On the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) we celebrate the day when Jesus, having taken three of his disciples to the top of a mountain to pray with him, experienced the presence of God so dramatically that the disciples saw the glory of God shine through his very being. The disciples witnessed Moses and Elijah visiting with Jesus and offered to build three tents so Jesus could stay in his glory with these representatives of the Law and the Prophets. Then a cloud covered the mountain top and those standing on it. The disciples recognized God’s presence in the cloud and heard the Father’s voice proclaim Jesus to be his chosen Son to whom they were to listen. The next moment they were alone again with Jesus. All were left feeling speechless to describe the experience. (Lk 9:28b-36) Only later, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, were the disciples able to speak about what they had seen and experienced that day.
Did it really happen?
Looking back at the event with the perspective of nearly 2,000 years, we might wonder at the description of what happened and question how literally Jesus’ face “changed in appearance” and how his clothing could have become “dazzling white.” This is especially true because such statements are commonly used in apocalyptic literature when describing a Son of man or the Ancient One, as for example we see in the Book of Daniel 7:9-14. Was this simply a literary device to tell an audience familiar with such images that Jesus was truly the chosen one of God? Or is there some literal basis for the narration?
I have to admit that I don’t know which interpretation is factually true. I suspect, however, that what is reported in the gospels actually happened to Jesus pretty much as described. The reality of the divine is so much more vibrant, powerful, encompassing, radiant, loving, compassionate, respectful and gentle than we can imagine that, in a moment when Jesus was facing the probability that things might not go well for him in Jerusalem, the Father’s encouragement and gentle caress might well have such an effect.
Could it happen today?
Often when those who have had a “close encounter” with the divine speak of their experience, their faces shine with the joy of what they experienced. The newly baptized have a glow about them for weeks after their baptismal experience. Jesus himself told us that only those who became like little children would enter the kingdom of his father. The simple joy and wonder with which young children explore and enjoy their world, trusting that all they need will be provided for them, is the attitude presented as the ideal for the child of God. Though ordinarily most of us don’t consciously notice the radiance of the divine shining through each others’ faces and the wonders of creation, at special moments we do sometimes notice something different.
Is the radiance of divine love shining through a human face something that could happen to one who is not a divine person, not a member of the Trinity? I would argue that God’s love is to shine through each one of us. Perhaps not so obviously as it did through Jesus on the mountain top, yet even for Jesus, it was a brief moment that was followed by the return to what quickly became a very difficult reality. In the moments when we act with compassion and generosity to meet the needs of those less fortunate among us, the divine love shines through. In times when we hold the hand of one who is suffering, the divine love shines through. When we visit those who are in prison, or in the hospital, or home-bound, the divine love shines through. When we care for our children or go to our workplace or smile at a passerby, the divine love can shine through us as well. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me,” we are told.
God smiles in joy whenever love is given and received — and the glory of God shines through into our world!
Image by: JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48307 [retrieved August 7, 2013].