Homily preached on February 17, 2008, 2nd Sunday of Lent
Today, people are fascinated by mysticism and mystical phenomena. They are fascinated by men and women who throughout the ages have encountered the supernatural, or a manifestation of the presence of God. People are intrigued by visions and apparitions, by levitations, ecstasies, out-of-body experiences, interior locutions and so on. Those are the extraordinary phenomena. There is also what I would call ordinary mysticism. It is when the Holy Spirit breathes into the heart of the believer in a special way for just a short while, maybe for just a few seconds, making the heart leap for joy in a surprising way. It is when God infuses a deep peace that cannot be explained through natural means. It is when God envelops the soul with his protective hands. It is when he gives us an assurance of his presence in a subtle, but real and tangible way. There are real mystics, and then there are inauthentic mystics. Some people think that they are mystics, but are really victims of their imagination, or worse. But there are real mystics. There is authentic mysticism, both extraordinary and ordinary.
This mysticism is utterly grounded in the Bible, especially in today’s story about the Transfiguration. Jesus gives Peter, James and John a real mystical experience. Yes, it really happened. It is not just a story that the early Christians made up. It is an historical event. Peter, James and John saw something of the glory of Christ’s divinity with their eyes.
Notice that Jesus takes three apostles, not all of the apostles. It is not that these three are saints. No, they have much growing to do. They have so much to learn. They will barely understand what is going to happen on top of this mountain. But Jesus takes them anyway. He takes a few who seem to be ready, although they are not perfect.
He takes them apart from the cities and villages into solitude. He takes them away from the noise of everyday life, away from distractions. He takes them away from the world so that they can detach themselves a little more from the goods of the earth. It is not that the goods of the world are bad, but we can be over-attached to them, and seek them to excess. So Jesus teaches these apostles detachment.
He takes them onto a mountain, because Jesus loves to pray in the mountains and the wilderness. Have you noticed this? We often see him doing this alone, but this time he does it with three of apostles. In fact, St. Luke, in his account of the Transfiguration, makes it very clear. Jesus goes to the mountain to pray, together with these three apostles.
Notice that the three are docile. They do not say, “Jesus where are we going?”, “How long is this trip going to last?” “Are we there yet?” They don’t say, “Which mountain are we going to?”, or “Do we need to bring some food?”. No, they trust him, they confide in him, and they follow. And what happens on top of that mountain is a complete surprise. Nothing in the past would have prepared them for it. Nothing in the ministry gave them a glimpse of what was to come. Nothing in their relationship with Jesus would have given them a good hint that this was about to happen. It was utterly unpredictable.
Jesus is transformed, and the light comes from within, not from without. Jesus is not just a holy man, he is not just a great prophet. He is the God-Man, he is a divine person who is also fully human. So the light shines especially on his face. It brims over and shines through his very face. Why? Because the face is the ultimate physical manifestation of the person, in this case, a divine person. His face shines like the sun, his clothes are white as snow. They eyewitnesses cannot even adequately describe this experience in human language. That is very typical of the Scriptures when someone encounters God in an intense way. This is how the prophets speak in the Old Testament when they have visions of heaven, or of God, or of that mysterious Son of Man. Ezekiel said, “I saw the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God.” Language just falls short in a radical way. So Jesus’ face shines like the sun. The glory of his divinity brims over, because his divinity is fully present. He is fully God. His whole body is filled with divine power and beauty. Now suddenly he veil is lifted for just a few seconds and then that divinity will be hidden once again within that true human body, the flesh of Christ.
Jesus’ face shines because he is the New Moses. In Exodus, Moses went up Mt. Sinai. He went to encounter God, and his face shone afterwards. When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai and met the Israelites, they said, “We cannot bear to look at you. Your face is radiating the glory of God. Please put a veil over your face. We are not worthy, we are sinful, we are too weak, we’re not ready to encounter God this intimately.” Jesus’ face shines, but it is even brighter than that of Moses, because he is greater than Moses.
Then Moses and Elijah actually appear and converse with Jesus. Why Moses? He is the teacher of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, the very heart of the Old Testament and of the Jewish faith. Moses speaks with Christ because Christ’s teaching completes that of Moses. Jesus perfects Judaism. Jesus’ teaching is fully in harmony with the teaching of Moses, with the permanent element of Moses’ doctrine. Then Elijah appears as well because he represents the longing of Israel for the coming of God, for God to bring history to completion, to re-create the universe, to create a new heaven and a new earth. Who is going to do that? Jesus will accomplish it, which is why Elijah speaks to him. Jesus fulfills the longing of Israel that Elijah represents.
Then it’s Peter’s turn. Here comes trouble. We know that he is going to say something dumb. The last time we saw him was when Jesus had first predicted his Passion. Peter said, “Oh no Lord, that is not for you, you cannot do that, I won’t allow it.” Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan.” This is not very affirming of Peter is it? Once in a while Jesus has to speak the hard truth. Once in a while, he has to be utterly direct and confront a problem or error. It’s a good lesson for us, isn’t it? We can see James and John in the background, saying “Peter, psst, please don’t say anything, you’re going to make a fool of yourself. Peter, you are going to put both feet back into your mouth.” But Peter is stubborn. “Lord, this is wonderful, let’s just stay here.” Because if we stay here, we will not go to Calvary, and you will not be crucified. That is what he is thinking. He is basking in the glory. He does not really understand, it utterly overwhelms him, but he likes it. He wants to build three tents, for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. But he does not know what he is saying.
