How do we describe the transcendence of God? Since he is infinite and we are finite, we often use images or symbols of something vast or grand.
In the realm of natures we might look up from a field in the countryside and see the vast blue sky. Our eyes are raised and we look around at the seemingly endless sky. The same might be said of an ocean or lakeside when we cannot see the any other shore. Looking up at the sky, in the deep of night, we see all the stars and are awed at their number. In all these cases, we look “up.”
In the Middle Ages, the grand cathedrals which were much later described as “gothic” have soaring vaults high above the nave. When one enters through a door, he or she immediately looks “up.”
The vastness of the open space invites one to imagine the greatness of God who surrounds us and somehow in the vastness of the space is near to us despite what seems like distance.
In the Sacred Scriptures, there are several events which God is encountered on the mountain. A mountain is a high place. One has to climb “up” the mountain to get to the top.
If you’ve ever climbed a mountain, you experience challenges as you make your way up. The height serves as a reminder of the infinity or greatness of God.
Perhaps the most famous of all the mountains mentioned in the Scriptures is Mount Sinai. It was here that Moses first encountered God in the bush that was on fire but not being consumed by the fire.
Here God revealed His name to man, “I am.” Moses went up the mountain, encountered God, and came down a new man, transformed by the encounter. He also came down with a mission.
Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain. The simple opening line of the passage communicates a message. Something great is going to happen here. God will be encountered. A transformation will take place.
As they reach the summit Jesus is transfigured before them. The evangelists describe this in similar terms. He becomes “dazzling white.” Here the “Light of the World” becomes clearly visible in broad daylight to the three apostles he has brought with him.
For the rest of their lives, the Light will shine on them and guide them forward even in the darkest of places (fear, betrayal, imprisonment, torture, even death). The disciples experience the divinity of Christ, the infinity of God made visible in Jesus transfigured.
Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus conversing. Each represent two important aspects of God’s self-communication with mankind. Moses represents the Law. After Moses’ first encounter with God on Sinai, he is sent back to Egypt to free God’s people, the Israelites.
Following the Exodus, Moses once again climbs Mount Sinai. It is here that God enters into a covenant with His Chosen People.
This covenant is represented by the Law which God gives to Moses who represents the people. Elijah represents the Prophets. The prophets are messengers of God. They speak through the life of Israel reminding the people and their kings of the covenant and the King who gave it to them. They challenge when the Israelites forget that God is their King. They warn of danger. They console in times of sadness, offer hope in times of conflict, and demand that the people properly care for the poor and needy, widow and orphan, and the alien in their midst. They call for a return to the covenant when the people go astray.
One of the most beloved remembrances of Elijah is his encounter with God in the whispering soft wind… (which is actually the first reading for next Sunday) which occurs on a mountain, Mount Horeb. Moses and Elijah together represent all of God’s revelation to Israel.
Peter and the others are overwhelmed. He offers to erect three tents. The tents represent an honor. The offer indicates that he does not understand or comprehend what is happening. Jesus is not equal to Moses and Elijah. They and all they represent have prepared for the advent of Christ. He is now here.
So God the Father intervenes, though not visible except through Jesus, he speaks saying: “This is my beloved Son…” Though Moses and Elijah are his children, as are all the people, they are not His “beloved Son.” Jesus is the fulness of revelation. He makes known the divinity who is infinite. In Him we encounter the God we cannot see.
All God’s revelation up to this point is brought to fulfillment in Jesus and so the Father instructs the apostles, “listen to Him.” Jesus’ words are “spirit and life.” He is the “way, the truth and the life.” He is the “light that shines in the darkness.” He and the Father are One. “No one knows the Father but the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal Him.” An encounter with Jesus is an encounter with God.
The disciples now fall prostrate. The prostration marks an awareness of being in the presence of the divine. Finite man lays down in awe before the infinite. Then, the all powerful One who humbled himself to lift up his creatures so that they might know him, His love and to share in His life.
And so, Jesus says to the prostrate Peter, James and John: “Rise, and do not be afraid.”
The disciples have now experienced the divinity of Christ, they have encountered the Father. The experience is overwhelming and it will take time for it to “sink in.” In fact, it will not all “come together” for them until “all things are fulfilled” in the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord. Hence Jesus tells them: “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And they will.
The second reading, written years later, recalls the Transfiguration:
but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For he received honor and glory from God the Father
when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory,
“This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven
while we were with him on the holy mountain.
Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.
You will do well to be attentive to it,
as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
In the celebration of the Transfiguration we celebrate the greatness of God who humbles himself in love. The Son of God has taken on human nature.
He lowered Himself to raise us up and lead us to our Father.
The greatness of God is experienced in our encounter with Jesus.
The words the Father spoke to Peter, he says to us: “This is my Beloved Son, my chosen one, listen to Him.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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