No one can blame Sts. Peter, James and John for wanting to prolong the Transfiguration experience. In his exhilaration, St. Peter blurts out, “Lord, how good it is that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The apostle literally wanted to camp out there on Tabor and enjoy Jesus’ celestial presence.
But protracted euphoria was not on Jesus’ agenda. No sooner did the elated apostles come down the mountain than they were exposed to a reality check. The father of a lunatic son knelt before Jesus and requested the Master to release his son from the madness that threw him so often into fire and water. The piteous man touched Jesus’ heart and the boy was happily cured. The glory at the top of Mt. Tabor and the misery at its foot is a digest of the Christian life itself. The believer works out his salvation amid grace and sin, between virtue and vice, yearning for heaven while living on earth.
This contrast between the next world and this world seems never more pertinent than when one considers the renewed discussion concerning Mass celebrated with priest and people facing together toward heaven beyond the church wall and Mass celebrated with priest and people focused on the Sacred Species there before them on a central altar. Like the transfigured Christ on Mt. Tabor, Mass facing God somewhere out there elicits thoughts of divinity, eternity, beatitude and fulfillment. Such a Mass “turned toward the Lord” raises the worshipper to an otherworldly, supernatural, mystical ambiance that, along with St. Peter, one would like to enjoy as long as possible. “Lord, how good it is for us to be here.” Indeed!
Yet, like the three chosen apostles who had to descend the mountain and be brought back to their earthly senses, the Christian faithful must realize that while our hopes are in heaven, our obligations remain here on earth. Accordingly, celebrating Mass with the priest and people facing in the same direction toward God “out there” seems to exalt Christ’s divinity at the expense of his humanity.
It would be wonderful if life on earth were the unending experience of Tabor. But this is simply not the case. Christ himself taught mankind eloquently that life on earth is not all transfigured glory while he himself was here on earth in the flesh. Jesus was the first priest to turn “toward the people” when he became a man, when he worked as a carpenter, when he worshipped in his neighborhood synagogue, when he pitied the poor, healed the lame, drove out demons and, pre-eminently, died on the Cross. There is nothing wrong with contemplating the “beyond,” as the apostles did on Tabor. But Jesus Christ has become “the beyond in our midst,” as Anglican Bishop John A. T. Robinson so happily described him. And to ignore the Incarnation in favor of a pre-Christian theology that sees God only “out there” would be most unfortunate.
In January, Pope Benedict celebrated Mass in the Sistine Chapel with celebrant and congregation facing the same direction toward the splendid Cross on the altar against the chapel’s far wall. Commentators justified this Mass with the Pope’s “back to the people” by citing the architectural beauty of the church that would have been compromised by a temporary table facing the people.
This argument from interior design makes sense. But papal practice in Rome’s basilicas and oratories should not embarrass pastors and curates who bring Christ into the midst of the assembly daily on altars in front of which the faithful have convened. Free-standing altars with celebrants and congregants facing one another are a daily reminder, and, in fact, a consequence of the Incarnation. Jesus was the supreme realist. His pauper birth, his controversial ministry, his criminal death evidence a Christ thoroughly immersed in this world. Daily on our parish altars Jesus immerses himself once again into bread, which human hands have made, and into wine, the work of human hands. Christ is present, once again absorbed with the hopes and fears, the work and worries, of the gathered faithful. The occasional glimpse of a glorified future can be encouraging; but the new rite’s daily glimpse of God-and-grace-made-present is a vision modern believers would do well to prolong.