Homily: Religion and the Transfiguration

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016.

The Church year (from Advent through the last Sunday of Ordinary Time, called Christ the King) amid its inexhaustible riches can be said to broadly focus on two mysteries. From Advent through the Day of Pentecost, we focus on the mystery of Jesus Christ, the life of the Son of God and Second Person of the Holy Trinity. From the Day of Pentecost through Christ the King, we focus on the mystery of the Church, the life of the Body of Christ on earth and all of visible creation (called the Church Militant), in the Intermediate State of Paradise (called the Church Expectant), and in heaven itself (called the Church Triumphant).

This is pertinent because the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus occurs twice during the Church year. It is always the appointed Gospel for the last Sunday after Epiphany, before the season of Lent; and it is appointed, of course, for the Feast of the Transfiguration. Therefore, the calendar suggests that there are two perspectives upon which to reflect on the Transfiguration. Whereas before Lent, we focus on what the Gospel account reveals about the mystery of Jesus, today we consider what it reveals about the mystery of the Church—the relationship that the angels, saints, faithfully departed, and all the baptized, including us have with Jesus Christ. Bluntly, before Lent, it is “What does this say about Jesus?”; today, it is “What does this say about us?”

All three Lessons involve the image of a holy mountain. The idea of scaling a mountain has remained the classic analogy for spiritual pilgrimage. As a matter of course, what we know about climbing mountains is that it is hard work which requires discipline, courage, stamina—days which are dull, even monotonous, as well days occasionally adventurous and exhilarating, yet so because of the disciplined plod. Moses had already led the Israelites for some time before he had his mountaintop experience, and the twelve disciples, including Peter, John and James, had already followed Jesus for some time before theirs. Mountain-top experiences are relatively rare, and they are the fruits of labor.

One of the purposes of the Feast of the Transfiguration is to be a harvest for us, the People of God, who have been concerned of late with the relatively mundane tasks of religion—the activities by which we praise, reverence and serve our Lord, learning about the means by which our souls are saved; about sin and its cure, humility; religion as summarized in our baptismal covenant: continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the daily prayers, and it is lived out representing Jesus in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, seeking harmony with the created order, resisting sin: loving God and neighbor. It is very much like the work required to grow vegetables from seed—less the excitement of the planting as much as when the novelty wears off: pulling weeds, watering, pruning. Mundane, yet: ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened for you—the Church does not teach, labor in the vineyard and the fruits might come; no, the Church teaches, practice religion and they will come.

Historically, the Feast of the Transfiguration traces to about the 4th century, and the earliest evidence points to its origination in early monastic communities in the desert of Egypt. These Christians living austere lives of quiet obedience, strict daily discipline and extended periods daily of silent contemplation began to recognize a liturgical depth in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke of Jesus becoming dazzlingly white. It became a central feast in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, associated in fact with the harvest season. Newly picked grapes were brought to the Church to be blessed on this Feast. This parallels, incidentally, the medieval English blessing of bread from new crops of wheat on what is still called Lammas Day—or “loaf mass” day, August 1, close to the eastern Feast of the Transfiguration. Transfiguration became an official feast in the West in the fifteenth century, and added to the Episcopal Church calendar about 120 years ago.

The tedium of growing grapes, or wheat; attending Mass week in, week out during long stretches of hot weather—perhaps the Christian religion, Christian obedience gets a bit hum-drum when compared to the fun activities of summer travel, swimming pools, backyard grilling and looking at the stars. Is it too much of a stretch to suspect we might be sometimes lulled into something of a summer stupor, within our air-conditioned homes and cars, our gardens yet to bear fruit or roses?

“Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory.” The transfigured glory of Christ wakens us from our summer slumbering. A rose blossoms in glistening white. Imagine what it must have been like for Peter, John and James. The wonder—the holy awe of it all! Moses and Elijah—both having had mountaintop experiences, and both having had experiences with a holy cloud—speaking of Jesus’s departure, that is, of His Passion, Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection. Could there even be words to describe the experience for Peter, John and James? Can we fault Peter for wanting to cling to this moment, to build shelters so that the moment might never end?

We ought not fault him, because despite not knowing the meaning of what he said, God responded with still more glory. A cloud came and overshadowed them—this is a biblical symbol for the presence of the Holy Spirit, overshadowing the three disciples just as Mary was overshadowed at the Annunciation. And entering into the holy cloud, the voice out of the cloud, saying “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This voice is the Father, speaking to the apostles, and hence to us, like he spoke to Jesus at his Baptism in the River Jordan.

And so this is a fully trinitarian experience—the mountaintop of the mountaintop—and the fulfillment of the voice of the Father is Jesus alone. Jesus is the one we are to listen to. By listening to Him, we will hear the voice of the Law, signified by Moses, and the voice of the prophets, signified by Elijah. Rather than trying to control Jesus, to box him in, we are to listen to him.

Peter, John and James experienced this event, this unspeakable miracle. A biblical miracle is an experience beyond the capacity of language to express its full meaning. The accounts of miracles in Scripture attempt to bring expression to that perceiving in depth. Miracle-language attempts to articulate moments that had within them deep wonder, unspeakable awe and mystery. There is a focusing of God’s activity in a miracle, an intense concentration of the action of God.

And doubtlessly Peter, John and James carried this concentrated experience with them, mostly in silence, or confused wonderment—certainly changed inwardly in the soul like Moses was changed outwardly on the skin of his face. They experienced this miracle, yet still doubted the divinity of Jesus, and at first disbelieved his resurrection. It was only looking back later on this mountain-top event, after the resurrection of Jesus, that they saw not only the depth of the experience but its meaning—that Jesus was both Man and God: a Man who definitively reveals ultimate reality, his manhood fully taken into God. The Transfiguration initiated them into the mysteries of God, but it took time for them to see in this experience its fullest depth, for it to become true prayer.

Saint Peter tells us that we will do well to pay attention, as a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. We reflect on the Transfiguration of Our Lord because it is a lamp shining in darkness. The primary darkness is not the world at large, but our inward souls. May we keep silence, reflecting inwardly on Jesus transfigured in dazzling and glistening white. And may we, as we climb the mountain by our religion, by faith behold the King in his beauty. And may the day continue to dawn, and the morning star continue to rise in our hearts.

Cover image “The Saviour’s Transfiguration”  is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.