Drawing strength from Jesus’ transfiguration

Father John A. Kiley
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Saints Peter, James and John must have been somewhat perplexed as they came down the mountain after experiencing the splendor of Christ’s transfiguration and his conversation with the prophets Moses and Elias. The transfiguration itself was clearly stunning. “While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” St. Luke’s description of the radiant event is fairly mild. St. Matthew is a little more effulgent: “And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” St. Mark’s Gospel narrative is happily even more detailed: “ And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” The transfigured Christ was certainly an awesome sight. St. Peter was even at a loss for words. “But he did not know what he was saying,” observes St. Luke.

But if the transfiguration of Christ was stunning, the conversation with Moses and Elias must have been staggering: “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The appearance of Moses and Elias along with the mention of an exodus event would surely have introduced a challenging element into what was otherwise a comforting experience. Moses’ mission in life was the unhappy duty of leading twelve stiff-necked and dissatisfied tribes through the Sinai wilderness to the Promised Land. The thought of Moses’ thankless wilderness trek and his unappreciated leadership could not have been comforting to the three novice disciples.

The appearance of Elias at the same moment must have been equally chilling. Elias had the unhappy mission of facing up to the unfortunate King Ahab and his dreadful wife Jezebel. Ahab was as hapless as Jezebel was horrific. Jezebel expelled all the Jewish prophets from the Temple and installed her own pagan prophets in their stead. Her blasphemous conduct is still legendary! Elias fought Jezebel’s machinations until he was so exhausted he went out to the desert and sat under a tree to await death. Happily God bolstered Elias and he returned to the capital to anoint a new hierarchy for the Jewish people. Like Moses, Elias led an exhausting life, maintaining God’s Will in the face of fierce opposition. His appearance on the mount of the transfiguration was no doubt impressive but hardly cheering.

Saints Peter, James and John were, on the one hand, fortified by the sight of Christ glorified but, on the other hand, daunted by the prospect that life for them would be as thankless and as trying as life was for Moses and Elias. The plight of the three fledgling apostles was not unlike the predicament that St. Paul faces in his writing to the Philippians in this Sunday’s second reading. St. Paul is dejected when he observes the disrespect of the pagan world as well as the disregard of his own community: “For many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their “shame.” Their minds are occupied with earthly things.” Apparently the exalted commission received by St. Paul on the road to Damascus was not without its challenges. In spite of his preaching excellence and his energetic wanderings, St. Paul still ran into opposition both from pagans and from followers. Like Moses and like Elias, St. Paul led a life of unrelenting perseverance in the face of sometimes perverse opposition.

Yet, St. Paul did not let opposition slow him down. St. Paul reminds himself and all his followers: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.” The thought of the glorified Christ encouraged St. Paul in bleak times just as Christ intended that the vision of him glorified should hearten the apostles in their lean years. Today’s Christians must also draw their strength from the glorified and triumphant Christ especially on dark days and in grim times.