Ignatius Loyola was fond of using his imagination to fill in the blanks of his limited theological vision. In order to reach the depths of contemplation, Ignatius applied all the human senses to create a scene in which Scripture came vividly alive. Today’s Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord is a good text to use for this style of prayer. This Sunday’s readings activate three primary senses: sight, hearing and touch. While sight and hearing provide a feast to the imagination, it is Jesus’ capacity to touch physically, like the laying on of hands in a blessing, that restores the disciples to life.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” (Mt 17:7)
Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord
Dn 7:9-14, Ps 97, 2 Pt 1:16-19, Mt 17:1-9
When was the last time you used the power of imagination for your prayer?
How might you expand your vision of God through imagination?
Does your imagination need healing in order to see Christ?
In this Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Daniel employs a biblical genre called “apocalyptic,” which is known for its striking imagery marked by vividness. “The Ancient One took his throne,” writes Daniel, “His clothing was bright as snow, and the hair on his head as white as wool; his throne was flames of fire” (Dn 7:9). Imagine a wildfire with fifty-foot flames streaming high into the heavens; this is Daniel’s portrait of God. This awesome picture of divine power portrays the Ancient One passing on authority to “one like a Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven” (Dn 7:13). This vision is similar to the vivid scene in this Sunday’s Gospel.
This Sunday’s Gospel scene portrays Jesus visibly transfigured before his three closest disciples, Peter, James and John. Jesus is physically changed and takes on characteristics reminiscent of Daniel’s vision. “His face shone like the sun,” writes Mathew, “and his clothes became white as light” (Mt 17:2). The disciples then witness Moses and Elijah. The scene is ripe with symbolic vitality. Moses represents the Word of God in written form, Elijah the Word of God in the prophetic tradition and Jesus, the incarnate Word of God. This triptych, however, includes a fourth divine presence through God’s own self, “behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, from the cloud came a voice” (Mt 17:5).
During this mountaintop vision, the disciples were justified in their fear as their senses became overwhelmed. In Scripture, to be near the divine presence often causes fatigue and weakness of spirit. Peter and companions remain in the presence of not one but four heavenly figures within this passage. What’s more, a divine voice speaks through a cloud, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Mt 17:5). The imperative is fitting, Jesus is the embodied Word of God. The Gospel scene provides an overwhelming movement of the Spirit upon these unsuspecting disciples.
It is Jesus’ last gesture after the vision that merits one’s full attention and one that is often missed, as he reaches out and touches them. After the disciples heard a voice from the cloud, they fell to the ground. “But Jesus came and touched them,” writes Matthew (Mt 17:7). The Greek word that Matthew uses, hapto, means, “to cause illumination, to make close contact, to touch.” It is also the word that Matthew uses when Jesus touches persons who are ill. In other words, Jesus’ action is a biblical gesture of divine healing. “Get up,” says Jesus, “and do not be afraid” (Mt 17:7). The vision ends immediately, and the only manifestation of the divine that remains is Jesus, who stands alone with them.
The power of this scene is not the vision of Jesus transfigured, but the healing touch Jesus offers to his beloved disciples. For the full impact of this visionary experience, the disciples needed to be healed from their weakness of spirit, perhaps from their lack of courage for the journey ahead. Discipleship works the same even today; to grow in our own prayer and spirituality we constantly need the healing touch of Christ. This healing touch transfigures us as we walk along our faith journey.