p. Luis CASASUS | President of the Idente Missionaries
Rome, March 05, 2023 | Second Sunday of Lent
Gen 12:1-4a; 2Tim 1:8b-10; Mt 17:1-9.
1. What did the disciples take with them from the summit of Mt. Tabor?
Three men, Peter, James and John are set apart and led by Jesus up a high mountain. There, Jesus becomes luminous, talking with two men who have been dead for hundreds of years. Immediately, a cloud surrounds them and a voice is heard: This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him. Then they come down from the mountain and Jesus forces them to be silent.
How can we hear this story today? What does it say? Does its strangeness make us miss the point? Of course, what happened on Mount Tabor must not have been easy to digest and the reaction of the disciples makes it clear: What do we do, pitch three tents and stay up here?
Perhaps we too need to better understand the meaning of the Transfiguration. Although the Church reserves another day to celebrate this solemnity, we are now invited to reflect on what it means in connection with the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. Immediately before Jesus takes Peter, John, and James up the mountain he tells them and the others that he must suffer, die, and be resurrected on the third day. He will tell them this again after they come down from the mountain.
The first disciples had mistaken notions about Jesus and His mission: they thought they were part of an exciting new earthly “kingdom,” as witnessed by James and John (along with their mother!) asking Jesus to sit on His right and left when He came into power.
The reality is that these three disciples experienced a very special change when they descended from the mountain. But it is something that ALSO happens to us, although without the need to have visions that make us fall to the ground trembling because of the impression received. If we look closely, the gifts of the Holy Spirit were manifested in them as two realities: light and strength. This is how our founder, Fernando Rielo, summarizes all that we continually receive from the Holy Spirit, although we are aware that the list of his gifts, when analyzed in detail, is very broad. But it is clear that they were given a new light to understand the future that awaited the Master and their own future, which included suffering and death as well as resurrection. And they also received the necessary strength to persevere in this divine plan.
This is also our personal transfiguration: our way of seeing events changes, in a new light, and our way of reacting to what happens is also transformed by the strength we receive. This means, on the one hand, that we can continually remind ourselves that our sacrifice will bear fruit. The light illuminates this reality, much more than the effort or sacrifice we must make. And on the other hand, we are granted a strength that allows us to persevere; it is a permanent strength, which is not only manifested in moments of enthusiasm or success, but also when we feel the weight of the cross or persecution, which in itself is a powerful testimony.
In the Transfiguration, Jesus makes it clear that, while eliminating suffering is impossible, God also does not demand what is beyond our strength: “God supports with His hand the burden He lays”, says the proverb. Suffering lies along the path of sanctity and of sin alike. But along the first it is always gentler, and every suffering endured well eventually results in victory, as St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori points out: “We must suffer, and all must suffer; both just and sinners carry their crosses. He that carries it patiently is saved; he that carries it impatiently is lost. […] He that humbles himself under tribulation, and is resigned to the will of God, is wheat for Paradise; he that grows haughty and is enraged, and so forsakes God, is chaff for Hell.
The glory that awaits us in eternity, in the joy of the beatific vision, is so great that it justifies all sufferings that might befall us. In the words of the Apostle: the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom 8:18).
2. Transfiguration and its permanent effects. When speaking of the transfiguration of our soul, it is important to remember that we are referring to permanent changes; the light and strength that we receive from the Holy Spirit, in varied ways, are forever. Not all “changes” in our soul are forever, not even those we do for supposedly spiritual motives:
James was critically ill in hospital and was dying. He was so desperate that he told the doctor: Doctor, if you can really save my life, I will donate half my wealth to the poor and needy. I now realize how selfish I have been in my living and with my wealth. The doctor replied: James I can only try my best; just pray that God will heal you; it is really up to God and not me. James looked sad and tears rolled down his eyes, and said, Lord, have mercy on me and save me. Miraculously, he survived the operation and he recovered.
Three months later, when James met up with the doctor for consultation, the doctor reminded him: James, it is truly a miracle that you are alive today. I had lost hope that you would survive the operation, but God is so good and Merciful; He saved your life. The doctor then added: Do you remember that when you were dying, you said that you would donate half your wealth to the poor and needy if your recover? James paused for a moment and said: Did I say that? Oh, I must have been really sick!
