Feast of the Transfiguration
By Rev. J. J. Hurst
The Transfiguration marked a climax in the public life of Christ. It was the synthesis and summary of His Divine claims. False Judaism had despised and rejected Him. “He came unto His own and His own received Him not.” Now, true Judaism in the persons of Moses and Elias, the law and the Prophets, the embodiment of all revelation and inspiration of the past, is invoked to acknowledge and adore Him. But greater testimony than that of the elect of earth is requisite. The infinite dignity of the Divine Victim demands it. The majesty of heaven is concerned and the Godhead in all three Persons intervenes, the Father by His declaration, the Son by His glory, and the Holy Ghost by His manifestations. Other earthly heights had been the theater of sacrosanct happenings, but Tabor is preeminently the Holy Mount for the sublimity of the vision it has witnessed and the measureless significance and stupendous solemnity of the events it has known.
Various reasons are given for the fitness of the mystery of the Transfiguration, but the proximate and, according to St. Leo and other holy doctors, the principal aim was to confirm the Apostles against the scandal of the Cross, so that the humiliation of our Lord’s voluntary Passion might n9ot perturb the faith of those who had witnessed the excellence of His hidden dignity. The years of Christ’s public life were drawing to a close. In a short time He would be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified. He had already foretold His disciples of His approaching sufferings and death, but “Foolish and slow of heart to believe in all things which the prophets had spoken,” the allusion to such a dread possibility only filled them with misgivings and dejection. This condition of mind on the part of the disciples was not due to any lack of faith in their Master. They believed Him to be the Son of the living God, but the element of faith in them was tinctured by their natural inclinations and yearnings, and their spiritual vision was accordingly restricted. They had erroneous views concerning the Kingdom He had come on earth to establish, not yet realizing that His Kingdom was not of this world. With all the ardor of their race they cherished the hope of seeing Israel restored to her place of power and pride among the nations, and they were also in expectation of being themselves rewarded with positions of dignity and authority in the new regal government. The death of Christ would constitute the destruction of their ambitious designs, as it was to Him they look for their accomplishment. To further disillusion the witnesses doubtless it was that the converse, which St. Luke tells us Christ held with Moses and Elias, concerned His decrease to which He again referred, and in still plainer terms, when on the descent from the Mount He enjoined secrecy till the Son of Man be risen from the dead. Because of their greater zeal and devotion, Peter, James and John were His best beloved and singularly favored disciples. They were the chosen witness of His Transfiguration, as they had been of other striking incidents in His life. They alone would be with Him in Gethsemane and witness His agony. The memory of Tabor rendering them so conscious of the wonderful condescension and excess of love which led the Majesty of heaven to hide itself in human form and to suffer the death of the Cross would strengthen them against the ignominy of that sacrilegious tragedy which the enemies of Christ devised, to overwhelm His Kingdom with destruction and to cover His followers with disgrace. But there was an ulterior and a more significant reason for the Transfiguration.
The glimpse of luminous and ravishing beauty which our Lord permitted the Apostles was in part an image of the wonderful transformation the bodies of the just will undergo at the resurrection; and this, it was intended, would animate them to support with constancy and courage the trials and persecutions they would have to undergo in the execution of the work for which He had destined them, in the hope of sharing a like glory with Him in His heavenly kingdom. After the descent of the Holy Ghost, the Apostles with minds no longer dimmed by visions of earthly greatness, but elevated to a true appreciation of the supernatural, turned to Tabor as a source of inspiration, hope and joy. Long years after the Transfiguration we find St. Peter exhorting the faithful to greater fervor and faith in virtue of that glorious event, assuring them that when he had made known to them toe power and presence of Jesus Christ, he did not follow cunningly devised fables, but had been made an eyewitness of His majesty on the Holy Mount. And St. John concludes the sublime exordium of his Gospel with the memory of Tabor suggesting the exquisite passage: “We have seen the glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Tabor, and more especially the endless bliss which its glory imaged, was the light that shone for the Apostles, one and all, until their day star arose. It infused into their souls an ardor that no time nor place nor circumstance could diminish. It impelled them to deeds of most heroic daring. It beamed for them in the gloom of the prison and in the dreariness of the desert places. It was their mainstay in privations, perils and persecutions; in torture, contumelies and death.
The transfiguration holds the same lesson for us: It inspires the same hope and points to the same reward. God has solemnly pledged Himself to give eternal life to all who love and serve Him on earth. The love and service which God demands are rendered in a pilgrimage of which conflict and suffering are inseparable concomitants. From the first cry in infancy to the last sigh of agony, the path of life is filled with many miseries. The clouds of sorrow are hovering everywhere. Sometimes they threaten from afar. Sometimes, unexpectedly, they come dismal and dense, blinding the vision and rending the heart. Yet we must suffer and contend. It is our portion ordained by an All-Wise Providence as a punishment for sin and a means of Salvation. Natural virtue alone is inadequate to support many of the ills of life. There are griefs which no human power can assuage and afflictions for which no human sympathy can bring consolation. But Tabor and Calvary stand not far apart. The glory of one mingles with the gloom of the other. The sufferings and death of Christ are our hope. By them He has purchased for us the rewards of Eternal life. Our life and light, our joy and hope, spring from His grave. If we must suffer, we need not suffer in vain; and if we must sorrow, we need not sorrow as those who have no hope.
There are some who suffer like the penitent thief and some like the impenitent thief. But, as the Curé of Ars pointedly remarks, one knew how to make his sufferings meritorious; he accepted them in the spirit of resignation, and, turning to Jesus crucified, received from Him those beautiful words, “This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise.” The other, on the contrary, cried out, uttered imprecations and blasphemies and expired in the most frightful despair.
