Tag Archives: Transfiguration



A priest in my home diocese was assigned many years ago to the church in which I was pastor. Everyone loved him for his natural goodness, his humility, his generosity. To this day, I respect him highly and think of him as a good and loving priest after the heart of Jesus. When he became a pastor himself many years later, the bishop sent him a young priest assistant. However, that young man was ultra-conservative and from his very first day there was troubled by what he was seeing and hearing in the pastor’s theology and ministry.

At one Sunday Mass, at which my friend was presiding and preaching, the assistant barged into the sanctuary, raised his hands and shouted to the congregation, “Don’t listen to this man! He is not giving you the Gospel of Jesus; he is giving you his own gospel, his own opinions, and you must not accept them!”

Of course, that very week the young priest was removed from the parish, and what has happened to him since I do not know in detail.

But why, you may be thinking right now, am I beginning today’s homily in such a way? The answer is simple: every Monday or Tuesday, as I begin the long and difficult process of writing a meaningful homily for the coming Sunday, if the readings contain something like what we heard just minutes ago (in this case, Jesus lighting up like a neon sign), I agonize over how to speak of it. Aware that different minds in the congregation react very differently, I wonder how I can reach everybody with an interpretation that all can accept.

If I answered, “That’s not possible,” I would be forced to say nothing — just let it pass without comment as though it had been heard by no one.

So, for all the years that I have been with you, I have tried my best to speak to you in carefully measured words, giving you, each time we have been together, just enough to think about as you try to understand these ancient writings through 21st century eyes and ears.

And that is necessary because with the passage of 3000 years we humans now know that God doesn’t cause rain by sending angels to open the portals that will allow the waters above the earth to irrigate our fields and fill our reservoirs. But that totally unscientific idea — and hundreds of others like it — are part of what you find in the bible.

The writing of the Sacred Scriptures is a never-ending process. It is going on even as we speak. What we call the Word of God is not forever fixed and static; it is a living masterpiece that is carried from generation to generation, century to century, and requires constant updating. Its many languages, so long unspoken, have to be better understood; its understanding of the universe has to be brought up to date; the bits of historical data it contains must be constantly checked and double checked to certify their accuracy.

You and I may not be literary scholars or scientists or trained theologians; but we possess common sense enough to at least suspect that what is passed on as objective truth may indeed at times not be that at all. The message the Scriptures contain is infallible; the literary device that carries it is not.

Now that I have used up every minute allotted for this homily and have said nothing about the Gospel passage for today, but have chosen to speak instead of what underlies it, let me conclude by assuring you, as best I can, that there is profound meaning for each of us in that passage that would render us the poorer if we were to miss it; and it is this: the Transfiguration of Jesus on that mountain top is far more about us than about Jesus. It tells us that we must seek and allow a change in us, not in him, in order that we might recognize him beyond his humanity that was obvious to anyone and to recognize, to see clearly and appreciate, that he is the perfect image of the invisible God and, therefore, that to know him is to know God!



If a newspaper theatre critic, reporting on the previous night’s opening of a play and the entrance of its leading male actor, wrote, “Suddenly the audience came to life as a roaring lion burst upon the stage…” we know right away that he is referring, not to a four-legged, ferocious beast, but to the seasoned actor the crowds had come to see & hear.

If we accept as perfectly appropriate such liberty in the use of human speech, on what grounds would we deny the authors of the bible the same literary freedom?  Well, we don’t anymore.  Instead we’ve learned that very often in the Scriptures – Old and New Testaments – we find the meaning of a passage, not in the dictionary definition of the individual words, but in the total picture that the words create.  So, when we hear or read, as we did in today’s gospel excerpt, “His clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them,” what are we to understand really happened?  That there was a radical, amazing change in the appearance of Jesus’ clothing?  Not at all, because that word picture was a colorful, dramatic way of saying that the presence of God was so apparent in Jesus that one would have to have been blind to miss it.

While I was preparing this homily, I thought of an intellectually curious nephew of mine with whom I had had a conversation about a good priest who, as we were speaking, was dying of a liver disease rooted in his more than 30 years of missionary work in third world countries.  My nephew was asking, where is God in such a situation – an incurable disease contracted so innocently and heroically and now about to end a man’s life prematurely and so sadly?  I answered that God neither controls nor alters our lives.  I said that things happen because they happen – period.  I added that the world is full of accidents, disease, and violence, which hurt and kill good people as well as bad.  And finally I tried: not even the totally innocent Jesus was spared the injustice of undeserved execution.

But where do such reflections leave us?  They place us in the company of the Apostles and the earliest Christians, who believed that God was actually present to them in their enormous struggles and potentially paralyzing fears.  Our agonizing expressions of faith leave us with the same support that they had: glimpses of the presence of God throughout our lives of faith.

We may not be able to share those epiphanies convincingly with others or explain them adequately even to ourselves, but whatever the experience of the divine presence may be, no one will ever convince us that we are mistaken or deluded.  The celebrated monk Thomas Merton said that we Christians must not think it is inappropriate to worry at times, as if worrying indicates a lack of faith in God.  He said that worry is inevitable and that God never asks us not to worry, but instead to trust God no matter how things are going and how we are feeling.

I have had assurances of God’s active and loving presence many times in my life; so have you.  I cannot speak of them any better than you can; they are so deeply personal.  But I am convinced, as I suspect you are, that God does somehow make God’s presence known to us.

I believe that that is what the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is really saying: that with all the trials that would befall his followers, they could rely for strength and endurance on the evidences of God’s presence they had in times past — and would have again and again.  We know from their heroic lives and their martyrs’ deaths that those glimpses were enough for them.  We can conclude only that they are sufficient for us, too.