From the very beginning, our ancestors in the faith have been incredible travelers. Abraham, Ruth and Tobias in the Old Testament, and Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the apostles in the New, all discovered that the call to follow God meant making a journey. And as we read the details of these journeys, we discover that Scriptural travelers had several things in common. By almost any standard most of them were remarkably ill-prepared for their journeys. Abraham was ninety-nine when he set out for the Promised Land, and the gospel tells us that Mary went "with haste" (but nothing else) to share the good news of the Incarnation with her cousin, Elizabeth.
Some of the Scriptural heroes, like Elijah, undertook their journeys under duress; others, like the Holy Family, were driven by fear. Moses was driven by a quest for freedom; the prophets at the time of the Babylonian Captivity by the cruelty of those who enslaved them. But one thing unites all the travelers in Scripture: each was transformed by the process of getting from here to there.
Being transformed by the journey - or at least being open to the possibility of transformation - is what sets travelers apart from tourists. It doesn’t make any difference how long a journey is, tourists will take their little world and all their comfortable prejudices with them. Tourists may come home with a pile of pictures, but they will come home exactly the same people they were when they set out.
This is not the way with travelers. Travelers come home - if they come home - far different than they set out. This promise (and its uncertainty), no less than the adventures faced by Paul and his companions, is part of what makes the Acts of the Apostles such a gripping account. But miles walked is not the point, and we do not need to look solely to international travelers for inspiration.
Abraham, Moses, and St. Paul crossed borders between nations; Judith and Esther did not. Nor did Mary when she made her way to Elizabeth to preach the Good News of the Incarnation. But the journeys taken by each of these individuals transformed them, and in each case their lives ended quite differently than they began. In our spiritual lives the distance of the journey is unimportant; what counts is not how far we go, but how deep. Once he grew up, Jesus never got more than eighty or ninety miles from home, but none will deny that a great deal happened along the way. We need not even leave our room, so long as we are willing to let Christ draw our souls on a pilgrimage in his path.
Along the way we may expect any number of experiences, as the disciples discovered when Jesus invited them to witness the Transfiguration. Matthew, Mark, and Luke differ in small details as they relate this event, but they all agree on the main points. The fourth century theologian, Eusebius, sums them up thus: "... more grandly [than Moses] our Savior led his disciples ‘to a very high mountain, and he was transfigured before them, and his face did shine, and his garments were white like the light.’"
We have the advantage of reading the gospel after the fact, so we know how the story is going to end. And in case we miss the point, the preface for the Mass of the second Sunday of Lent makes it very clear: "He wanted to show...by the law and the prophets that the promised Christ had first to suffer and so come to the glory of the resurrection."
The disciples, on the other hand, had no idea what this trek would lead to. Seeing Moses and Elijah, however, must have given them a clue, because both Moses and Elijah set out on journeys, and no one ever knew where they finally ended up. These two travelers told the disciples, and they tell us, Jesus doesn’t invite us to join him on a tour; he challenges us to make a journey. And when the disciples see Jesus talking to Moses and Elijah they realize this journey will lead to Jerusalem.
Of the titles by which Jesus is addressed in the gospel, the most common is "teacher," and the Transfiguration is an opportunity for Jesus to teach his disciples what they must look forward to, and what they must expect to encounter along the way. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, "now, in order that anyone go straight along a road, he must have some knowledge of the end: thus an archer will not shoot the arrow straight unless he first see the target." (ST III. 45.1) He adds, "above all, this is necessary when hard and rough is the road, heavy the going, but delightful the end...therefore it was fitting that He should show His disciples the glory of His clarity...to which He brings those who follow the footsteps of His Passion."
The Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor presents a remarkable picture: the great leaders of the Old Testament facing the great leaders of the New. Moses, who led the Israelites on their pilgrimage in the Old Testament, looks out at Peter who will lead God’s people into the Promised Land of the New Covenant. Here, too, we have the advantage of knowing how this story will end. The disciples would not realize until after the Resurrection how similar, but inverted, were the details of the Transfiguration to those of Calvary. On Mt. Tabor Jesus was flanked by two heroes; on Calvary by two criminals. At the Transfiguration his clothes become dazzlingly white; at the crucifixion he is stripped of his garments, soiled by his painful journey. On Calvary the crowd assumes Jesus is calling on Elijah who does not reply; at the Transfiguration he is seen speaking with Elijah about what will soon come to pass. The Mount of Transfiguration is filled with dazzling light; Mt. Calvary is shrouded in darkness.
Some may ask whether the Rosary is the appropriate means to unite us with the Transfiguration. After all, the gospel does not relate that Mary was present when it occurred. To understand the proper link between the Rosary and the Transfiguration, we must consider the words of the gospel. St. Luke tells us (Lk 9.28) that Jesus "took with him Peter, John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray." The context of prayer is very important here. Luke’s is called "the gospel of prayer" because whenever something important is about to happen, Jesus may be found praying. The Transfiguration is no exception.
The Mass is the principal prayer of the Catholic Church. The words and ritual gestures of the liturgy open a window onto eternity, allowing us to stand face to face with the events of our salvation. The Rosary, the Divine Office, and the prayers we utter when we discover a quiet moment to talk to Christ, likewise provide a link to these events because they extend the effects of the Mass in our lives.
A classic hymn ends with the words,
If we wish we may draw a contrast between the exaltation of the Transfiguration and the dull monotony of life once we leave the mountain. This is a fair representation of the Christian life, with its exuberant feasts and the commonplace days that are far more frequent. To stop there, however, is to ignore two important points.
The first is that once they come down from the mountain, Christ and his disciples do not remain on the plain. St. Luke tells us that shortly after the Transfiguration Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem" (Lk 9. 51). Christians are not given moments of exaltation so they can mope when the moment is over. Like the disciples, we are lifted up on one day so that we can face the following days (some of which may be quite harrowing) with strength, joy and hope.
The second point to remember is that the Transfiguration is an illustration of the Christian community. Like many of the travelers in Scripture, our First Parents undertook their historic journey with nothing but their clothes - and not many of those! - but they had the company of one another. So it is with the People of God. We may be ill-equipped for the journey to Jerusalem, but we are not alone. Christ is with us, of course, but we also have one another.
Writers from Leo the Great to Thomas Aquinas have pointed out that the presence of the three disciples at the Transfiguration fulfilled Jesus’ admonition "that in the mouth of two or three witnesses this word might stand" (ST III. 45.3). But like us, the three are also present to support one another, to admonish when necessary, and - when hope is hard to profess - to remind one another that the glory promised by the Transfiguration is not the glory of Christ alone. St. Thomas reminds us this glory is also "...the glory...to which He will configure those who are His" (ST III 45.1).
Our theology teaches that gifts are never given simply to enrich the individual who receives them; they are given to enrich the entire Church. At the Transfiguration Peter is forbidden to erect tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah because Christ has a far greater building project in mind for him. Not three temporary tents on a hillside, but one eternal Church throughout the world. This tells us that when God gives us some special grace - an experience of particularly consoling prayer, or some other moment that transfigures us - we have an obligation to turn this into the words and deeds that will spread the gospel.
Here, as always, the Blessed Virgin is our model and exemplar. When she learned she was to be the Mother of God, she "arose and went with haste" to proclaim the grace she received. Mary’s journey reminds us that Christian life is purposeful, not aimless wandering. And the haste with which Mary begins her travels is a reminder that speed and dispatch are the appropriate responses to God’s call.
The great travelers in the Scripture teach us that the life of Christians is a pilgrimage, with heaven at its end. We may experience times of transcendence and exaltation, as the disciples do as they witness the Transfiguration, but these moments are not for our enjoyment only; they strengthen us to invite others to begin the journey to Jerusalem that will transfigure them by the love of Christ.
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