Calvary, or the way of the Cross, is our road to Tabor. If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me (Mat xvi,24), was the admonition of Christ to His disciples just a few days before the Transfiguration. “If thou carry the Cross willingly,” says the author of the Imitation, “it will carry thee, and bring thee to thy desired end, where there will be an end of suffering. There is no health of soul, nor hope of eternal life, but in the Cross.” Wherefore if we die with Christ, we shall live with Him; and if we be His companions in suffering, we shall be His companions in glory.
It was the hope of enjoying eternal glory with a body free from suffering, that animated and sustained holy Job amid the terrible calamities and afflictions with which he was visited. How inspiring are his beautiful words: “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that on the last day I shall raise out of the earth, and shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I shall see my Lord. This my hope is laid up in my bosom.” The world marvels at the patience and resignation of Job. The saints imitate him. The Same desire founded on the same hope causes them to become fools for Christ and to regard present tribulation as momentary and light, knowing that it worketh above measure exceedingly and eternal weight of glory.
Wretched indeed are hose on whose labors the light of Tabor never shines. They fill up their measure of time, deprived of the most precious hope and the greatest consolation it is given to mortals to know. These are they of whom holy Job has said, “Tribulation shall terrify them and distress shall surround them.” They suffer like the impenitent thief; and when suffering has no motive but the endurance of pain it becomes intolerable. They refused to drink of the chalice with Christ, and now they must drain their portion of gall and wormwood to the dregs. It is inexpressibly sad to contemplate the miseries of such souls weighted with burdens and sorrows, without a ray of heavenly light to cheer them or a tribute of earthly power to relieve them. But “What things a man soweth, those shall he reap: (Gal. vi, 8).
We cannot hope to escape tribulation and sorrow in this life, but we can make them meritorious and earn by them the rewards of eternal life. We can drink of the chalice of the Lord lovingly. We can unite them with His and bear them patiently for His sake. The heaviest burden becomes light and the most bitter yoke sweet when endured for Christ. Thus will the glory of Tabor or the still greater glory it imaged, dispel the gloom of our Calvaries. It will be our solace in sorrow, it will give patience in adversity and infuse a hop that will live through the darkest hours of affliction. It will help us to realize more sensibly and to appreciate more fully the import of St. Paul’s divinely inspired words, “That the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us” (Rom. viii, 18).
The Transfiguration did not disclose any of the essential glory of the Divine nature which cannot be seen by mortal eyes, but a ray of one of the qualities of glory proper to the sacred humanity of our Lord, which would always cause “His face to shine as the sun,” if this effect were not suspended during His lifetime for the sake of the work of redemption. The accidental glory of God may be increased or diminished, but His substantial glory endures forever. With Him there is no “change or shadow of change.” A cloud will obscure the brightness of the sun, but behind the cloud the sun still shines. We may descend into the caverns of the earth, and we cease to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays and to feast our eyes on the features of the landscape they embellish. Above us still, but no longer visible, are the same glow of the sunshine and the same scenes of beauty. The sun constant in his own intrinsic glory and ceaseless in his wonted influence, proceeds on his course, from yar to year, from day to day, from minute to minute, never losing his bearings, never arriving a moment late at his appointed places. So with the Sun of Justice. We may change in our relations to Him. Our visions may be obscured by other objects. We may hide ourselves from His light, but He was in the plenitude of His perfections in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be.
It was a very great favor for Peter, James and John to have been taken up to the Holy Mount to hear the voice of the Father, to gaze upon the rapturous beauty of the Son, and to witness the manifestations of the Holy Ghost in the bright cloud that over-shadowed them. Prostrate in the very presence of the Triune God, the privileged witnesses of a scene earth had never known might well exclaim with Jacob: “How terrible is this place; this is no other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.” Gen. xxviii, 17). But we should do violence to the teachings of faith and reason, were we not to feel that the unseen God whose voice was audible on Tabor is just as close to us every moment of our existence as He was to the Apostles when He proclaimed the glory of His well-beloved Son. Everything in nature, animate and inanimate, attests the living presence of God. He permeates all space. The universe is only His shadow. We are surrounded and immersed in the ocean of His immensity. “In Him we live, move, and have our being.” “Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit? Or whither shall I fly from Thy face? If I ascend into Heaven Thou art there; if I descend into Hell thou art present. If I take my wings early in the morning and dwell in the uttermost ends of the sea even there also shall Thy hand lead me; and Thy right hand shall hold me” are the beautiful and expressive words of the Psalmist contemplating the Omnipresence and Providence of God (Ps. cxxxviii, 7-10).
We should fail to appreciate the first principles of our holy religion wee we to forget that we have been made the living temples of the Holy Ghost; that Hi is the source of our supernatural life; that we are the recipients of His most precious gifts; that He illuminates our intellects, strengthens our wills and floods our hearts with the fire of His love in an unseen but as real a manner as He manifested Himself to the three on Tabor or to the eleven on Pentecost Sunday.
We should be ungrateful for the sufferings and unmindful of the merits of Christ were we not to acknowledge ourselves the recipients of a greater favor than He accorded on Tabor to the chosen witnesses of the Transfiguration, by the abiding testimony of love He has given us in the Sacrament of the Blessed Eucharist.
We cannot, like Peter, James and John accompany Him to Tabor or to Calvary, but we can give other proofs of our devotion, gratitude and love. We can often come to visit Him in His dwelling places where, beneath the Sacramental veil, He is present in all the majestic glory of Tabor and the condescending humility and excess of love of Calvary. We can often partake of the banquet of His own Body and Blood, to which He invites us in the most persuasive and pressing manner. “Come to me all who labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you.” “He who cometh to me shall not hunger.” “How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O Lord” where, with eyes of faith, we behold the glory of the Begotten of the Father, and experience the effects of love greater than which no man hath!