(Genesis 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18; St. Paul to the Romans 8:31-34; St. Mark’s Gospel 9:2-10)
In our Gospel passage today we find Our Blessed Lord wanting to prepare His disciples for what He foresaw would soon happen: His Passion that would culminate in His sacrificial Death was looming large on the horizon. Jesus had recently forewarned His disciples of it, but, as in so many other matters, they were not yet able to truly appreciate and fully understand His words. When the time would come for Him to be taken away from them, they would find it a traumatic and potentially faith-shattering experience because of the original trust they had placed in Him when leaving so much behind in order to follow Him; and yet more now, because of the admiration and love they had conceived for Him as a result of their short but close association together. Jesus’ immediate purpose, therefore, was to prepare them so that they might be able to draw serious profit from the suffering that would soon come His and their way: He could not spare them the trial, but He would not have them agonize and lose faith because of it. How then did Jesus go about preparing His disciples for their forthcoming trial of suffering, questioning, and soul-searching?
Notice, first of all, that Jesus was well aware that His disciples were, as yet, weak in faith and by no means steadfast in their love for Him. At present they were rejoicing in the presence of the Lord: He was the Bridegroom and they were the Bridegroom’s most privileged friends. However, such present, earthly, joy, though holy, would not be enough to sustain them through the trials that lay ahead. And that, People of God, is something we should notice. Joy in the Lord based largely on emotional experiences would not be enough for Jesus‘ disciples, nor can it suffice for us now; their joy, their love, had to be much more firmly founded on faith: on a faith shot through and through with transcendent hope, and becoming ever more incandescent with a divinely-gifted love for the Person of Jesus. Therefore:
Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them.
Why did Jesus take these three particular disciples with Him on that momentous occasion?
The case for Peter is clear enough since he had just, in the presence and in the name of all the disciples, confessed Jesus as the Christ (Mark 8:29):
‘Who do you say that I am?’ ‘You are the Christ’.
Moreover, Jesus recognized that Peter had been personally chosen and blessed by His Father in order to make that confession; therefore, as we learn from St. Matthew (16:17), following His Father’s lead, He named Peter as the rock upon which He would subsequently build His Church. And so, Peter -- spokesman of the disciples, individually blessed by the Father, and chosen as the rock on which Jesus would build His Church -- was, indeed, pre-eminently suited to accompany Jesus up the mountain.
James the Elder, son of Zebedee, would become leader of the original group of Jewish believers in Jesus making up the original Church in Jerusalem; and being in so prominent a position he would become the first of the Apostles to suffer martyrdom for Jesus’ sake about the year 44 AD. He had to be well prepared for such a calling and so pressing a destiny and therefore he became Jesus’ second choice to follow Himself along with Simon Peter.
Perhaps the reason for John’s being taken by Jesus up the Mount of Transfiguration is to be sought in the mysterious nature of his authorship of the Gospel now bearing his name. For strangely enough, all three Synoptic Gospels tell of Jesus’ Transfiguration though none of the named authors was present on the Mount; whereas John, on the other hand, though actually present on that unique and momentous occasion, does not give us any explicit details of it!
He was quite a young man at the time; a very committed and observant, sensitive and impressionable, disciple of the Lord. He was so deeply affected by what he saw and experienced on the Mount of Transfiguration -- an event second only to the unseen moment of Jesus’ Resurrection as testimony to His divinity -- that whereas Peter, a mature man of the world, would give clear and factual reminiscences of the event (Peter being a source for Mark’s Gospel), John would, just as Jesus envisaged, remain (cf. John 21:22): recalling, considering and reconsidering, lovingly praying and calmly contemplating, what had taken place and what had been said on those heights above, as he unremittingly sought to appreciate and assimilate their purest truth and deepest significance for his understanding of Jesus. When, ultimately, he felt a compulsion to write down or hand on what by then had been filling his mind, heart, and soul for years, His resultant Gospel would be replete, not with factual details of that wondrous occasion, but rather with the all-enveloping atmosphere of divine truth and ultimate reality engendered by Jesus’ presence to, and communion with, His Self-revealing Father in the unity of the overshadowing Spirit … which, John had come to know full well, was not a passing, occasional occurrence for Jesus, but rather a passing manifestation of what was the enduring character of His whole life on earth: for He always lived before and in the presence of His Father; doing His will, proclaiming His truth, and promoting His glory to the utmost of His being.
Therefore, as I have said, the faith of these three very distinct and -- taken together -- most comprehensively talented individuals, needed to be made unyielding and sure on the basis of the divine authority of the words and teaching of Jesus, shot through and through with eschatological hope in the abiding presence and power of His Spirit, and becoming ever more radiant with incandescent love for the Person of Jesus in His Church. To that end, these three -- Peter, James, and John -- were afforded an experience that would allow them to glimpse, briefly, something of the teaching authority, the hidden majesty, and indeed the heavenly glory of the Lord.
First of all:
Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus.
This united witness of the Scriptures – Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets -- solemnly confirmed Jesus as Lord of heaven, the long-proclaimed, lovingly-prepared, and eagerly-awaited, Seed of God’s promise to Abraham, of which we heard in the first reading and as Jesus Himself said (John 5:39, 46):
You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.
If you believed Moses you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me.
Dear People of God, we must most sincerely try to love and appreciate the Scriptures aright if we would know and love Jesus in spirit and in truth, if we would remain firm and, indeed, grow even stronger in our faith through times of trial and temptation.
