And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray. And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering… And while he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son: hear him.” St. Luke ix. 28.
This past Friday we buried Ann’s sister, Jackie, who had died of Covid several weeks ago. It was a lovely graveside service conducted by their Baptist preacher who is a fine Christian and a man who obviously cares for his parishioners. But being a Catholic I could not forget that Friday was also the Feast of the Transfiguration, which is a Holy Day of Obligation. A Holy Day of Obligation is a time set apart by the Church to commemorate a major event in the life of our Lord or one of the many heroes of Church, like our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or one of the Apostles. John Casteen, the younger, the poet, has a wonderful line in one of his poems: “I owe a debt I don’t know how to repay.” That gets to what Holy Days of Obligation are about. Gratitude. Respect. Admiration. Maybe even bafflement — awe and love. When we find ourselves at the place where we “owe a debt we don’t know how to repay” we may have discovered the wonderful, God-given capacity to love and adore God — and maybe one another as well. The only thing left to do is to worship.
But let’s get back to the text. Our Lord feed the 5,000 and shortly after that, the Bible says that he went to a “lonely place” to pray. His disciples followed him to that place and after he had prayed, he asked them, “Who do men say that I am?” They all had different answers: “Some say Elijah. Some say you are that prophet. Some say a great teacher.” Jesus stopped them. He fixed Peter with his eyes. “And who do you say that I am, Peter?” In a flash of divine inspiration Peter blurted out: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!”
Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you… but my Father in heaven…” Then our Lord looked around at his motley crew of followers and said: “Some of you standing here will not die until you have seen the kingdom of God coming with glory.
Eight days after that, Jesus took his three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, on a hike up a mountain to pray. These three, Peter, James, and John had been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry. James and John were at the Jordon when he was baptized. They were at the wedding when he turn the water into wine. He healed people with a touch, even raised the dead. They saw him feed the five thousand. They heard him preach. Weird and strange things like they had never heard before: “You must lose your life to save it.” “Blessed are they that mourn.” “Blessed are the poor.” “Blessed are the meek.” Jesus told them that he, by his own power, had initiated God’s Kingdom which would one day fill up the whole created order. Peter, and James, and John may have been thinking about some of these things as they hiked up the mountain that day. They reached the top and Jesus went off alone to pray. They knew he wanted them to pray as well and they wanted to do what he wanted them to do — but instead they fell asleep.
One of the major lessons for Christians to learn is the importance of what the Church Fathers called “watchfulness.” Watchfulness, or better yet, attentiveness, is no easy task and too many Christians simply drift through life. Drifting is not really living at all and we are called to better things. We are called to buckle down to being a Christian, to get serious about living attentively, intelligently, reasonably and responsibly in life and when you do that (and frankly no one can do it for you) you experience yourself appropriating the Image of God who created you to live attentively, intelligently, reasonably and responsibly in the world. I am saying that when you do that you live true to yourself, an authentic Christian, the genuine article, and you live true to God without whom there is no truth and there would be no you.
Attentiveness is a natural, human faculty that may, by our conscious and intentional resolution and work, become a virtue. A virtue is a habit. What we do — our deeds — form our character. Attentiveness is our first step to discovery and understanding and attentiveness may also be trained to stand guard over our minds. We have a two-fold opportunity to be attentive to what is before us and to be attentive to what is within us. But it isn’t effortless.
As Jesus prayed, Peter learned first hand just how difficult is attentiveness. When Peter exhorts the Church to be sober — to be wide awake and alert — he is speaking out of disappointing, personal experience. It took Peter his whole life with Jesus to learn the importance of attentiveness. This was not the last time Peter fell asleep. As Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, his disciples fell asleep and when the Romans arrested him, Peter and the other disciples ran away. But now I’m getting distracted — here at the end of their hike with Jesus, Peter, James and John just couldn’t keep their eyes opened. But Peter, James and John woke up. And when they woke up everything was different. The Bible says:
And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering. And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias: who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.
Now for the first time they saw our Lord’s divinity flash so brightly that day was turned to night. Eight days before, Peter declared his faith in Jesus’ divinity: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” but now he sees it with his own wide-awake eyes. His face shone like the sun, too bright to look upon. Even his clothing suddenly became the brightest light they had ever seen. Glistering is the translation of the Greek word: a word used only once in the New Testament means “to emit flashes of light, to shine or glister as lightening.” Christ is the uncreated light of the Father, he is not reflecting light, he is Light. The Shenikah Glory of God made flesh. Now his closest disciples look upon the Glorious God come down from Heaven.
Now this is what I want to say — we have been born again and this radicalized state of being of the baptized is to have God the Father as our Father and to have Jesus the Messiah as our sibling. When we are baptize into Jesus we are baptized into his humanity and we are baptized into his glistering divinity as well:
He (God) has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature… II Peter 1:4
This is all about our participation in the life of God, or as Peter put it our partaking of the divine nature and that brings us to the understanding of what grace is. As I have said when I was growing up we were taught that grace is unmerited favor; the free and undeserved help that God gave us in order that we might respond to his call be to his children. Though that is partially correct, I want you to understand that grace that is not so utilitarian, but rather, that is grace is a state of being: Grace is participation in the life of God. To be in a state of grace is to be participating in the life of the God who is God which is equivalent to participating in eternal life. And the way that happens is receiving the good and perfects gifts that come down from the Father of Lights. By virtue of our incorporation into the human nature of Christ we also participate, share in, commune with the divine nature of the God who is God. And thus we constitute a renewed, recreated humanity. And because of that we may and must live transfigured lives that communicate the holiness, wonder, love, and free, ungrudging generosity of God the Blessed Trinity to this beautiful but broken world we live in.