The Transfiguration is one of the scenes which you can return to, over and over again and find a source of deep nourishment. It comes to us in Lent, for the same reason that it was given to the disciples. To prepare them for suffering. Jesus takes them up the mountain soon after he predicts his Passion and Death for the first time. As they come down from the mountain Jesus will announce to them again, that he will have to suffer and die, before rising again. All of us face, will face suffering in our lives. It is normal to experience fear in the face of suffering. Fear is not bad in itself. It is a human/animal response to danger. But we can live controlled by fear. And the fear can take a lot of forms, colouring the way we see the world, our relationships with others and so on. We want to protect ourselves from suffering as much as possible. This was the case with the disciples as well. Jesus takes them with him, to have an overwhelming experience of the goodness of God, before they faced the Cross.
I would like to explore this through another text of Scripture, Psalm 24. The Psalmist asks,
‘Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place?’ (v.3)
He also provides the answer: The man with ‘clean hands and a pure heart.’ (v.4)
The one who is pure in their intention and whose actions are not false, sullied. And it leaves us in despair, because we know that none of us have hearts that are not divided in a myriad different ways. These divisions in our heart, were what the Fathers called the passions, which we spoke about last week. These are a sickness of the soul and they arise from our controlling fears.
We want to love everyone. But we know of what people – what we – are capable. It makes us suspicious of others. Somebody does something good, we receive with gratefulness, but then we can also begin to question their motives. Someone being successful makes us feel threatened. Someone doesn’t reply to your text immediately makes you feel insecure. Our relationships are coloured by our fears. The Psalmist says, one with such a divided heart cannot ascend the mountain of the Lord.
But the longing of the Psalmist is answered. There is one whose hands are clean, whose heart is pure, Christ himself. And the gospel notes how it is Christ who takes the disciples up the mountain. The text does not say that they do go with him. Christ is the active agent who takes them up the mountain. This is grace. It comes as gift. One cannot ascend this mountain on one’s own strength. The Psalmist continues, such are those that seek him, the face of the God of Jacob (v.6). It is however, something we can long for – and the longing we experience is itself grace. And that grace comes to free us from our passions.
When we are aware of our own weakness and failings, we can still have confidence that it is God who has come down to us, to take us to his presence. This ascent to the mountain is the work of virtue, being reformed by grace. We usually think of the Transfiguration as a change that happens to Christ; in the East, however, this event is not seen as something that happens to Christ but what happens to the apostles. By the power of the Spirit, their eyes are opened, spiritually to see Christ in his divinised humanity; this is light that Christ always possessed, the unapproachable light of God of which Paul speaks. Christ stands in this for all eternity.
As this light floods their hearts, the apostles are all knocked back by the force of this experience. It is only Peter, true to character, who tries to say something, and very unsuccessfully. What is being communicated is beyond anything that can be said. The Father’s voice interrupts Peter’s blabbering – Don’t speak! ‘listen to him!’ But Jesus is not saying anything. He is simply pouring out this uncreated light of God. This is his love, his goodness, what our hearts long for.
When a mother holds her newborn in her arms and smiles at her child, at one point, the child will smile back. The child is not even conscious of its own being. But the child knows, without knowing that it is loved. It has the capacity to receive the love of the mother. It is not something the child will remember, but it will have changed the child. This is the love that pours into the apostles on the mountain. It goes beyond words, expressions and feelings. It is instructive what Peter does manage to say, even in his blabbering. ‘It is good that we are here’. This is the goodness that they are able to receive as their eyes are opened to the Father’s love. He can now see everything in the light of God’s goodness.
Jesus lived in the love and providence of God. He experienced the terror of the Cross himself, as we see in his agony in the garden. But he was never controlled by fear, he was free. He was free in the love of his Father. He could receive even the Cross, from the hands of his loving Father. Here, on this mountain, the disciples are exposed to the same love, which can heal their wounds, the divisions in their hearts.
You could say, that is great for Peter, James and John, but what about us? Peter, James and John are the pillars of the church. The experience they had, while it was unique and amazing, was for all of us. This was the secret of the saints. In the apostles, we have all been invited into the same intimacy. This is the mountain of the Lord, especially in the Eucharist. This is not a place we can ascend to by ourselves. We are brought here, to this mountain by the grace of Christ, by the grace of our baptism. When we receive the Eucharist, this same grace is communicated to us. He comes to communicate to us, in what surpasses thoughts, feelings, anything at all, his love, his grace, his healing. But we can miss this, if we are caught up in our own world. We can sit here and our minds can be elsewhere. And we leave without experiencing anything. But God wants to open our eyes, and heal our wounds.
The Psalmist again says, ‘O Gates lift high your heads, let the king of glory enter’ (v.9)
That is why, mid-way through the Eucharist, the priest calls out – ‘Lift up your hearts!’ The King is coming, let him enter. The Eucharist we receive is God himself. We just have to be present to it – to lift the gates of our hearts. We don’t need to be super-holy to receive of this grace. We just have to be present, with our frailties and weaknesses and willing to offer them to the Lord. And here, we can be transfigured. We can be healed.