Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration. It is when Our Lord took St. Peter, St. James, and St. John up to the mountain to pray and He was transfigured before them; revealing a glimpse of His glory. These three Apostles—who would also be with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His betrayal—are invited into the intimate communion of Jesus and the Father in prayer through the Holy Spirit, but they are brought into this profound encounter only after Christ has revealed the demands of the Cross.
The Transfiguration, like all of Sacred Scripture, intersects with other events in salvation history. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in a Lenten homily in 2007, points out two crucial aspects of the Transfiguration that provide the keys we need to understand how we are transfigured in Christ. First, the Transfiguration occurs in Luke’s Gospel directly after Christ calls His followers to pick up their Cross and follow Him:
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.Luke 9:23-24
St. Luke then tells us that “about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray (Luke 9:28).” It was only after Christ revealed the non-negotiable call to pick up the Cross and follow Him to Calvary that He takes His Apostles to the mountain to pray and they witness the Transfiguration while He is in prayer. The Cross is the first key. There is no Transfiguration without the Cross.
It is impossible for any of us to be transfigured in Christ and to become the radiant saints we are called to be if we have not first accepted the Cross in our daily lives. We will continue to flee from God and cling to our own will, which binds His work in us. Without our complete surrender to Him in trust and love through the acceptance of the agony of our own Cross, He cannot truly transfigure us because we still love ourselves and our ways more than Him. We impede Him from working within us by our lack of surrender, which prevents us from being perfected in charity.
When Our Lord is transfigured before the three Apostles, He is in fervent prayer. He then enters into dialogue with Moses and Elijah, which is another dimension of His calling that He is showing to them. He is seeking to unite His will to the Father’s will. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI again:
There is another detail proper to St Luke’s narrative which deserves emphasis: the mention of the topic of Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah, who appeared beside him when he was transfigured. As the Evangelist tells us, they “talked with him… and spoke of his departure” (in Greek, éxodos), “which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9: 31).
Therefore, Jesus listens to the Law and the Prophets who spoke to him about his death and Resurrection. In his intimate dialogue with the Father, he did not depart from history, he did not flee the mission for which he came into the world, although he knew that to attain glory he would have to pass through the Cross.Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Homily, Second Sunday of Lent 2007
In order for Our Lord to attain His ultimate glory, He had to submit in obedience to the will of the Father. It is only through His death on the Cross that He could rise from the dead and ascend into Heaven as our Glorified Head. The same is true for each one of us. If we live our lives dependent on our own plans, wants, desires, and will then we will never achieve the glory of Heaven we have been made for. God cannot work within us if we have not completely surrendered to His plans for our lives. We will get in the way of His plans for our sanctification and become a stumbling block to those around us. The second key is submitting in obedience to God’s will.
It is for this reason that the Transfiguration is intimately connected to Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. The same three Apostles go out with Him to pray. This time they are burdened, sorrowful, and cannot stay awake. It is night. They are still spiritually blind to the necessity of what must happen. They cannot yet see or understand that the Cross is the means by which Christ will conquer sin and death and be glorified.
We struggle with the exact same thing in our daily lives. We cannot understand how the sufferings and disappointments that we face on an almost daily basis can lead to our own transfiguration. It is because we too become blinded by the spiritual night of the Cross. This happens in our lives when we seek our own will over God’s will. We fail to see that it is precisely through the darkness of the Cross that He will make us radiant. All we must do is surrender.
Despite the agony we will experience through the Cross, joy and peace will flood into our souls if we truly seek to submit to the will of the Father and embrace the Cross through perseverance in prayer. We won’t experience it fully until we are standing before the Beatific Vision, but we will see glimpses of God. We will also begin to understand who we are made to be every time we seek to unite ourselves more fully to God’s plans for our lives over our own and every time we seek to trust in Him and His ways despite our lack of understanding.
We must remember that these transfiguring moments, or consolations, are never meant to be held onto for their own sake. Christ seeks to console us so that we can persevere along the Way of the Cross. Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen explains in Divine Intimacy:
God does not console us for our entertainment but rather for our encouragement, for our strengthening, for the increase of our generosity in suffering for love of Him.”
Consolations and glimpses of the Transfiguration in our own lives are meant to provide us with greater strength in bearing the Cross. That is their purpose. They are not meant to be sought after in and of themselves because we will start to choose the consolations over God. This is an inherent danger in our spiritual lives as Christian disciples. We must seek God Himself and not the good things He gives to us. We are simply to receive them with a spirit of humility, detachment, and gratitude. This is easier said than done, but is an essential aspect of progressing in holiness.
The Transfiguration cannot be understood apart from the Cross and Christ’s surrender of His will to the Father. Not long after the Transfiguration, Christ and His Apostles had to leave the mountain in order to endure the Cross. We too, when given glimpses of God in our prayer lives, must seek to embrace the Cross more fully by submitting to His will in every single moment of our day. We must leave the mountain and turn our face towards Jerusalem.