by Rev. Joseph M. Rampino
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and do not be afraid." And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, "Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
When I was in seminary, I had a classmate who had come into the Catholic faith as an adult. He would tell us that as he was growing more interested in Catholicism, one of the biggest obstacles was belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, particularly since some Catholics themselves did not act as though the believed. He told us, "I thought then that if I had really believed Christ was there in the tabernacl3e, I would have been too afraid to enter a church, or I would have fallen on my face when I did in adoration."
Of course, this is precisely what the apostles themselves do in today's Gospel when unexpectedly confronted with the awesome glory of the transfigured Christ and the power of the Father's voice. They fall to the ground overwhelmed in fear, and the Lord has to tell them, Rise, do not be afraid."
By this point, Peter had already called Christ the Son of the living God, and they had seen him work various miracles, from the creation of wine from water and the multiplication of loaves to the healing of paralytics and the raising of the dead. For these three apostles to collapse in terror even after such manifestations of super-natural power tells us just how intense this revelation of Christ's divinity must have been. When Jesus chooses to show them more completely who he is, it shakes and terrifies them.
Given that the same Jesus lives in our tabernacles, why do we, as my classmate observed, rarely have the same experience as the apostles? the potential reasons are many: the Lord makes himself present to us under the unassuming appearance of holy Communion, we have grown familiar with the sacraments through daily practice, and our churches are usually set up more for ease of use and comfort than transcendent experience. At the same time, there is sometimes an internal block to encountering Christ in glory, namely our attachment to daily life. Meeting God as he is, on his own terms, changes a life forever.
Neither Peter, James nor John would ever return to the simple fisherman's life that had been theirs before. They would each, urged on by love for the risen Jesus, go out on mission far from their homes, their bones resting in foreign lands. Having seen something of heaven's own glory, their lives took on a definitively new direction; a direction over which they no longer had control.
It can happen that we, even unconsciously, avoid meeting Christ, avoid seeing him with eyes of true faith, because we are not ready for such a change. Yes, Christ might not demand that we leave all things behind and travel across the globe as did the first disciples, but we know that if Jesus really does take the first place in our lives, we have to prioritize everything else, including our plans, ambitions, relationships, entertainments. We much begin to live a new life, and this is always frightening. We do well to ask ourselves, do I allow myself to meet God on his own terms, or do I try to keep him at a safe and predictable distance? Another way to put that question might be to ask, do I with courage open my entire life to God, or do I try to fit God into what spaces I feel comfortable permitting him?
In the end, the God who is fearfully glorious is also good, and love itself. While it is right for us to tremble in his presence, his presence is the only place where true joy lives, and he invites us to step toward him there in courage and hope.