This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 9:28b–36:
Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying, his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.
Back in the days when I worked in corporate offices, almost nothing caused so much disruption and distraction as a visit by The Boss. There’s a joke about priests who see Jesus Christ kneeling at their altar, who then call the bishop to ask what to do, and the bishop then calls the Vatican. The Pope finally offers his advice: Look busy. Anyone who has worked in the corporate world during a visit by the CEO or the board will recognize that instruction.
Nowadays, when I work from home, that’s what I do when I get a visit from The Boss — my wife. Look busy!
We see a couple of parallels to that today in our readings, a sense of the dislocation and disruption when The Boss pays us a visit. In this sense, though, we mean our actual Lord, not the secular executives who lease our time in exchange for compensation. There are some similarities as well as magnitudes of difference in scale and scope, too, to which we’ll return shortly.
In both the Gospel and the first reading from Genesis, we see the experience of theophanies, even on the prophets. In Genesis, Abraham falls into a deep trance after offering the sacrifices the Lord requests. The Lord comes to Abraham, and “a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.” Similarly, in our Gospel, the three disciples awaken to see a transfigured Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, a sight that dazzles the three with Christ’s glory. Then, however, a cloud envelopes them and they become “frightened” by it as the Lord speaks directly to them.
Why would the Lord’s direct presence cause fear or terror, especially given how the Lord is Love Itself? God is certainly more merciful than your average CEO (except, of course, for the one who employs me!). Furthermore, in both cases the theophanies come while Abraham and the three disciples are fully cooperating with His grace and welcome His presence.
Perhaps, though, the investment into faith plays a big part in that reaction. It is our formation to the Lord and His grace in our hearts that allows us to recognize Him in the first place. For those who reject the Lord or simply aren’t interested in His love, His presence would likely not resonate much — unless He willed it to be so, as He did with Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. To use my earlier analogy, the part-time worker in the mail room would likely be much less impressed by a CEO visit than, say, the low-level manager who has ambitions for upward mobility in the company and has invested significant effort in achieving it.
The more invested in faith and formation we become, the more we recognize our right relationship with the Lord. The more we recognize the massive power differential between God and His creation, the more we respect those differences and understand our role in serving Him. It is therefore a measure of how committed Abraham and the three disciples are to the Lord that they recognize how much they — and we — are at His mercy in a theophany.
But fear and terror isn’t the point of these encounters; it is merely the side effect of the recognition of God’s power. In each of the theophanies of the Bible, the Lord seeks to create bonds between humanity and Himself. Even though the reaction from fallen humanity to power of such magnitude is understandable fearful, the Lord uses these theophanies to establish covenants for our salvation. He did so with Moses on Mount Sinai to deliver the Law, and on several other occasions to save the Israelites from their own stiff-necked revolts against His authority.
In today’s readings, the Lord establishes the foundation for salvation with Abraham, the father of all the blessed, for his cooperation with the Lord’s plans. In the Transfiguration, the Lord prepares Peter, James, and John for Jesus’ full mission by revealing Himself to them. It is another covenant, this time to set the stage for the Passion and the final covenant, and its message is clear. “Don’t just look busy,” it says, “but listen to My Son and do everything he instructs.”
And its invitation could not be clearer, as the Transfiguration models everything we can expect from salvation. We see eternal life in this image of Christ with the two greatest prophets, and we see a real embrace of the Lord — an engagement with the Creator in Trinitarian love for eternity. Death will have no meaning in our transfigured lives, and neither will the busy-ness of the fallen world led by the stewardship of a corrupted and materialistic humanity.
In the prism of that fallen and materialistic world, God’s unending and enduring love for us can look frightening. That fear and dislocation can disorient us, and indeed it does call us to shake free of our comfort zone and see the world and the Lord as they truly are. That is not a time to look busy, but to put ourselves to work on behalf of His will for our salvation. As we cooperate with His covenants, we allow Him to transfigure us for that eternal, Trinitarian life of which this Gospel briefly gives us a glorious, tantalizing, and perhaps even daunting glimpse.
The front-page image is a detail from “Abraham Leaves Harran” by Francesco Bassano the Younger, late 16th century. Currently on display at the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.