The transfiguration narrative is a pivotal moment in the larger narrative of the life of Christ. It is one of the five major events in the life and mission of Christ.
The other major events are the Baptism, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension.
The underlying theme in these events is the Paschal Mystery, the Glory of the Cross and Resurrection. This is the mission of Christ, and obedience to this mission was his main focus in life—a single-minded, single-hearted focus.
In today’s Gospel, we see God and Christ saying “no” to Peter’s suggestion to stay. “Master, it is good we are here; let us make three tents….” Then we hear the Father’s voice, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
From here on, Christ made his way to Jerusalem, the city of destiny where he was to fulfill his mission in the glory of the Cross and the Resurrection. In the passage immediately before this Sunday’s Gospel, Christ makes his first prediction of his Passion, Death and Resurrection. This emphasizes the Transfiguration as a central moment in the unfolding of the Paschal Mystery.
The Transfiguration highlights the glory of Christ, the glory of his Cross and Resurrection. Some commentaries refer to the Transfiguration as the guarantee of victory, or an assurance of hope amid the sacrifices and struggles.
There is a line from the Gospel of John where we get a good insight into the glory of Christ: “And just as Moses lifted the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
In an article last April, I referred to a retreat in the mid-’80s conducted by Fr. Jean Louis Ska, SJ, a Belgian Jesuit and a scripture scholar based at the Gregorian University in Rome. All through the eight-day retreat, he wove the different exercises of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola with the Gospel of John.
His reflection on the reference to Moses and the serpent was quite insightful. The Old Testament story is, there was a plague of serpents after the chosen people complained against God and Moses. They repented when hit by the plague. Moses then turned to Yahweh and interceded for the people.
God instructs Moses to take a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole or standard. Anyone who was bitten by a serpent and looks at this standard would be healed and would live. (Of course one recognizes this mounted serpent as the symbol or logo of the physician.)
This Old Testament story and the standard prefigure Christ’s own standard, his being crucified on the Cross; the standard of Christ, as Ignatius would refer to the Cross. Christ refers to this Old Testament episode in the Gospel of John. He speaks of the coming two moments of his being lifted up: on the Cross and in the Resurrection.
On the Cross Christ takes a position not natural to the human person. With arms stretched out, Christ assumes a position of vulnerability. He becomes defenseless. This goes against the natural human inclination to protect one’s self, self-preservation.
Yet it is the Cross that allows the Resurrection to take place. All who behold and embrace his/her cross is healed, made whole and gains eternal life. As we intone in the Good Friday liturgy, the Veneration of the Cross, “Behold the wood of the Cross on which is hung our salvation.”
This is what Christ came for. It was why he was sent to our world. He lived for this moment. He died for this moment. On the Cross Christ went not so much against natural human inclinations—the inclination toward life and self-preservation—but He transcended these and got to the core of being human. He freed himself, a total freedom that made possible His loving obedience to God and His perfect offering on the Cross.
Lent and Holy Week are the special seasons of grace to renew our single-minded and single-hearted focus to be totally dedicated to our mission—a sharing in the Cross and Resurrection. All mission is to share in and live out the pattern of the Cross and the Resurrection in our day-to-day life.
The spirit of repentance and penance during Lent disciplines us to be selfless, and to overcome our natural human inclinations to be able to enter the core of total offering in love and in service to God and others.
When I was a Jesuit seminarian, I was asked to do vocation work at the Ateneo de Manila High School. We invited third-year high-school students who had some desire to be Jesuits to a half-day vocation seminar. Those who wanted to know more and explore the possibility of becoming a Jesuit, we continued to see monthly. There were 14 out of 42 whom we saw for more than a school year.
As they were about to graduate from the high school, I asked each of the 14 if they wanted to continue the spiritual direction. It was almost like asking them to take a step toward some choice to nurture their vocation.
The 14 had varying concerns, but all had one “problem.” Being young—most were around 17—they had raging hormones and had to deal with emerging sexual passions. Whenever one of the 14 told me this, with a straight face I would say, “Maybe that is a sign you will make a good Jesuit.”
I would almost always get a puzzled look, as if to say, “Are you serious?” Then I would ask them, “Did you see any Jesuit you admired who was not passionate with their work?” Then they would begin to understand.
This is one great contribution of Ignatius, not just to formation or spirituality, but also to education. He believed in desires and passions. We must not kill desires and passions, but re-orient them, redirect them in service of God and others, in the service of God’s mission for us.
This is the core of our Christian faith. This is the grace that saves us. This is the core of the glory of Christ. It makes us fully alive as we reorient, redirect our desires and passions toward the love and service of God and others.