The Irish say that the three most beautiful sights in the world are, “a rose garden in bloom, a ship in sail and a woman after the birth of her child.” When the bush is intimate with earth and sun, it is transfigured into a palette of roses. The limp sail, that seeks communion with the wind, billows with transfigured freedom. The loving intimacy of a husband and wife transfigures them with joy at the birth of their child.
One of the persistent problems of Christian religion is that its members spend too much time with religious words and thoughts that are not based on an experience of Jesus. Many people study theology, but never know intimacy with Christ. They substitute word games for the affections of the heart. The blah, blah, blah of religious words replaces a direct encounter with the divine.
Theology and the catechism are obviously supremely important. But they work best when they shimmer with the vitality of the living spirituality that grounds them. Real religious discourse should be like God talking through the lips of people who devote each day to meditative prayer. This is the principal message of the Transfiguration to his three beloved disciples. They had heard many of his sermons. His words probably flooded their ears and may have clung to their brains. He took them up a mountain to pray. What they needed was a defining experience that would produce a more unified force.
Luke’s Gospel reports that Peter, James and John fell “into a deep sleep” on Mount Tabor. They had joined Jesus for a period of reflection and prayer on the mountain. In the silence of their mutual reflection, the apostles felt a more intimate union with Jesus. Then all normal distancing fell away. The usual separateness from Christ dissolved. The earthly clothes and human face of Jesus now disclosed vivid love — snow white and glowing with sunlight.
They beheld Christ’s glory. They were doing more than physically looking at Jesus. One can briefly look at the sun, but when we feel its warmth, it opens us up with joy at its pleasant embrace. The apostles were receiving the unforgettable warmth of Jesus. They never forgot the experience. Neither has the church, which remembers it every Second Sunday of Lent
The apostles saw more than the glory they would see in a marvelous painting. They experienced intimacy with the living God. They absorbed the love and commitment they experienced from Jesus. The Jewish Talmud wisely says , “The whole worth of a kind deed lies in the love that inspires us.” The brilliant light that poured from Christ opened the future for his apostles. He shared with them what intimacy would be like with him in their mission to the world, and after their death, what it would be for them in heaven. They had known his teachings with their brains. Now they felt Christ’s transforming words in their hearts.
Norbertine Fr. McBride is a popular lecturer and author of more than 40 books.