Then, to the yet greater awe and fear of the disciples:
A cloud came, casting a shadow over them, and from the cloud came a voice: "This is My beloved Son. Listen to Him!"
The heavenly Father Himself (they had no doubt of that!) was impressing upon them again the authority of Jesus’ words and teaching. But surely, there is something more, something far more intimate and personal than ‘listening’ being advised, even commanded, here; for why did the Father speak, as it were publically, of what was most intimately Personal between Himself and His Son … that is, His love for His Son: This is My Beloved? Surely, the Father is there, certainly not commanding, not even so much as advising but, most delicately drawing those who are initially committing themselves to His Son, to learn, from Him, the Father Himself, how rightly and fully to love His beloved One.
This is My beloved Son!
This approach is far more compelling and inviting than any command could be; it is a divine inspiration and heartfelt Personal invitation and call from the Father; it is the sublime source of those subsequent words of Jesus (John 6:44, 65):
No one can come to Me unless the Father Who sent Me draw him.
No one can come to Me unless it is granted him by My Father.
Now we too, should turn to and prayerfully learn something from the Father drawing us to Jesus, His beloved Son, when, at Holy Mass, we prepare to welcome Him into our midst as the Father’s sacramental pledge of love for mankind; and most especially, as we receive Him into our individual hearts as the Father’s Personal Gift of Love to each one of us. For we should recall, first of all, that Jesus is being given to us by the Father that we might love Him in the power of His accompanying Spirit, and secondly, that the Beloved Son we are receiving is Himself a living Personal Gift of Love Who wills to love in us, as our love for the Father, seeking to draw us back to the Father with Himself.
Holy Communion is that doubly divine and momentous occasion when we are able and called to learn from the gifting Father how to love, better and ever more personally, His beloved Son; and also how best to allow His Son to lovingly respond to and live for the Father in and through us by the Holy Spirit abiding in and with us as Jesus’ gift.
The disciples descended with Jesus from those heights so close and open to heaven with a faith itself transfigured into an anticipation of Christian faith. Now, despite Jesus’ recent warning of His approaching suffering, rejection by the religious authorities, and resultant death lurking in their minds, they had received a faith-vision of Jesus’ heavenly glory, hidden as yet from earthly scrutiny, but something, nevertheless, both beautiful and sure that would help them relate to the resurrection Jesus promised would follow His death in three days. Nevertheless, because they would be most sorely wounded by their Lord’s suffering and death, this ‘dry-dock’ work of preparation and confirmation undertaken on the Mount of Transfiguration would be sedulously pursued by the Lord as, again and yet again, for a second and then a then a third time, He clearly warned and loving prepared them for their time of trial and temptation.
People of God, we Catholics and Christians of today are, like the original fathers of our faith, subject to trial and temptation throughout the world; we must, therefore, learn how to protect our faith, our Christian and Catholic civilisation, and our own selves; we must ‘listen to Him’, Our Blessed Lord and Saviour, if we would be strong in faith and love for eternal life, for our adversaries subject us to great stress and savage attacks all over the world. Our governments are forgetful of their Christian heritage and solicitous only for their own permanence in power and popularity. As Catholics and Christians, we are not – like those militant, pseudo-religious groups – allowed and encouraged to hate and lust, be it for pleasure or for power! How such connivance with native passions and their unrestrained expression stirs up ‘religious zeal’ in all sorts of people but especially in the young, short of understanding and emotional stability, and most eager to make their mark by doing what comes so easily and naturally if encouraged and praised by evil masters! Our Christian strength – for we are not allowed to become ‘wimps’ ever shivering between humanism and emotionalism! – our strength has to come, as Jesus taught, from our faith in Himself, and has to express itself through the power of His Spirit: faith must not be explained away by rationalising expediency, nor spiritual power subverted by trite and emotional platitudes meant above all to avoid trouble or emolliate opposition.
Moreover, as Jesus was so solicitous for His disciples and future Church we too must look to our children who need help as they try to understand their humanity and adapt to the society around them. To those ends they should be taught morals and guided towards love of what is truly beautiful. They are not, of themselves, positively innocent; in infancy their relative helplessness demands that they instinctively wail and grab to satisfy their most basic needs, and they need to be loved and guided lest, as they grow stronger in body, they continue to seek and grab, no longer for what they need, but for what they fancy. Of course, their greatest need as they are growing up is for faith and spiritual strength to withstand peer-pressure which would force them into compliance with group excitement and amusement without reference to any personal thinking or religious morals. Of one thing we can be certain, children left to ‘find out for themselves’ will rarely find out what is good and true for themselves; they will be led, drawn along, by the examples and solicitations of others in their group, responding to nothing better than the shared exuberance of youth under the domination of passions and pride… feelings which all share or at least can easily understand. Because of that sharing in emotional awareness and excitement very few members of a group of friends or ‘mates’ dare to ‘go it alone’ and, following their personal conscience, resist, or seek to control, that of which they cannot actually approve, but dare not openly disapprove.
Good Catholic and Christian parenthood is indeed demanding, but it is a most beautiful art with lifelong and indeed eternal rewards.
People of God, delight in the Lord Jesus, try ever to follow confidently His example; trust humbly in the teaching of His Church and her Scriptures; and never give up hoping that the goodness of God Who gives His own Son for and to us all, will lead you to share in the eternal glory of Jesus before the Father if you persevere faithfully thus walking with Him along life’s way to heaven’s reward.