Peter denied Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest and James, like the rest of the disciples, abandoned Jesus. Only John listened to Jesus and was not scandalized by the passion and death of Jesus. When the crunch came between Holy Thursday night and the first appearance of Jesus on Easter Sunday, Peter and James did not listen, they abandoned Jesus. Their abandonment of Jesus was only temporary, while John remained faithful right during Jesus’ Passion. Later all three of them became great witnesses to Jesus. Peter became the first Pope and bishop of Rome. James was executed in Jerusalem by King Herod for witnessing to Jesus (Acts 12:2) and John authored the Fourth Gospel. So the three disciples did listen to Jesus although two of them were temporarily unfaithful during the Passion of Jesus. The momentary vision of Christ was given in order to strengthen the three disciples to face the trials to their faith, namely the suffering and the crucifixion which Jesus would experience.
The Transfiguration is the promise of the family likeness in the household of God. We become like that which we love. We become like him whom we love. Loving Christ, seeing Him, hearing Him, we become like Him; as we pray, if we really believe in the Holy Spirit’s power to make us what we are not yet, our soul is really transformed. St. Paul said of genuine Christians that they reflect as in a mirror the glory of the Lord (2Cor 3: 18). And this is no superficial thing, for the natural self is being changed into the new spiritual self: as we have borne the image of the earthly, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. And this is no sentimental or emotional thing: Be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12: 2), says St Paul; and we may think thankfully how God has begun to do this already.
Sometimes we think that our testimony consists of being seen as “practically perfect” people, showing that we have many virtues, but Christ says that the greatest joy we can give to heaven is our repentance. Also, for others to see that we are able to CHANGE, to take a step, to transform ourselves by receiving grace, will allow them to understand the active presence of the Trinity in our lives, in yours, in mine, in theirs.
Lent has this character of fasting from our passions, of leaving something on the way, in order to welcome new graces, new manifestations of the gifts of wisdom, fortitude and piety. As Pope Francis once said: We need times to climb mountains and get away from the ordinary. Lent is a time like that, as we give something up, we take something on (2014).
3. The Transfiguration of Christ is… for us. And ours…. for our neighbor. Let us keep in mind that this change produced in our soul, which is certainly ecstatic, does not simply have the purpose of making us endure difficulties better, but constitutes, consciously or not, a confirmation for others, a true light of the world, as Christ himself tells us.
This is one of the key goals of the spiritual journey: not self-improvement through our own efforts but participation in the divine life through the grace of God. There is a story from the ancient monastic tradition that illustrates this.
A monk went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, Abba, as far as I can I do my chores. I fast a little. I pray. I meditate. I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else am I to do? Then the old man stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him: Why not become all flame?
Here we have the first monk describing the good life he is trying to live. He, presumably, does pray. He does fast. He does live in peace and tries to think good thoughts. The difficulty, the problem is not in what he does, but in his belief that “self-improvement” is the extent of life.
Abba Joseph does not respond by suggesting other spiritual practices he might try; he is doing enough there. Instead, he responds by telling him not to settle for a diminished view of his potential. He is telling him to believe that he can actually share in the transfiguration glory.
The main effort in our spiritual life, as this story illustrates it, is to reach our hands towards Heaven and to be transfigured by the light of God. Life in Christ is permeated by the power of the Holy Spirit
In addition to being a witness to others, our Transfiguration, the new light we receive, changes our perspective in such a way that we are drawn to live mercy. Our transfiguration comes as our eyes are opened and our hearts changed. And the people who seemed so different from us before — who we saw only as “lacking in sensitivity” or “full of obsessions” — we will see them as they really are: made in God’s image, just as we are. The Transfiguration reminds us that things look different when one stands in God’s very presence.
The Transfiguration that we experience every day has moments of special intensity. The voice of the Father was heard on Mount Tabor saying: This is my beloved Son, listen to him. We must ask ourselves if we also make an effort to hear the voice of the Father and of Christ, without forgetting the “groanings” of the Holy Spirit.
This effort also involves special moments in which we abandon all activity and place ourselves in silence before God, before his holy mountain, preferably before the Eucharist, and place before him the deepest of our worries, joys and dreams. These moments of spiritual retreat, which not all of us welcome with affectionate obedience and which are almost never spectacular, are the ones that best reflect the reality of this proverb of our Father Founder: True prayer is recognized in that, when it ceases, we are not the same.
In the Sacred Hearts of Jesus, Mary and Joseph,