18 Feb 2023
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. Then they asked him, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ He said to them, ‘Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.’
When I was asked to preach today’s homily, I first went and had a look at the Gospel reading and was happily surprised to find it was the Transfiguration. On Saturday 11th February – only a week ago – I made my First Profession as a Dominican sister, and the Gospel reading I chose for the Mass was the account of the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration is a story which has been significant to me since I first became a Catholic. As a teenager and a young woman, I delighted in buying clothes and dressing up. The bulk of my disposable income went on buying beautiful dresses – totally impractical for our cold, wet UK climate and an unusually deluxe kind of day wear, but each piece an irresistible addition to my wardrobe.
What was it about these dresses that I wanted? You see, for me a dress wasn’t just a dress, an item of clothing, but a promise. I wanted to be transformed. And a beautiful dress transformed – in a small, superficial way – my external reality of poverty and monotony into something beautiful. I was living out the Cinderella story. If I could look different, perhaps my reality could be different too. Transformation had captured my imagination.
I increasingly discovered though that I was yearning for a deeper change than just my outfit. Instead, I wanted to be transformed from the inside, I wanted to be a beautiful person, and it was this that brought me to the doors of the Catholic Church as a curious teenager. And perhaps this is why ever since I became a Catholic, the story of the transfiguration has touched me deeply. It’s the story of the promise I had always been trying to live.
The Transfiguration was a revelation of Jesus’ glory, veiled beneath human flesh. This mystery witnesses to the “now” of the Kingdom: now Jesus makes visible the invisible God. Now we human beings are already glorious in our dignity because we are made in God’s image and likeness. Now we receive a foretaste of the glorious Resurrection in living our life with Christ. We do, even in this present time, catch glimpses of glory. For example, we can be gifted with moments of intense consolation in prayer, or moments of deep insight into the truths of our faith. Or, I think one of the greatest privileges of the ministries of pastoral counselling and spiritual direction is being invited into the inner circle to witness to the transforming power of God’s grace in somebody’s life.
As good as these moments are, the Transfiguration of Jesus was not the culmination of His glory – rather, it was a prefiguration of what was to come. So it is with our experience of the Lord. Like Peter, we can be tempted to try and fix ourselves in these moments of consolation, but we are pilgrims on the earth, we cannot pitch our tent here forever in any one place or state, as Jesus reminds the disciples. We must hold lightly and face the undulations of life’s mountains.
So for us, this sign of glory is also the “not yet”. And why is that? Well, the revelation of Jesus that the disciples saw, when His clothes become dazzlingly white, was not just a change of external appearance like me putting on my new dress: rather, it was the manifestation of His true self, of a self which is fully clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience to use the words of St Paul. But despite the good news of our being made in God’s image, we are not like God in many ways. We still need to be transformed from the inside out. Unlike choosing our next outfit, however, transformation is not ultimately something we can tailor make, choose, or just put on as we like. It is only possible and hoped-for by God’s grace. It is His power that changes our hearts into becoming a Christ-like heart, a heart of Beatitude, a heart of kindness, humility and gentleness like His was.
For us, fallen human beings that we are, transformation is also a painful process. It doesn’t just shine out of us as it did for Jesus. As women, many of us know this from our own attempts at physical beauty: the pains – and frankly the deficit to our bank accounts – induced by dieting, high heels, surgery, waxing and the like. And endless litany of painful upgrades.
The spiritual transformation of our soul into Christlikeness is also painful and costly we as expand and grow into the full stature of Christ. But this is for an inner beauty that lasts. St Luke’s account of the Transfiguration records that Moses and Elijah were talking to Jesus “and were speaking about his exodus, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem”. St Luke is the only synoptic Gospel which reinforces the overt link between the transfiguration and the crucifixion by sandwiching this detail right in the middle of the story. The cross is the only way through to glory. We cannot dress it up, we cannot pretend through settling only for apparent external changes in our behaviour. We must meet our cross. But God does not just leave us with the pain of bunions and blisters. No, we can meet our cross because we have the promise of transformation and resurrection at the end.
The transfiguration is thus the promise of the kingdom to come when we shall be like Him, purified by the fire of His divine love and gifted our resurrection bodies. Then we shall see Him as He really is, just as Peter, James and John did on the mountain. If we could all see each other as we truly are underneath the shadows of mystery and misunderstanding, we would see the true beauty of one another endowed by the hidden image of God and the inner riches and giftedness of each human spirit. For now, we see in a glass darkly and our vision is obscured. Like the disciples, when we are weighed down let us raise our gaze to Jesus on the mountain and be reminded of His promise of transformation in light.
The whole goal of the monastic life, in particular, is the pursuit of purity of heart which is about seeing with God’s own vision. It was the intense desire for transformation which ultimately led me on and in to the Order to be clothed in a white habit, resembling Jesus’ own garments on the mount of Transfiguration. Here the journey began, and here it continued more deeply last Saturday. May the promise of transformation continue for us all, that we may be like Him.
Scripture passage from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.