Warned by the death of St. John the Baptist, and then alerted by the antagonism that his own preaching and healing provoked, Jesus knew that tough times were ahead for himself and for his hapless disciples.
Jesus’ twelve closest companions, the Apostles, were average Jews. They were working men, probably family men, who were apparently healthy, literate and fairly alert, but somewhat given to rivalry and occasionally dense when it came to the loftier aspects of the Gospel message. Jesus valued their friendship and loyalty, and the tough times ahead on the road to Jerusalem and Calvary, which they would inevitably share, pained him. The transfiguration of Jesus in the presence of Peter, James and John, his inner circle so to speak, was a gesture of compassion and encouragement on the part of Jesus to strengthen these three leading disciples for the confusion, betrayal and treachery that lay ahead. This brief glimpse of glory on Mount Tabor, this slight peek into eternity on a Galilean hillside, was the Master’s way of fortifying these future “pillars of the Church” for the hardships and burdens that lay ahead.
Our contemporary Church certainly faces hardships and burdens, and, like the apostolic band, could certainly use a reassuring glimpse of eternity to strengthen the Church in her mission to combat the rampant individualism that has become so emblematic of the post-modern era. Individual rights, or so-called rights, have completely replaced the larger sense of social responsibility that even a generation ago guided, however feebly, Western society. For example, even among believing Christians religion itself has become a matter of individual choice. “It doesn’t matter what Church you belong to just as long as you’re a good person.” The sense of responding to a Gospel message larger than oneself has been lost. In the moral sphere, individual prerogatives reign supreme. With the right to terminate life in the womb, along with the ironic right to bear children apart from marriage, the right of same-sex couples to redefine marriage or the right of cohabitating couples to ignore marriage altogether, the right to select suicide when facing pain (in Belgium even granted to children), the right to hasten death during a prolonged illness, the immeasurably broad right to bear arms, the right to enjoy formerly controlled substances, the rights of aliens to enjoy hasty citizenship – the triumph of the individual will over the communal good is rampant in modern culture. Reformation Protestantism made every man his own priest; Western democracies are now making everyone his own legislator. Literally anything goes.
Christianity, and specifically the Roman Catholic Church, has faced seemingly insurmountable odds in previous centuries. The early Church withstood and converted the Roman Empire. A vandalized Christianity faced and survived Attila the Hun. Medieval Christians dealt handily, in fact, heavy-handidly with the Albigensians. Where are they now? The Catholic Church was battered by, but survived Luther and Calvin and Henry VIII. The Church became stronger in the wake of Napoleon and Bismarck. Modernism was held off for 70 years or so thanks to St. Pius X and Cardinal Merry del Val. Communism, the scourge of Christian Europe in the 20th century, is now a memory.
The glimpse of eternity needed to fortify the Church in the present post-modern, individualistic, relativistic 21st century is the same glimpse granted to Peter, James and John on the mountain. Jesus appeared as the radiant Son of God aglow with divinity, reminding the alarmed three that there is indeed a God in the heavens still quite in charge of history. Along with Jesus, the great law-giver Moses emerged recalling the foundational principles or natural law that are at the heart of all human activity and which are ignored at society’s peril. Elias, the prophet who withstood the wicked Jezebel in his day, comes into view evoking all those seers and oracles that spoke the truth to power and were eventually heard and heeded. In a generation that eschews dogmas, mistrusts doctrines, celebrates the personal and favors the subjective, Christ’s Transfiguration bids the believer to return to the Church’s roots, to perennial standards, to revealed truths, to the enduring Gospel message, for strength and direction.