The Feast of the Transfiguration, which celebrates the moment Jesus was transfigured—or revealed in his full glory, briefly, to a small group of his disciples—calls attention to a remarkable moment in the Gospels. Peter, James, and John get a glimpse, even though it is a fleeting one, of the full radiance of Jesus, the “beloved Son” of God.
The lectionary places this gospel reading in a larger biblical context that includes the prophetic vision of the Book of Daniel, highlighting the eschatological significance of the Transfiguration. As Sunday’s second reading emphasizes, the Transfiguration provided Jesus’s followers with a clear confirmation of “the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” providing the foundation for the faith life of the early Christian community. These first Christians were in direct contact with the people who had personally seen Jesus transformed on the mountaintop, appearing with Moses and Elijah, and the testimony of these witnesses was a crucial source of conviction for a community that was still very much on the margins.
When I think about the impact of the Transfiguration for our lives today, I always find something compelling in the analyses that focus on Peter’s response and Jesus’s eventual dismissal of it.
“Lord, it is good that we are here,” Peter proclaims. “If you wish, I will make three tents…” This instinct makes a lot of sense. Peter has just seen Jesus in the fullness of his glory. There is no way to go “up” from here; it is as good as it gets. Shouldn’t we all just dwell in that moment?
The fact that the Transfiguration does not end with everyone resting in a series of tents suggests that this was not, in fact, how Jesus wanted his disciples to receive this moment. In parallel fashion, when we have our own “mountaintop” experiences—perhaps the “high” of a retreat; the joys of liturgy; or, as I suggested in a book on free time, even the pleasures of leisure—we can and should appreciate the good in the moment, but we are not meant to bask in these moments in a way that leaves everything else behind. Even a true glimpse of the already of heaven is only ever meant to be temporary in this decidedly not yet world.
In practical terms, I think this means that we cannot use the compelling goods of our faith as an excuse to ignore the challenges of our present day. We cannot dismiss the concerns of the poor, for example, by saying that we need to spend more time in prayer. Yes, there is goodness in the contemplation, but for every trip up that mountain, there remains a summons to come back down.
While I mentioned that I am drawn to these interpretations, the more I have reflected on the Transfiguration, the more I have come to appreciate that the story doesn’t just underscore the need to come back down the mountain. It also has something to tell us about how we should live once we return to earth.
Specifically, I think we are called as Christians to use the eyes of the Transfiguration in our everyday lives. Peter, James, and John literally saw Jesus transformed into the fullness of his glory on the mountaintop, and while it is hard to expect that any of us will catch the same exact vision, we can still see something of God’s glory where we are if we make a point of looking for it.
One crucial way to do this is by choosing to view our neighbor through the lens of our faith. If we truly believe “the glory of God is a human being fully alive,” as St. Irenaeus assured us, then every one of our neighbors has the potential to manifest the glory of God. Of course, much hinges on how we embrace this humanity and choose to live our lives, for through sin and other imperfections we frequently fall far short of expressing the fullness of our humanity. Yet, there is something about recognizing that the fullness of humanity, and thus the glory of God, always lurks within, even in the darkest moments of struggle.
What if we approached our brothers and sisters with the assumption that they hold this glory of God within them? Might we not find that, with the help of grace, they too are transfigured before our eyes?
I am convinced this is not too farfetched a hope, for I am mindful of Thomas Merton’s mystical vision in Louisville. “At the corner of Fourth and Walnut,” this vision culminated in his own recognition “that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs,” which prompted him to recount how “they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Let us try to shine a little more in our own lives, and the let us try ever harder to use the eyes of the Transfiguration to spot the ways all those around us are walking around shining like the sun.