Time is a very strange commodity. As St. Augustine said, “Time takes no holiday.” It’s probably the most defining aspect of our lives and yet we really have no impact on it. Indeed, our personal view of time means little. We can see ourselves moving through time or we can see time as a relentless force moving through our lives. It really makes no difference.
Time simply marches on, turning an imagined future into an instantaneous present and making the past no longer real. Because it is gone, the past really exists only in our minds, in our memories. Our lives are littered with memories, memories of events that in so many ways define who we are.
I once had an experience that had the effect of compressing time, moving me toward the past or moving the past toward me. It was in 1957 and my eighth grade teacher, Sister Francis Jane, a wonderful Dominican nun, had invited an elderly gentleman to speak to our class.
He was in his nineties, and had been born at the start of the Civil War. And he told us some wonderful stories, stories about life in 19th century America, that held me spellbound. Even Sister Francis Jane, whom I'd always assumed was present at the Creation, seemed captivated.
He told us of his great-grandfather who had fled Paris during the French Revolution and eventually made his way to the United States. He told us of his grandfather, born in the year 1800, who as a youth was apprenticed to a Philadelphia cabinetmaker. At this point he told us something that completely overwhelmed me.
As a young man his grandfather had known Thomas Jefferson, had actually visited Jefferson at his home in Monticello, and done work for him. He went on to repeat the stories his grandfather had told him of Jefferson and his unique home.
Now as a child I always thought of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and the other founding fathers as sort of mythical figures lost in the fog of a distant past, from another time disconnected from my own. And yet, here I was in the presence of someone whose grandfather had known one of these men. And the man speaking to me had known his grandfather. Quite suddenly I realized that Thomas Jefferson and I were separated by only two other people.
This strange revelation changed me permanently. I felt as if I’d been suddenly thrust into the history of my country, and present at its very beginnings.
Now you can take that experience and multiply it a thousand-fold and perhaps, just perhaps, you might approximate what Peter, James and John experienced when they witnessed Jesus' Transfiguration in today's Gospel. To understand what this must have meant to them, and what it should mean to us, let’s set the stage.
Up until now, the Apostles’ understanding of Jesus and His mission was incomplete and confused. Amazed by His miraculous works, they couldn't understand why He didn't use this power to set things right in the world. Indeed, He seemed almost oblivious to the severe political realities faced by the Jewish people under Roman rule. Instead, he focused His attention on individuals, especially the poor and those in need of spiritual, physical, and mental healing.
Jesus baffled even the Apostles. Just days before, an inspired Peter had proclaimed Jesus to be "the Christ, the Son of the Living God" [Mt 16:16]. And yet the Apostles couldn't grasp why Jesus wasn’t more Messiah-like. Yes, they wanted a Messiah, but their version, not God's.
Then, about a week earlier, Jesus had shocked them by predicting His impending death. This incensed Peter, who went so far as to scold Jesus for even mentioning such a possibility. But Jesus rebuked him, telling him he was seeing things from a purely human point of view [Mt 16:21-23].
Peter, you see, was afraid. Powerful men were plotting Jesus' death, and Jesus seemed to be playing right into their hands. Peter’s myopic human vision blinded him to the eternal realities of God's plan. He and the disciples needed God to open their eyes and show them the Father's abiding presence with their Master.
They needed a vision from God's point of view, not man's, to see that in spite of the death sentence hanging over Jesus, God was still with Him, that God is always in complete control and would see to it that Jesus ultimately triumphed. What Peter, James and John needed was to be present at the Transfiguration, to have their eyes opened, to see their Master bathed in the glory of the Divine Presence.
And so they encounter Moses and Elijah, the great lawgiver and the great prophet. Time is compressed. The past is brought forward and made real again. I might have figuratively touched history in my eighth grade classroom, but the Apostles came face to face with God's eternal plan, a plan spread before them over the tapestry of time.
In a few moments Father will pray these words that begin today’s Eucharistic Prayer: "…he manifested to them his glory, to show, even by the testimony of the law and the prophets, that the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection."
This Transfiguration, this manifestation of divine glory, was meant to strengthen the Apostles. When afterwards Jesus told them not to fear, He was referring not to the fear of God they exhibited on the mountaintop, but to their fear of man and the evil of which he is capable. They would need reassurance as they accompanied Jesus on His journey to the Resurrection, a journey that passed first through Calvary.
The Transfiguration planted a seed of hope, the hope St. Paul referred to in today's 2nd reading when he reminded us that Jesus "abolished death and brought life and immortality to light" [2 Tim 1:10]. God allows the Apostles to see this light in the glorified Jesus so that later, when they see Him reduced to nothing during His passion, they might remember this extraordinary event and cling, if only precariously, to the promise it offered.
In the same way, today, the Church asks us to pause during our Lenten journey and reflect on its goal: Christ's glorious Resurrection on Easter. For just as the Transfiguration foreshadows Christ's Resurrection, so Christ's Resurrection foreshadows our own. Our Lord's divine nature, revealed to the Apostles on the mountaintop, is now our gift, so that our human nature can be raised up, glorified, and changed completely by His holiness.
The beautiful reality of our Christian life is that we share increasingly in Christ's glory until, one day, we see Him face to face, an eternal day when time itself will be extinguished. We are Christ's Body, the Church, men and women who live in the world, and our mission, the mission of the Church, is to transform that world through Faith, through Love, and by demonstrating our Hope in the eternal life that is God Himself.
But before we can fulfill our mission to transform the world, we must allow God to transform us, to undergo our own transfiguration.
This Lent let God remove all fear and doubt and strengthen us to face with courage the challenges, trials, sufferings, and, yes, the death, we must pass through before we can share in the divine glory.
This Lent see how our savior is transfigured before our eyes in the forms of bread and wine. Accept God's loving presence with us at Communion.
This Lent approach the Eucharist, reconciliation, and all of the good things of God, not as obligations, but as invitations to share in the gift of His love and a life that will never end.
When Pope Paul VI was dying on the feast of the Transfiguration, his final prayer, repeated again and again, was the opening phrase of the Our Father: Our Father, Who art in heaven. This Pope, who loved the Church so much, knew the final grace in his life would come from the Father Whose voice was heard on the Mount of Transfiguration: “This is My Son, My chosen one" [Mt 17:5].
This Lent, may we come to understand more deeply the Fatherhood of God and imitate more closely Him Who makes the Son, His Son, shine on all alike.