It Is Good For Us to Be Here: Reflections on Living in Transfiguration
Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and do not be afraid." And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. (St. Matthew 17: 1-9)
From the earliest centuries, the entire Christian Church, both East and West, has celebrated the great Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. In the Liturgy of the Hours used by clergy and faithful in the west, we were presented today with a beautiful sermon given on this Feast by one of the last of the early Church fathers, St. Anastasius. He was the Abbott, of the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai. This beautiful sermon was preached in the seventh century.
I share it with you on this Great feast as I share some of my own reflections on Living in Transfiguration:
It is good for us to be here
Upon Mount Tabor, Jesus revealed to his disciples a heavenly mystery. While living among them he had spoken of the kingdom and of his second coming in glory, but to banish from their hearts any possible doubt concerning the kingdom and to confirm their faith in what lay in the future by its prefiguration in the present, he gave them on Mount Tabor a wonderful vision of his glory, a foreshadowing of the kingdom of heaven.
It was as if he said to them: "As time goes by you may be in danger of losing your faith. To save you from this I tell you now that some standing here listening to me will not taste death until they have seen the Son of Man coming in the glory of his Father." Moreover, in order to assure us that Christ could command such power when he wished, the evangelist continues: Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James and John, and led them up a high mountain where they were alone. There, before their eyes, he was transfigured. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Then the disciples saw Moses and Elijah appear, and they were talking to Jesus.
These are the divine wonders we celebrate today; this is the saving revelation given us upon the mountain; this is the festival of Christ that has drawn us here. Let us listen, then, to the sacred voice of God so compellingly calling us from on high, from the summit of the mountain, so that with the Lord's chosen disciples we may penetrate the deep meaning of these holy mysteries, so far beyond our capacity to express. Jesus goes before us to show us the way, both up the mountain and into heaven, and - I speak boldly - it is for us now to follow him with all speed, yearning for the heavenly vision that will give us a share in his radiance, renew our spiritual nature and transform us into his own likeness, making us for ever sharers in his Godhead and raising us to heights as yet undreamed of.
Let us run with confidence and joy to enter into the cloud like Moses and Elijah, or like James and John. Let us be caught up like Peter to behold the divine vision and to be transfigured by that glorious transfiguration. Let us retire from the world, stand aloof from the earth, rise above the body, detach ourselves from creatures and turn to the creator, to whom Peter in ecstasy exclaimed: Lord, it is good for us to be here. It is indeed good to be here, as you have said, Peter. It is good to be with Jesus and to remain here for ever. What greater happiness or higher honor could we have than to be with God, to be made like him and to live in his light?
Therefore, since each of us possesses God in his heart and is being transformed into his divine image, we also should cry out with joy: It is good for us to be here - here where all things shine with divine radiance, where there is joy and gladness and exultation; where there is nothing in our hearts but peace, serenity and stillness; where God is seen. For here, in our hearts, Christ takes up his abode together with the Father, saying as he enters: Today salvation has come to this house. With Christ, our hearts receive all the wealth of his eternal blessings, and there where they are stored up for us in him, we see reflected as in a mirror both the first fruits and the whole of the world to come."
One of the great treasures of our life together in the Church, where we live as a communion of saints, is that we can reflect with wonderful heroes of centuries past, even now, by prayerfully read their words. We are sons and daughters of the Church together - and we live now in that reality. The Church is our home.
Of course, our experience is only the beginning of what is to come in kingdom, the life eternal, but it is already a participation in that new reality. The Church, in the words of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, is a "seed of the kingdom" to come. Our life within the Church is a real participation in the eternal, beginning in the now. The Feast of the Transfiguration presents us with an opportunity to reflect on the implications of what that can mean.
Yes, as the good Abbott says, this wonderful event on the Mountain was to strengthen the faith of these three disciples. They were about to witness the events that would lead their Messiah, their Lord and Master, along what would appear to be an ignominious path, up Golgotha's lonely hill, to be crucified, a fate reserved for common criminals. Their own faith would be shaken, tested and tried. He loved all who were His own in this world. He wanted encourage them- and to encourage us- to persevere.
However, this One who came from eternity and took upon Himself the limitations of time, was about to open the portal of eternity before them. He would reveal to Peter, James and John the eternal now of His own glory. He was doing so much more than simply encouraging them. He was showing them who He was - and who they would become in Him. He was revealing to them what had already begun; and giving them a vision that would forever change the way they viewed themselves, their daily lives and their mission, after He would return to the Father.
As they lived their lives no longer for themselves, but for Him - and within the Communion of Trinitarian love that would He would soon open up to their participation - they would begin to undergo their own trials and thereby their own transfiguration. This is the still the inheritance of all those who bear His name. We, who have entered through the waters of the womb of Holy Baptism into the life of the Church which is His Body, are "in process". We are being recreated and transfigured in Him, by Him and through Him. He has opened up the Trinitarian Communion to us and allows us to participate in the fullness of its beauty and wonder even now. He has brought heaven to earth and earth to heaven, through the Paschal mystery.
