Such glory in the readings today — the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord! Such glory.
These readings bring us to the threshold of heaven: to the Ancient One on his throne, the Ancient of Days, in Daniel’s vision in the first reading, clothing bright as snow, hair white as wool, his throne flames of fire, thousands ministering to him — and one like a Son of man coming on clouds of heaven, receiving authority, glory and kingship.
The Lord is king over all the earth, the psalmist sings. Clouds and darkness are around him; mountains melt like wax before him. And the Gospel, and even the second reading, take us to Mount Tabor, the mountain of the Lord’s Transfiguration, to the shining cloud of the divine presence, to the company of Moses and Elijah, to the voice of the Father saying “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Those of you who pray the Luminous Mysteries of the rosary know that the Transfiguration is the fourth Luminous Mystery, after Christ’s preaching or proclamation of the kingdom of God, but before the institution of the Eucharist, which of course leads directly to the agony in the Garden and the Sorrowful Mysteries.
So the Transfiguration comes toward the end of Jesus’ public ministry, not long before his final journey to Judea, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the events leading to his passion and death. So there’s great glory in the Transfiguration, but also a foreshadowing of sorrow and death. In fact, it was partly to strengthen his disciples for the hard road ahead that our Lord gave these three, Simon Peter, James and John, such a powerful vision of his glory.
Of course at the time all they knew was that they had experienced the glory of God and of Jesus in a way unlike anything in their lives. You and I may never have experienced anything quite so dramatic — at least, I haven’t — but I have experienced moments in some way like it, and maybe you have too: what people call “mountaintop experiences”; moments of deep joy, fulfillment and a powerful sense of God’s closeness and loving presence.
Listen to what a famous spiritual writer, the Dutch priest Henry Nouwen, wrote about such moments:
At some moments we experience complete unity within us and around us. This may happen when we stand on a mountaintop and are captivated by the view. It may happen when we witness the birth of a child or the death of a friend. It may happen when we have an intimate conversation or a family meal. It may happen in church during a service or in a quiet room during prayer. But whenever and however it happens we say to ourselves: “This is it … everything fits … all I ever hoped for is here.”
Can you think of moments like that, mountaintop moments, in your life? I can. One of them wasn’t on a mountain, but ironically underground. Seven years ago Archbishop Myers led a pilgrimage to holy sites in Italy, including Siena, Assisi, and Rome. I was a pilgrim in that group with my daughter Sarah, who was 15 at the time.
Assisi is on a hillside, and Assisi Cathedral is high up on the hill. But the holiest site in Assisi is the lowest landmark. Down near the lower part of the city is the Basilica of Saint Francis, which has an upper church, a lower church, and then a small underground crypt where Saint Francis’ coffin is exposed above the altar, and we celebrated Mass there.
I’ve had the privilege of going to Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica, with the pope celebrating. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience magnificent churches in Rome, Florence, Madrid, and elsewhere, but that Mass in Assisi, in that rough, rude little crypt, in the awesome presence of Saint Francis, was one of the great mountaintop moments of my life.
It was an experience like that, according to Father Nouwen, that Peter, James, and John had on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration. That experience changed them for the rest of their lives. How do I know? Because decades later, according to our second reading from 2 Peter, Simon Peter was still talking about it! “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty,” Peter says:
For he received honor and glory from God the Father
when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory,
“This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven
while we were with him on the holy mountain.
That moment is seared into Peter’s mind. Time stood still on that mountain, and while he was there Peter wanted it never to end.
You see, six days earlier Simon Peter had another big day. It was the day Jesus gave Simon his new name, Peter, the rock on which Christ would build his church, making him our first pope.
It was also the day Jesus first talked about his coming passion and death, and Peter was horrified: “God forbid, Lord! This will never happen to you!” And Jesus turned on him: “Get behind me, you satan!” And he went on to explain that his disciples also must be willing to take up their cross. And he concluded: “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father… there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”
Now when Peter and the others heard that, what do you think they thought of? Our first reading, from Daniel, about the Ancient One on his throne, clothing and hair bright as snow, and one “like a Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven,” receiving authority, glory and kingship.
So six days later, Peter, James and John stood on a mountain and saw Jesus transfigured in glory, shining like the sun, clothes like light, surrounded by the shining cloud of heavenly glory. The Son of man coming in the glory of the Father. God’s kingdom come to Earth. This is it!
And in a way it was. The Transfiguration was a foretaste or an anticipation of the glory of the kingdom. They were standing on the threshold of heaven. Time stood still, and Peter didn’t want that moment to end. “Lord,” he says, “it is good that we are here.” If Peter had stopped there, he would have been fine, but he went on: “If you want, I’ll make three tents here, for you, Moses and Elijah.” That way you’ll be more comfortable in the days ahead.
Peter might have been thinking of another mountaintop experience, from the Old Testament book of Exodus, when Moses himself went up Mount Sinai with three companions, and the glory-cloud of God’s presence covered the mountain, and Moses’ face shone. Moses was up on that mountain for 40 days, so Peter probably thought they were going to be camped out on Mount Tabor for at least that long.
That’s a mistake we can easily make our own mountaintop moments. We experience some privileged moment of joy and inner peace and closeness to God, and we feel like we’ve arrived at a new level in our spiritual lives. Maybe we spend an hour in the adoration chapel, and we feel time stand still, and we come out with our faces practically shining, and we think, “This is great! I’m going to do an hour every day!”
Then the next time nothing special happens — time doesn’t stand still — and we wonder what went wrong. Maybe nothing went wrong. Maybe we were just putting up tents on a mountaintop where God never meant us to stay. Maybe that mountaintop experience was meant to strengthen us to come back down the mountain and get on with carrying our cross for Jesus. As Father Nouwen says,
These moments are given to us so that we can remember them when God seems far away and everything appears empty and useless.
It’s easy to believe in God’s kingship up on the mountain. It’s harder when you come back down. The very first thing Jesus said after coming back down from the mountain was “O faithless and perverse generation! How long am I to be with you, to bear with you?” We live our lives amid a faithless and perverse generation, a world where there are crosses to carry. Remember the mountaintop experiences in your life and continue to believe that the Lord is king, the most high over all the Earth.
In the Mass, in the Eucharistic liturgy, we stand on the threshold of heaven, like Peter, James and John on Mount Tabor. Time stands still here. Not every Mass is going to be a mountaintop experience, of course; most of them aren’t. But we should bring the memory of whatever mountaintop experiences God has given us to every Mass and celebrate with our whole hearts, not based on what we feel or don’t feel but on what we believe.
To celebrate the Mass is to step outside the ordinary world. We leave behind earthly cares, worries, and desires; we lift up our hearts above mundane things, joining our voices with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven, and enter into the heavenly celebration and worship of God.
We don’t see God’s glory around us, like Peter, James, and John, except in images and symbols. The sanctuary symbolizes heaven. The paintings, stained glass and other images show us the saints and angels that surround us. Our celebrant, Father N, is an alter Christus, another Christ.
In a few moments Father N will say to us all, “Lift up your hearts,” and we answer, “We lift them up to the Lord.” This means so much more than many of us realize. I leave you with the words of Saint John Chrysostom on what it means to lift up our hearts to the Lord:
...Each one is to uproot from his spirit all that belongs to earth and transfer all to heaven. He is to think of himself as next to the very throne of glory and flying with the Seraphim so as to offer to God the holiest hymn of majesty and splendor.
For this reason, Chrysostom says: “No one should participate in these sacred, mystic hymns without fervor.” May this fervor be ours today, in this Mass, and every Sunday. Amen.