The Transfiguration Was a Gift of Divine Love

“Christ, Head of the Church, manifests what his Body contains and radiates in the sacraments: ‘the hope of glory.’” (CCC 568)

Johann Georg Trautmann, “The Transfiguration”, 1760
Johann Georg Trautmann, “The Transfiguration”, 1760 (photo: Public Domain)

They walked to the top of the mountain.

Peter, James and John didn't know why they were walking to the top of this mountain, but He took them there. They had followed Him for three years over dusty roads, up and down hills and through fields, so it was no big thing for them to follow Him then.

It probably never occurred to them to ask why they were making this hike up the big hill. They’d been with Him so long, seen Him perform miracles, listened as He called powerful, ruthless men hypocrites, while He told these powerful men that prostitutes and tax collectors would enter heaven before they did.

These were incredible things. But perhaps even more incredible were the things they had not seen Him do.

They had never seen Him cower before or try to ingratiate Himself with the rich and powerful. They had never seen Him use His powers to acquire wealth, position or fame. They had never seen Him hurt anyone.

He had made the blind see, but He had never made anyone blind. He had given life, but He had never killed. He had fed the multitudes, but He had never allowed anyone to go hungry in His presence. He had condemned the powerful, but He had never failed to forgive and raise up the weak, the poor, the shunned and disregarded. He had treated women with respect as human beings, and He had never abused or scorned them.

Who was this man they had followed for three years? Where, besides up a hill for no reason that they could see, was He leading them?

They had seen enough to trust His powers, to hope for an earthly kingdom that would send Rome fleeing back to the Tiber. But, even after living with Him, eating with Him, sharing his disappointments and seeing His goodness, they still did not know Who He was and what He meant by the Kingdom of God.

They got a glimpse of the reality of Who they’d been following when they reached the top of that mountain. This Jesus who had lived with them for three long years changed before their eyes. He was, in a word, Transfigured into a glowing being made of light, into something or someone Whose Presence was so overwhelming that these men who had eaten with Him, walked beside Him, seen Him perform many miracles, did the only thing that any of us could have done. They fell on their faces before Him.

They saw Him speak to Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets whose teachings He had come to fulfill. But they did not understand, not even then.

After this event was over, when Jesus was the Jesus they knew again, they blathered incoherently about building booths to commemorate what they had seen. There was nothing in their experience to which they could relate what they had seen; no way to hook into it and align it with the reality they knew.

I believe heaven will be a bit like that when we get there. I expect that when we are finally in the presence of Almighty God, there will nothing for us to do but drop to our knees and bow our heads in awe. God is so far above and beyond us that it took the Incarnation to allow us to see Him without dying.

The only way we can gaze on the face of God in our earthly bodies and live is to look to Jesus. He is God made accessible and profoundly comprehensible. We can taste and know Him in a wafer of bread and a drop of wine.

He was real then, on that mountaintop, and He is real now. And in His mercy, He comes to us in simple things that any of us can understand and partake of.

There are other things besides the one I listed earlier that Jesus did not do while He was among us. One of them is that He did not talk over our heads. This God made man, this infinite Being clothed in human flesh Who had made everything, everywhere, not only stooped down to become one of us, He simplified His language and illustrated His truths with metaphor and parable so that the simplest among us could “get” them on a visceral level.

The theology which makes us so proud is in reality an inferior thought process compared to the elegant simplicity of Jesus’ actual teachings. Rather than explicate, it often hides what is available to everyone in false complexity and inaccessibility.

My mother, who has dementia, knows Jesus. She walks in Him and with Him, all day, every day. When my precious one-year-old granddaughter lies down for a nap, she sleeps in the palm of His hand. We would have to stretch our souls a lot to be anywhere near as close to God as they are.

That’s because we are not loved by God because of what we do, but because of who we are. We are His children. And He loves us.

That is the meaning of the Cross. It is the reason for the Incarnation. It is why God became human, why He lived with us and taught us, why He died for us. He loves us.

He loves us so much that He would never turn us into automatons who simply do His will because we have no choice. He made us moral agents who can and do make moral judgements, moral decisions and, when we err, suffer the moral consequences.

The Cross is not a forced conversion. It is a gift of love that we are free to accept with answering love, or not.

The memory of the Transfiguration stayed with St. Peter all his days. He wrote about it later, and the awe echoes in his words down the centuries.

He didn’t understand it then, that night, when he was on his knees, face in the dirt, overcome with awe. But later, after the Resurrection, after the Holy Spirit had doused him in fire, he knew that he had been given a glimpse of the reality, not only of Who Jesus was, but of what and whom we will become.

Will we be beings of light one day? Will our resurrected bodies shine with the pure light of love?

I don’t know. But I wonder if that isn’t where we’re headed.

I do know that there is life beyond this life, and that Jesus will be there to help us when we arrive. I do know that God is awesome beyond my imagining and that I will be overcome when I see Him. I am overcome when I feel His Spirit now, in this life, when I see through a glass darkly. I cannot imagine what it will be to see Him without the filters of what we call reality.

The Transfiguration was a first taste, a revelation, and a promise. It was also a gift of love. 

This article originally appeared March 20, 2017, in the Register.