A Homily for the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord
Peter cannot help but to cry out:
“Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here…” (Mt 17:4).
Gazing upon the glory of the Lord, the apostles see the world in an utterly new light. Peter’s instinctive response is to set up camp, to remain in the glory of this newly illumined world. Would you not suggest the same, if your world had been transfigured, transformed right before your eyes?
We must not reduce the Gospel to our measure, to talk about what really happened on Mount Tabor. There is simply no way for us to get behind the story itself, to judge it based on what we would consider to be the facts alone. That is a mistaken point of entry.
There is an opposite error. We can make the story so miraculous, so out of the ordinary, as to quarantine it from our own experiences. That cannot be what the evangelists seek, or they never would have recorded the scene for our prayerful pondering.
Gazing upon the glory of the Lord, the apostles see the world in an utterly new light.
No, we must accept the story in the same spirit that the evangelists intended: something of what happened on Mount Tabor can—and should!—occur in our lives as well.
The Church Father Origin perceptively asked of this passage, “Is it therefore possible for Jesus to be transfigured before some but not before others?” He continued:
Do you wish to see the transfiguration of Jesus? Behold with me the Jesus of the Gospels. Let him besimply apprehended. There he is beheld both “according to the flesh” and at the same time in his true divinity. He is beheld in the form of God according to our capacity for knowledge (my italics for emphasis). This is how he was beheld by those who went up upon the lofty mountain to be apart with him.
Something akin to Tabor does happen each time that we are graced because grace is a moment of particular insight into the meaning of life.
It helps if we jettison a misleading picture of grace, as some sort of invisible moonbeam. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “grace is a participation in the life of God” (No. 1997). There is no talk of invisible rays.
Picture instead something more mundane, more grounded in our own humanity. Try “insight.” Grace is a moment when elements of the same old world are reconfigured in a way that reveals the presence of God. Origin spoke of our “capacity for knowledge.” Indeed, if “reconfiguration” is an insight that we can produce on our own, then “transfiguration” would be the better choice of word. Grace is a particular moment of insight, one freely given to us by God.
Nothing new enters the scene in a moment of insight. No, some element moves to the forefront, and suddenly we see everything else in a new way.
We must accept the story in the same spirit that the evangelists intended: something of what happened on Mount Tabor can—and should!—occur in our lives as well.
What might that element be? It is as varied as the world itself and as particular as God. It might be quite positive in appearance: falling in love, the birth of a child, coming home, a big win.
Its appearance might also be negative, though it initiates a transfiguration of elements that produce God’s own insight: a diagnosis, a divorce, a death, a loss of any kind. These are events that leave us suddenly saying to ourselves, “If only I had been able to see.”
Grace is always the gift of God, unmerited on our part. But that does not mean that it must be fleeting. After all, God has entered into a covenant with us. He has promised to be present when we gather, when the Gospel is proclaimed, when the sacraments are celebrated.
Indeed, we are “graced” whenever we perceive the world itself, or some key part of it, to be the gift of God. Here is an example.
We are “graced” whenever we perceive the world itself, or some key part of it, to be the gift of God.
The Renaissance poet John Donne fell in love with Anne More. She was 16 years younger than he and from a family far wealthier than his own. They sacrificed everything to be together, and, after 16 years of near penury, Anne died following the birth of their 12th child.
A phrase from Donne’s Latin epithet for his wife’s tomb is well worth pondering. He calls Anne Feminae Lectissime Dilectissimeque (the most well read and beloved of women). But Donne means more than that his wife was an avid reader. No, John read Anne herself like a beloved book, gaining new insight each time that he returned.
Put another way, Anne simply was grace for her husband John. Whenever he needed to make sense of his world, when he needed comfort from its insults or perspective in its delights, he had only to think of her, bring Anne before his mind’s eye. What others might have seen is irrelevant.
That is the nature of grace. It is “the glory of God” appearing before a particular set of eyes. “And he was transfigured before them” (Mt 17:2). Before them alone, because grace is always “for your eyes only.”