by f. Luis Casasús, General Superior of the Idente missionaries.
New York, March 17, 2019.
Second Sunday of Lent
Book of Genesis 15: 5-12.17-18; Philippians 3:17-21.4,1; Saint Luke 9:28b-36.
How do you describe Transfiguration? It cannot be easily described. Maybe this is why Jesus asked the apostles to kept it to themselves and told no one what they had seen. It has to be experienced. In fact, in our mystical life we can have a permanent transfigurative experience, which has nothing to do with lights or appearances. But we have to learn how to share it in our community and with the testimony of our lives.
1. Paradoxically, to understand what happened to Christ in the mountain, we have to understand what is happening to us. During the invasion of Russia, Napoleon momentarily got separated from his men and was spotted by the Russian Cossacks. They chased him through the winding streets. Running for his life Napoleon eventually ducked into a furrier’s shop. He begged the shopkeeper to save him. The furrier said, Quick hide under this big pile of furs in the corner. Then the furrier made the pile even large by throwing more furs atop of Napoleon.
No sooner had he finished when the Cossacks burst into the shop: Where is he? The furrier denied knowing what they were talking about. Despite his protests the Cossacks scanned the shop trying to find Napoleon. They poked into the pile of furs with their swords but did not find him. They eventually gave up and left the shop.
After some time had passed, Napoleon crept out from under the furs, unharmed. Shortly after Napoleon’s personal guards came into the store. Before Napoleon left, the furrier asked, Excuse me for asking this question, but what was it like to be under the furs, knowing that the next moment could surely be your last?
Napoleon became indignant. How dare you ask such a question of the Emperor? Immediately he ordered his guards to blindfold the furrier and execute him.
The furrier was dragged out of the shop, blindfolded and placed against the wall of the shop. The furrier could see nothing, but he could hear the guards shuffle into line and prepare their rifles. Then he heard Napoleon clear his throat and call out, Ready! Aim! In that moment, tears poured down his cheeks.
Suddenly the blindfold was stripped from his eyes. Napoleon stood before him and said, Now you know the answer to your question.
Transfiguration refers to something that happens within our hearts and minds. In a nutshell, it means an irresistible growth of our faith, hope and charity, the theological virtues which are so called because their immediate objective is our union with God, they relate immediately to God. In the words of our father Founder:
The transfigurative process consists of preparing the ascetic psychologically, carrying out a transfiguration of the soul, for the functions of the soul to change their figure, and where I would have acted in a way, in the human way, I will now act in an opposite way, the way of Christ (Dec. 15, 1974).
Most of the time when we receive this graces, we are not completely aware of their transforming power. We are unaware of that power, much like the three apostles were unaware of what was taking place when Jesus took them to the mountaintop to witness His Transfiguration.
This is a sign which indicates the apostolic purpose and the goal of our Transfiguration: Rather than ending in myself, it is intended to gradually make out of me a testament of the presence of Christ. As always, it is a grace to be shared. Two emblematic examples:
* Saint Stephen radiated God’s glory before his martyrdom when his face was seen to be glowing: And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6: 15).
* At Pentecost, some disciples’ glowing faces were described as being so pronounced that some people assumed that they had been drinking excessively even in the morning! Peter corrected them: These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! (Acts 2:15).
The Holy Spirit means to transfigure your being and mine, change us, into the image of Christ. That you and I become so internally transformed, that others come to see Christ’s face in our faces, and in our lives. We are given a whole new identity and purpose; to make his presence felt a hurting world. Pope Francis states it clearly:
We will have the strength to be close to the weakest, those most in need, and to encourage and give strength to them. This is what it means. We can do this without complacency, instead simply aware of being a “channel” that transmits the gifts of the Lord; and in this one can truly become a “sower” of hope. This is what the Lord asks of us, with that strength and that capacity to console and to be sowers of hope. (March 22, 2017).
But the fruits and effects of our transfiguration are usually discreet and, at the same time, powerful. Perhaps you had an experience similar to that of a priest having attended a death of an older man. The man’s son spent time with the priest after his father had died. They sat outside in the hallway of the hospital, and the son poured his heart out to the priest. And the son cried. And the son buried his head in the priest’s shoulder. The priest barely spoke a word during all of this. Finally, after the son had poured out all of his emotions, he sat up straight and he looked at the priest, and he said: Oh, thank you, Father, you have been such a help to me. Thank you for helping me figure out what to do. And yet the priest had said almost nothing. The priest was present, to the best of his ability, became like this one whose father had died, sat, listened, lent a shoulder, and in so doing, without words, he became the guide for this man.
