Jesus, Beloved Son of God the Father
(Readings: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Mark 9:2-10)
Introduction to Mass
Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. On the mountain Peter, James and John learned that Jesus was the beloved Son of God, the divine Messiah and Saviour. It's a mysterious incident in the story of the disciples' involvement with Jesus which ideally strengthens our faith in Jesus' unique identity as God-made-man.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
The Old Testament book of Daniel, which today's first reading is excerpted from, was written more than 150 years before the birth of Christ. The author looked forward to the time when a Messiah would appear, a man specially blessed by God, a national and spiritual leader.
This Messiah figure would liberate the Jewish people from servitude to the pagan empires which surrounded them and oppressed them, and he would exalt the faith in the true God over the false and idolatrous pagan religions.
After the time of Christ it was natural for the first Christian believers to see a kind of prophecy of Jesus in Daniel's images of the Messiah. Jesus wasn't the political or military leader eagerly expected by so many of the people, but those who had known him during his ministry and witnessed his death and resurrection felt obliged to conclude that he was nevertheless the long-awaited agent of God's liberation and salvation.
The story of Jesus' Transfiguration - this strange event on the mountain-top witnessed by Peter, James and John - should be seen by us as an important stage in the journey made by Jesus' followers towards that eventual conclusion.
Peter, if you remember, had only recently confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. He had fathomed the truth about Jesus' identity and vocation in a sudden flash of inspiration. Now, shortly after that incident, Peter's insight is confirmed even more strongly by a mystical experience, or revelation, which he shared with two of his fellow disciples.
It had already dawned on them that the rabbi from Nazareth was more than just a gifted preacher, healer and exorcist.
They were gradually working their way to the conclusion that Jesus was much more closely identified with God than that, that he was someone completely dedicated to a unique, God-given mission, and that he drew all his motivation and energy and spiritual power from his intimate relationship with God.
They eventually concluded that there was only one accurate way to describe Jesus, and that was to say, as Jesus himself says in John's gospel, that "to have seen me is to have seen the Father".
The God of Moses and Elijah - the God of the whole Jewish tradition in other words - was no longer making his message of salvation known through the religious law or in the fiery preaching of the prophets, but in the life's work of this person, Jesus.
The Transfiguration was an event which revealed to these three disciples that the God they had always worshipped and prayed to was present to them now in Jesus. They were shown Jesus' divine nature.
That's the main "message" contained in the incident but it's also worth looking at in terms of what Peter, James and John actually experienced, because in many ways their description of what happened to them bears comparison with the accounts many other people have given of mystical experiences - direct glimpses or revelations of God himself.
The first important thing is, incidentally, there's no reason to suppose that Jesus' followers simply invented stories like this after Jesus' Resurrection - one of the familiar criticisms levelled by people who don't accept the gospel message.
After Jesus' Resurrection, if there was any pressure on the disciples, it was to avoid trouble and persecution by returning quickly to their previous lives and admitting to everyone that they had been mistaken about seeing Jesus as the Messiah.
Launching out with the news that God had inaugurated a new stage in his plan of salvation was dangerous and roused a lot of hostility. Most of the original apostles lost their lives as a result of their new faith in Christ, so claiming that Jesus was God-made-man wasn't the most obvious thing to do from the standpoint of their own self-interest.
Peter in fact faces this accusation directly in the letter that we heard a part of in the second reading. This new proclamation of Christ the saviour isn't a matter of "cleverly invented myths", he says. It's the outcome of the original disciples' personal experiences of the way God worked through the man Jesus. Peter cites the incident on the mountain in particular as an event which disclosed to him that Jesus shared God's own nature.
On the mountain Peter and the other apostles were somehow lifted out of their ordinary, everyday state of mind. For a brief moment their minds were flooded and overwhelmed by a sense of standing in the presence of God. According to the gospel-writers this experience was "wonderful" but frightening as well. In other words, faced with the mystery of the divine they were filled with reverence and awe, fear, excitement and joy all at once.
Individuals who have received this sort of rare mystical experience describe it as utterly convincing but impossible to put into words. Something similar happened to Saint Paul when he was thrown off his horse, blinded by a bright light and summoned to belief in Christ.
And there have been other lesser incidents throughout Christian history where individual men and women have received a direct intuition of God, usually in a brief flash, but in a way that overwhelms them, changes them profoundly, and draws them more closely into communion with God.
Only a few people experience this kind of mystical contact with God. For most of us, our relationship with God takes shape very undramatically through ordinary prayer, reflection, searching the Scriptures in order to increase our knowledge of God, being open to the grace of the sacraments.
But apart from the fact that we never know when God might suddenly take us by surprise, as he did with the three apostles and Saint Paul, we shouldn't discount the significance of these sorts of experiences on other people's part. Their testimony should strengthen our faith. In the second reading Peter appeals to this very principle when he asks his readers to accept Christ as Saviour on the basis of his testimony about his own experience of knowing Christ.
The Christian message of hope, Peter says, is like "a lamp for lighting a way through the dark until the dawn comes". That should also be our conviction. God's light is always shining in our dark, sinful world - but we have to be open and receptive in order to see it.
On today's feast let us try to be open and receptive to the testimony of the apostles, so that our faith will be strengthened by listening to their account of the occasion they discovered the truth about who Jesus really was.