Second Sunday of Lent – Fr. Peter Iorio
March 8, 2020 – 8:30 AM
In early centuries of Christianity, through authorities like St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great, they identified as many as seven “aspects” (lenses) through which we read Scripture: literal, historical, allegorical, moral, symbolic, eschatological and archetypal.
Two years ago, when I was on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, I mainly connected to the Scriptures through the literal and historical lenses. And one of my favorite places was Mount Tabor not too far from Nazareth. There is the beautiful church of the Transfiguration on top of Mount Tabor considered the place where Jesus was transfigured before the 3 disciples Peter, James and John that we hear in the Gospel today. It is a gorgeous church with gold mosaics indicating the glory of Christ, and when we entered, there was heavenly chanting from a group of pilgrims from Ukraine celebrating liturgy at the main altar. We celebrated our Mass in the chapel of Elijah which was a tiny space for our group. It made for an intimate encounter as we received the transfigured body of Christ in the Eucharist.
As the church itself was a symbolic representation of the Transfiguration event, so we can look at the Scripture itself by moving from the literal and historical to the symbolic level of understanding.
Two important Old Testament figures, Moses and Elijah, who represent archetypally the Law and the Prophets which are the two main parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Law is usually associated with the conservative keeping of the Tradition. The prophets are usually calling for change and can be considered in our language, liberals. Jesus stands between them both. Symbolically he indicates “they are both part of my picture, conservative and liberal. I hold both together and resolve the conflict that naturally comes about from liberals and conservatives.” At the end of the event, they disappear, and Jesus was found alone.
Only three of the Twelve accompanied Jesus. Why not the rest of the 12? Maybe these were the only ones who were ready for this type of experience. In the midst of prayer, Jesus is visibly changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
In this moment of awesome religious experience, the disciples want to permanently reside there by erecting tents. Peter, as impetuous as he is, says that they should make three tents and in essence stay there forever. Who can blame him? We usually want awesome experiences to keep on going.
So the deeper symbolism… of this transfiguration is that the divinity of Jesus is revealed through this beautiful dazzling light. He reveals to them in his very transfigured person that this is possible. He reveals that he is not just a man, but a man/god. We must put those two together. We do not know how to put man and god together. Jesus reveals to them in his very person that this is possible. If we do not know that it is possible, we cannot imagine putting it together in ourselves. And, this is the task for ourselves to realize that we are children of this earth and children of heaven.
As He reveals this to them, a cloud came over them and they became frightened. Spiritual things cannot become totally understood. There is always an aspect of mystery, of unknowing. It is part light and part cloud. You get it and you do not get it. Humble Christians know that they don’t know it all. Let me repeat: people who really know, know that they do not know. Who of us can understand the face of God, the mystery of love? In the presence of this mystery that is too big for them, they now become frightened.
The voice from the cloud affirms the beloved Son of God: listen to him. What is together in Jesus, the divine and human, must also be put together in us. Listen to Him and follow Him and grow in your personal relationship with him so you know how to do it.
Jesus told them not to tell about it. If you have not had a profound moment of personal transfiguration, you won’t quite understand. If you have ever had a profound mystical experience, which I hope that you have or will have, you know that words always fall short in describing it. There are no words that are adequate. You need a sacred silence to just soak it in and know the experience at the deepest level of your being. You must treasure it in your heart, as Mary did. Often, you ponder it for years. What did that mean? What was God trying to speak to my heart? Treasure it and know that it is true.
Obviously, they did eventually speak about their mountaintop experience eventually because it is recorded for us in Scripture. I am always moved in hearing people share their faith experiences as we did in our book discussion of Rediscover the Saints. God works in amazing ways and never gives up on us even if we have become lukewarm or fallen away. Even if we have fallen into sin or doubted or rejected God, Jesus loves us so much that He will never reject us. He came that we might have a rich life and live it fully to experience the glory of God in glimpses we get in this life to prepare us for the life to come.