On that Mountain, Jesus revealed before mortal eyes the truly Immortal and Transcendent Truth of who He is - and who Peter, James and John could become in Him. They were invited to exercise their freedom and embrace the path that He had prepared for each one of them. He was grounding them in the eternal Truth, and opening up for the countless millions who would hear this story from their faithful witness, a glimpse of the Glory that is to come as we also choose Him in our daily lives. When we do, we allow Him to transfigure each one of us.
Peter would later write of this experience in his second letter to the early Christians. In order to encourage them to continue in their life of faith he referenced what occurred on the Holy Mountain:
"His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion, devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love. If these are yours and increase in abundance, they will keep you from being idle or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Anyone who lacks them is blind and shortsighted, forgetful of the cleansing of his past sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more eager to make your call and election firm, for, in doing so, you will never stumble. For, in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you. Therefore, I will always remind you of these things, even though you already know them and are established in the truth you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this "tent," to stir you up by a reminder, since I know that I will soon have to put it aside, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me. I shall also make every effort to enable you always to remember these things after my departure.
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, "This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1)
The beautiful understanding of the Christian vocation and life as a "participation in the Divine Nature" - and all that that insight entails - forms the framework for the Eastern Christian vision of salvation, both Orthodox and Catholic. It also gives us an insight into the anthropology of Eastern Christian thought; the vocation of the human person is to be "saved" through being transfigured in Christ. This transfiguration is a process that will only be complete when the entire person, including the body, is fully redeemed and transformed. In fact, the effects of the transfiguration are to involve the entire created order; it too will finally be reconstituted in Jesus Christ and handed back to the Father. The followers of Jesus, the Transfigured One, now walk in His Way and are being transformed into His likeness.
The Beloved Disciple John also used this event of the Transfiguration as a "hermeneutic", a lens through which he gave the early Christians a deeper insight into their difficulties, struggles and mission. In his first Letter to the early Churches, he encouraged them to persevere and live differently by referring to the event that occurred on that Mountain. He encouraged them to not be surprised or discouraged that the "world" did not recognize them, but rather to persevere in love through holding the vision of a transfigured life before them:
"See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure."
Within the spiritual anthropology of Eastern Christianity we find a deep reflection on this mystery. We also find a beautiful insight into the progressive experience of transfiguration.
Sometimes the early Fathers would draw a distinction between God's "Image" and "Likeness" within man and woman. They would preach, teach and write concerning this. Though we were all created in the Image of God; our "sin" (which is the wrong exercise of our freedom, the choosing of what is not of God; the choice against love) wounded us, impaired us, marred us, and injured our communion with Him, one another and the created order. We suffer from the effects of what Western Christian theology later referred to as "concupiscence", a proclivity to choose wrongly. In and through Jesus Christ - through the fullness of His Incarnation, Life, Death and Resurrection - we are now redeemed; capacitated to choose - and to live- differently. As we do, we actually come to participate in the Divine Nature, and we are transformed or "transfigured" into His likeness.
This Feast of the Transfiguration, like all great ancient Feasts of the Christian Church, is a part of the gift of the "mystery" of Christian faith. The word translated "mystery" in the original Greek means much more than we Western Christians often comprehend. We are used to trying to come to "know" something through breaking the object we seek to understand apart and subjecting it to some a kind of scientific examination. Thus, we too often view talk of the Christian life as "mystery" as some kind of "puzzle".
However, to the Eastern Christian mind, which is much more like the Hebrew mind - and thus the mind of Biblical authors - the "mysteries" of the Christian Faith and Christian living are an invitation into a deeper encounter with the Lord. They are to be received as gift and bear fruit within us through encounter. We come to "know" through encounter and relationship. When these mysteries are received as a gift; when they become a part of our prayer, reflection and lifestyle, they will unfold in their implications and have a transforming-a transfiguring - effect upon us.
So it is with this Feast called the Transfiguration.
The Lord Jesus has shown us the way up the mountain and invited us into a new way of living in Him, through living the "mystery" that we recall this day within the communion that is the Church. Living in that Church we are invited to go into the world and invite all men and women, through the waters of the womb of Baptism, into the new communion of love where they can begin the process of conversion and transfiguration. Born again, we are all invited to join with Peter, James and John and cry out in our day: "It is good for us to be here."
One of my favorite contemporary Eastern Christian theologians is Olivier Clement. In his profound book entitled "On Human Being" he writes these words concerning the Church:
"And that is what the Church, this profoundly holy institution is: it is the baptismal womb, the Eucharistic chalice, the breach -made for eternity by the Resurrection -in the hellish lid of the fallen world.
The Church is the Mystery of the Risen Lord, the place, and the only one, where separation is completely overcome; where paschal joy, the "feasts of feasts' , the triumph over death and hell, are offered to our freedom, enabling it to become creative and work towards the final manifestation of that triumph, the final transfiguration of history and the universe"
On this Feast of the Transfiguration, let us enter more deeply into the mystery of faith by living in the Transfiguration within the heart of the Church.
It truly is good for us to be here.
Deacon Keith Fournier is a married Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. He is a graduate of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. His eighth book, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life" is now available in bookstores. He is the Senior Editor of Catholic Online and a Contributing Editor for Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports.
Third Millennium, LLC
http://www.catholicway.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580
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