Conversely, (only) when we are aware of the impact of our life in our neighbors, we are fit and well-prepared to welcome the changes which transfiguration invites us to live out. A man was addicted to nicotine. His parents told him at his young age to stop smoking but he did not listen. When he was older already a family-man, his wife also asked him to stop smoking but again he did not listen. Then one of their children was found to have lung cancer caused by a second smoke from his smoking. This was the turning point of his life or a metanoia (radical conversion) experience. He was transformed from his old habit.
The divine presence becomes manifest when it overflows from the Holy Spirit’s transformation within. This is attested by throughout the Old Testament: The heart changes the countenance, either for good or for evil (Sir 13:25). A man’s wisdom brightens his face, and the sternness of his face is changed (Eccles 8:1).
Saint John Paul II reminds us: And is it not the Church’s task to reflect the light of Christ in every historical period, to make his face shine also before the generations of the new millennium? Our witness, however, would be hopelessly inadequate if we ourselves had not first contemplated his face. The Great Jubilee has certainly helped us to do this more deeply (Novo Millennio Ineunte).
The change is not a once-for-all experience, but a matter of continuing transfiguration as the situation change and a continuing challenge to choose between good and evil. Sadly, there are abundant experiences of people who once followed Jesus eagerly and then turned away from him. Demas was counted by Paul as his fellow worker. In his last mention of Demas (2 Tim 4:10) Paul comments that Demas has fallen in love with the present world and has deserted him. He used to be part of the circle of Paul’s friends, but he drifted away. Most of us know of people like him. People who once followed Jesus with us, but have now drifted away.
2. It is important to remember that the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor was, literally, a peak experience. Yes, our personal transfiguration involves also special moments, called Regimen by our father Founder. Latin regimen derives from another Latin word, the verb regere, which means to lead straight or to rule. And, indeed, these peak experiences have a lasting and regulating effect on our lives.
In general, it is brief experiences that God grants on occasions, especially to endure hardships. In today’s Gospel, after the Father speaks, Jesus told the three disciples: Rise and do not be afraid. The transfiguration gives them strength and confidence that God is at work in the life of Jesus. It also gives them the courage to continue with their work because of the assurance that God is and would be with them, especially in virtually impossible situations:
The art critic and watercolorist John Ruskin was shown a very beautiful and delicately wrought silk handkerchief by its owner. Sadly, a drop of indelible ink had fallen onto it, and she told him it was ruined. Ruskin asked if he might borrow it. Some days later he returned it; and she saw that, beginning from the ink blot, he had drawn the loveliest and intricate pattern. The whole silk handkerchief had been transformed.
All moments of mystical union are meant to empower us to do God’s work. Perhaps Peter was not fully aware of this when he was suggesting to build three tents. The point of our progressive union with God is not to stay on the mountain. It is about service.
We should not lose memory of the great things the Holy Spirit has done in our lives, that He has done in our neighbors, in the Church. This is why Moses exhorted the Israelites to remember all that the God had done for them along the way; the memory of the journey, the forgiveness they had received, the mission they had been entrusted with.
In the case of Transfiguration, the work of the Holy Spirit is preceded by a three-fold purification: Impotence (I would like to fully understand God’s will, but I cannot), Contrariety (I am willing to obey, but I would prefer other missions, other circumstances) and Emptiness (neither the things of the world nor the things of the spirit create enthusiasm in me).
Impotence and Contrariety are conspicuous in Peter’s attitude. Emptiness was imposed to him with the instruction to come back to the valley.
This purification is the prelude to Transfiguration. And its Regimen consists of moments where our faith, hope or charity lead us to unexpected and closer-to-Christ behavior which therefore we call ecstatic (out of my usual patterns). This is what happened to Abraham. He is 75 and he and the wife are not getting any younger. He is summoned by the Lord to leave his homeland to an unfamiliar land that God would show him. Genesis simply says: Abraham went as the Lord directed him. That is faith, fed by the gift of wisdom. In much the same way, St. John XXIII was 77 years old when he was elected Pope.
Please, remember that even these peak experiences of transfiguration might be frequent, silent and perhaps not spectacular. For instance, this is the case of Eucharist. Benedict XVI re-affirms this in his Encyclical, Sacramentum Caritatis:
…eternal life begins in us even now, thanks to the transformation effected in us by the gift of the Eucharist (…) The Eucharist…makes possible, day by day, the progressive transfiguration of all those called by grace to reflect the image of the Son of God. And he uses even stronger language earlier on, saying that the Eucharist introduces a radical change, a sort of ‘nuclear fission,’…a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world.
The Lenten Season is a time of being particularly open to Transfiguration, which is not an evasion of reality. It is to elevate our natural Belief, Expectancy and Love to the sanctifying level of Faith, Hope and Charity. In all things, there is a hidden glory and the Holy Spirit reveals it at a suitable time, because, as The Little Prince said: What is essential is invisible to the eye.