The cloud envelops them. Why a cloud, why not something else? When Moses went up Mt. Sinai, the mountain was enveloped in a cloud, the glory cloud of God. It enveloped Moses himself as he spoke with God. It is the sign of God’s presence.
Then the voice comes. “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” The last time we heard this voice was at the Baptism of Jesus, with the same words. The Father speaks from heaven. Then we saw the Holy Spirit descend in the form of a dove. This time the Holy Spirit is present in the form of a cloud. It is white, it is fully of glory, because the Holy Spirit is also fully divine. In manifesting his glory, Jesus manifests his very identity. He is one of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Prayer and mysticism lead to union with the Trinity, communion with the God who is communion. That is the ultimate goal.
The apostles are utterly terrified, they are overwhelmed. They are not ready, just like the Israelites gazing upon the face of Moses. They are not saints … yet. They worship, they fall down and adore. It is the only appropriate response. But they must listen to the new voice which says, “Jesus is the new lawgiver.” Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments. Now Jesus descends, for he is the divine lawgiver himself. His words and deeds are the ultimate teaching of God, the perfect teaching.
Suddenly, everything is gone. It all just disappears in a flash. Moses and Elijah, the voice and the cloud, the light coming forth from the body and the face of Christ, everything disappears. One cannot control these phenomena. They are the gratuitous manifestation of God’s love.
It really happened. But the story is not just about the past. It’s about the present. When the saints preach on this text, they love to say, “The Transfiguration is today, not just in the past.” The three apostles are not just about three figures in the past, they are about us, they are model disciples. Jesus wants to take us up a mountain, into solitude, away from the busyness of life, here and there, now and again. He wants to teach us how to pray, how to commune with the God who is communion, to grow in friendship and to converse with him. In prayer, he wants to show us a little bit of his glory. He wants to kiss the soul. He wants to breathe the Holy Spirit into us and make the heart leap for joy. He wants to infuse us with peace.
It is going to be unpredictable. I cannot control these manifestations, and I cannot produce them. Some people think that they can learn a method of prayer or meditation which will lead them directly to just that. They are stuck in their imagination, in an illusion. It is a gratuitous gift from God, an unmerited gift. But he wants to give it to every single believer who is faithful to the law of Christ who takes time out to pray, sooner or later, maybe once in a blue moon, maybe once a month, once a year, or once every ten years. Who knows? The frequency of God’s manifest presence in the soul is not a measure of our sanctity. Oh, it will come, sooner or later. But the frequency says little about our holiness. Think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She had powerful encounters with Christ, tangible, manifest ways of encountering Christ in the early part of her life. For the last fifty years of her life, she only found Christ in the Mass, in the faces of the poor, and in her thirst for God, but not in direct and tangible ways. The length of the encounter is completely uncontrollable: it might be a few seconds, or it might be an hour.
But it is for everyone. It is not just for the saints. It is for the beginner and for the mature. It is for adults and it is for children. Children can have powerful ways of recognizing the presence of God in the heart, especially when they pray, especially at Mass.
So how do I prepare for this encounter? How can I dispose myself to meet Christ in a deeper way. It is very simple. There are two very simple steps. They are not easy, but they’re not complex. Listen to the beloved Son and take time in solitude to commune in prayer. First, listen to the Son, listen to his teachings. We can say, “Jesus, I’ll follow 90% of your teachings. Aren’t you proud of me?” Jesus says, “That’s nice, how about the other 10%?” He is a jealous lover. He wants everything, not just 90%. How can fill your heart unless you give him 100%? He wants to reveal his face. You see, when we are in love, we want to see the face of the beloved, don’t we? That is why we have pictures of the beloved in our wallets and on our desk at work. We cannot wait to be with them again. It is the same with God. He is the perfect lover, the divine lover. The Christian life is all about seeking the face of God, which is hidden most of the time, but not always. Jesus wants everything. And we want to follow Christ not just as I interpret him, but as his Church interprets him for me. You see Christ’s teachings are not always easy to understand. So he gives us the gift of the Church. The Church explains to me the meaning of Christ’s teaching and how it applies to day-to-day life. So he asks me to be docile to his voice that speaks in his Church, to all of the teachings, not just the ones that I like. Listen to the voice, and give him time in solitude. Give him time in prayer on a regular basis, even if it is just a little bit.
You might think that this is a kind of escapism, a path leading away from real life. But if we pay attention to the Gospel, I think we will see that this is not the case at all. Jesus does not allow the Transfiguration to last. Peter is into escapism. “Let’s stay here, Lord.” Jesus says, “I don’t think so.” He is going to descend and go to Calvary. He is going to show us perfect human selfless love, sacrificial love of neighbor. That is what these encounters lead to. If they are authentic, they will teach us to grow in active love of neighbor.
The Christian life is all about a passionate search for the face of God, for his beautiful face. Most of the time, he works in the soul in invisible, unperceivable ways. But once in a while, out of gratuitous love, he shows up and says, “Peek-a-boo, I’m here. Did you miss me?” And it is not just for an elite. It’s for you.