannerisms, style of relating? The spirit of people is reflected in the life and beauty they create. In today’s gospel-account of the transfiguration of Jesus, we see something of the divine, alive in Jesus, reflected to those who had become his close friends. If we care to stop and reflect on ourselves and our origins, we can come to appreciate that there is a spark of the divine in each of us, too, for we have all been loved into life by the goodness of God reflected in the love of our parents. That raises the question as to how we, in our turn, go about reflecting our divine spark.
While some of us would have read in translation Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables, many more of us have seen the Les Mis stage play or movie. The story opens with the introduction of the novel’s protagonist, Jean Valjean, who has been paroled after twenty years of brutal treatment in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his niece. Desperate to regain his dignity, but still bitter from his experience in prison, Valjean is given shelter by a compassionate bishop. During the night, however, he cannot resist stealing some of the bishop’s silverware. Like many parolees, he is ever under the watchful eye of the police, and is soon arrested and marched back to the bishop’s house for identification. But there is a surprising twist. The bishop does identify the silverware as his, but turns and thanks the police for bringing Valjean back, explaining that, when he had given the poor man the silver, Valjean had forgotten to take with him the valuable candlesticks as well.
With the police out of the way, the bishop urges Valjean to use the proceeds of the silver to rebuild his life and to show to others the same kindness and compassion he has just experienced: “God has raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God.” The bishop’s mercy is the catalyst that leads Valjean to complete the circle in his life and discover in himself once again the selflessness that led him to steal the bread for his niece all those years ago. As he draws near to the end of his life, he articulates what he has discovered about the real meaning of love in his life, and, indeed in the lives of us all: “And remember the truth that once was spoken – to love another person is to see the face of God.”
In each of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the accounts of Jesus’ prediction of his passion, Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and the Transfiguration of Jesus are all in close proximity. But in John there is no mention of the Transfiguration. It is also clear that Jesus felt frustrated by the inability of the disciples to cotton onto the message he gave them that he was going to meet a violent death at the hands of those who were threatened by his presence and his message. While Jesus repeatedly put that message to his disciples, they could not grasp it or preferred not to entertain it as a possibility.
Luke tells us that, eight days after telling the disciples that he would be put to death and then raised up three days later, Jesus went up a mountain with Peter, John and James to pray. It is no coincidence that it was eight days after his resurrection that Jesus encountered the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and it was in that encounter that they finally began to grasp the significance of the predictions he had given them of his death. Predictably, the three disciples fell asleep on the mountain and almost missed what eventuated as Jesus fell into communing with God. His engagement with God was so intense that his outward appearance began to shine. The spark of the divine within him blossomed into a dazzling light, illuminating his whole being. Such was the union between Jesus and the God who had loved him into life. Peter, James and John were startled from their slumber in time to hear Moses and Elijah confirming that Jesus would participate in an exodus through death to resurrection. Overcome by the insight they had experienced into who Jesus really was, Peter spoke out enthusiastically on behalf of John and James, advocating the construction of a monument to commemorate the event. In so doing, he missed the point that what had just happened marked the start of what was about to unfold.
Luke recounts how the two figures of Moses and Elijah also appeared in the dazzling light, conversing not about light and life, but about death, using the image of exodus (departure) familiar to all Jewish people. The significance of these two giants of Jewish history is hard to miss. Jesus, like Moses before him, was on the verge of setting his people free, not from bondage to a pharaoh, but from the grip of fear. – fear of death, of oppression by fearful religious leaders, of mental and emotional paralysis, of an inability to take control of their own lives. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, an even greater exodus would come to them. The presence of Elijah served as the seal of divine approval of the plan that was about to unfold. For the Jewish people the arrival of the Messiah would be heralded by the reappearance of Elijah. So, in effect, the Transfiguration event set the stage for the death and resurrection of Jesus that would give to all of humankind something of the light that Peter, James, John, and Jesus, too, experienced on the mountain.
In each of us, as it was in Jesus on the Mountain, there is something of the light and life of God. That extraordinary Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, reminded us that God has entrusted us to bring light and love and life to everyone we encounter on life’s journey. In a speech he delivered to the faculty of Marquette University back in 2004, he issued this challenge: “God places us in the world as God’s fellow workers – agents of transfiguration. We work with God so that injustice is transfigured into justice, so that there will be more laughter and joy, so that there will be more togetherness in God’s world.” To do that, we might have to dust ourselves off a bit, in order to let our light shine a little more brightly. Now, there’s a challenge for Lent.