Witnessing Something Majestic
February 25, 2018 2nd Sunday in Lent - B
by Dcn. Bob Bonomi
Whenever I hear one of the passages on the Transfiguration, I have an immediate image of standing on Sunset Peak back in Idaho on a cool fall day. On a clear day, you can see for hundreds of miles from its summit, including into Canada to the north and to Montana and Washington State to the east and west, respectively. It’s a truly breath-taking view, but more on that in a minute.
The Transfiguration story is in all three of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – and we hear one or another of the versions at least 3 times a year, including this second Sunday of Lent and on the Feast of the Transfiguration in August.
Today’s version is fairly brief compared to the other two, but all three contain the basics – Jesus, Peter, James and John all climb a high mountain; the three disciples witness as Jesus changes in appearance before them and has an encounter with Moses and Elijah; they hear God the Father speak; and then it’s over and down the mountain they come. In all three Gospels the event occurs about a week after Jesus first tells his disciples that he will go to Jerusalem to die.
What makes the Transfiguration so important to us today? Especially during the Lenten season, what is God trying to tell us?
Often we think this passage is about how we need to transfigure ourselves. Especially during Lent, we work on efforts to become a better person, and so we use the three pillars of Lent – prayer, fasting and almsgiving – to try and improve ourselves. Through our efforts we hope to become more Christ-like.
But that’s really not what the Transfiguration is about. It’s not about US being transfigured; it’s about witnessing something that gives us hope.
I want to focus on 3 points of the story:
1. The four CLIMBED to the top of the mountain. Jesus might have led them, but they all had to make a considerable effort to get to the top. No ski lifts or gondola rides. The disciples didn’t know what they were going to encounter once they reached the top, but they knew that Jesus was with them and they trusted that it was worth the effort.
2. Once they reached the summit, they WITNESSED something so extraordinary that it left them in awe. Jesus changed before them. Or, more accurately, was TRANSFIGURED. Jesus was still Jesus, but in that intimate encounter at the top, Peter, James and John experienced an aspect of Jesus that they hadn’t really experienced before, despite all of the miraculous signs he performed – an overwhelming sense of his divinity.
3. Once the moment had passed, they still had to come down the mountain and RETURN to their day-to-day lives. They themselves didn’t change and they didn’t know what they were going to face once they returned. They weren’t even to share the experience with others until the right time - after the Resurrection.
Let’s go back to my mountaintop in Idaho for a minute. Sunset Peak is one of the highest mountains in the area, and it is home for radio repeater towers for all sorts of communications. As such, there is sort of a road that leads up to the top, if you want to call it a road. You don’t need a 4-wheel drive to get there, but you won’t be racing up it in your family Chevy, either. The road drops off steeply on one side and goes straight up on the other. If by chance you should meet a car coming from the other direction, well, better be ready to back up a way. A long way. The point is, it takes a fair amount of time to reach the summit, even in a vehicle, and it takes concentration and a desire to get to the top.
Climb. The same is true of our spiritual journey in life. Living our faith is often like climbing a steep mountain without really knowing what to expect at the end. But the story of the Transfiguration reminds us that the higher we climb, the more the view is revealed to us. And so we climb.
Once on top, the view is spectacular. As I said, on a clear day you can see for hundreds of miles in all directions. This particular fall morning was no exception. It was a beautiful day, the cold air crystal clear in the early morning sun. Standing on top like that helps you feel close to God, and the view is majestic. In the movie “The Bucket List”, Morgan Freeman has as his #1 goal in life is to “Witness Something Truly Majestic”. In his case, it was the Himalayas. Mine is Sunset Peak.
Witness. In our spiritual journey we are often called not to do anything, but to be a witness to something truly majestic – the presence of Christ still alive in the world today. And once we do, we are then called to share that witness when the time is right. Like my sharing my mountaintop experience with you today. Like my sharing my faith with you every Sunday.
Finally, there’s the journey down the mountain. As spectacular as the view was, I had to return to normal life. This particular day the peak was above the fog bank that encircled the valleys below – you could not see anything at the bottom. Mountain peaks poked out of the clouds like little islands in the middle of a frothy, foamy sea, and the road down led through it. And so I had to focus on the road ahead as I came down, making sure that I didn’t lose my way.
Return. Despite the closeness we feel to God at times when we are at Mass or in Adoration or even in our rooms in prayer, we still have to re-enter the secular world with all of its distractions and obstacles and temptations. Even after witnessing the Transfiguration, the disciples still returned to arguing about who was the greatest and worrying about their day-to-day journey. We, too, often fall back into our daily routines, forgetting those moments where we have witnessed the majestic presence of Christ in our lives.
Still, we should crave those AHA! moments where we can encounter Christ, even if they require extra effort on our parts to experience them. That is why we resort to fasting and almsgiving and additional prayer during Lent – to prepare ourselves for that very special encounter, the witness of the Resurrection of Christ at Easter.
One final thought. If you would really like to experience a Transfiguration moment – one where you can see the Divinity of Christ at work - I urge you to consider attending the upcoming men’s or women’s ACTS retreat. The word “retreat” is sort of misleading, as ACTS is really more of an encounter with the living Christ present in the hearts and spirits of all who put on the retreat AND in those who attend it. During your time there you will witness how God works in the lives of others and it will open your heart to His presence within you. It is a truly transforming event. Does it require you to “climb”? Certainly! You have to be willing to take the time to attend. If you think you are too busy and cannot take the time, then you’re one who needs it the most.
Witnessing Jesus’ Divinity in the Transfiguration was a truly awesome experience for Peter, James and John. As we progress through Lent, I pray that you too will have an awesome personal encounter with the Divinity of Christ.