Recently I was rereading the wonderful story of the transfiguration of the Lord as it is told to us in the Gospel of Matthew 17:1–8. For Peter, James, and John, it must have been truly spectacular to be in the presence of the Lord, revealed in all of his divine glory, and with two of the greatest prophets in Jewish history, Moses and Elijah. No wonder Peter was able to exclaim, “it is good that we are here.” Not that I think I can improve on Scripture, but I think Peter could have said a little more. He could just as easily have said, “Jesus it is really easy for us to be here with you like this. It is easy to believe you when you look like this. When we can see you like this, it is easy to see and understand the ramifications of what you have been talking about.”
I can’t help but contrast the divinity of Jesus portrayed in the transfiguration with the humanity of Jesus that the apostles experienced every day. I can’t help but ask myself, Which Jesus is easier to believe in, which Jesus is easier to follow? Is it the Jesus who appears before the apostles dazzlingly white, clothed in glory, and in the presence of greatness in Moses and Elijah, or is it the human Jesus, dirty, hungry, surrounded by the poor and the unwanted?
I think we’d all agree that it’s much easier to believe and to follow the Jesus who’s divine, who’s so obviously great, who’s filled with power, and who invokes awe and wonder. Perhaps for this reason we’re so easily able to recognize and respond to Jesus, who comes to us in mystery, who dispenses grace and healing, who exhibits those things that we clearly identify as miraculous and powerful, the Jesus who finally is to come again, in all of his glory, at the end of time to punish the bad and to reward the good. We understand divinity, and we all clamor to be in the presence of greatness. Thus, we understand it when Peter proclaims, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”
Where is the lesson for us in the transfiguration? Perhaps it’s one that’s difficult to accept and understand. Except for this one moment, this one experience of transfiguration, Jesus didn’t reveal himself to his apostles in his divinity. His call, his invitation to follow, was not an invitation to follow that came billowing from a cloud, surrounded by angels singing and trumpets blaring. His call to follow and serve wasn’t presented to his apostles or us with the noise and the volume that demands attention and that earns applause and favorable comments of, “Wasn’t that great,” or, “Isn’t he wonderful.” Rather, his invitation was and is presented without drama, with no fanfare,
and often is so quiet and gentle that we may well miss it.
I can’t imagine a person, even the most hardened sinner, even the person who all of us might unanimously identify as evil, who wouldn’t fall to his knees if presented with the transfigured Jesus. Who among us, even those who seem not to care and who seem not to be paying attention to anything of importance, would be able to ignore such a display of divinity? We have to admit the truth of it because it’s so obvious. But just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s the chosen way.
I’d love to be able to experience the transfigured Jesus. I’d love to be able to say the words of Peter, “Lord, it is good that we are here.” I want the experience of transfiguration in my life because it would make everything so much easier. How could I struggle with belief if I had seen the Lord before me exhibiting wonder and power? How could I ever tire of proclaiming the gospel, or choosing to do what is right, or going the extra mile, even with someone I have difficulty with, if I had experienced the presence of the Lord in such a way?
But yet it seems that my experience of faith, my call to belief, will not be so simple and so obvious. There will probably never be the certitude that comes with the experience of transfiguration. This is the way that the Lord wants it to be. Thus, the only conclusion I can arrive at is that there must be something essential for faith in the struggle to believe. There must be something about the silence that seems to come from the heavens that is essential to grow in faith, even when the heavens are bombarded with prayer. There must be some clue, some direction, some way that I am challenged to learn and to live that will only come from the ordinary. The dramatic, that which demands attention, seems not to be the way of the kingdom.
Members of SA, I hope you find it reassuring to know that it is perfectly natural to struggle with belief. It is a normal part of the spiritual journey to wrestle with doubt. What isn’t part of the normal faith journey is the anxiety, at times even the severe anxiety, that accompanies the doubt and the struggle. That feeling and emotion is rooted in the sickness of scrupulosity. Again, I must remind each of our readers that we’re not talking about sin when we speak about this kind of struggle and this kind of response. What we’re referring to is the experience of scrupulosity that is at the root of the emotional upheaval. Just because a person feels bad does not mean the person is bad.
As I concluded my reflection on the transfiguration story, I found myself wondering what Peter, James, and John did when they came down the mountain after this experience. What were their thoughts, what sense did they make out of all of this, and what questions were they left with? Did the experience of transfiguration make an obvious difference in their lives, or was it something that was difficult to comprehend? We’ll never know, and we haven’t been told. What we’re left with is simply the story and the words of Peter, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”
by Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR