The Transfiguration and the Meaning of Christian Mystery

“Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Luke 9:33)

Peter had two options for approaching the event of the Transfiguration: he could see it as (a) a problem that needs to be solved, or (b) as a mystery.

When Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the high mountain, they woke up to a scene that seemed to defy all understanding. Jesus brings them up to the top of Mount Tabor and begins to glow unworldly bright. Then Moses and Elijah from the Old Testament show up and all three of them have a conversation.

Peter, thinking quickly on his feet, intrudes into their conversation and asks whether he should build three tents. For us, this sounds like odd, but for Peter, he must have thought he had solved the problem: this had to be the beginning of the end times. He might have picked up on how Jesus is fulfilling the Old Testament festivals. He knew of the Jewish tradition that Moses and Elijah would come again before the end of the world. Jesus, along with Moses and Elijah, was finally going to restore the kingdom of Israel and reap the much-anticipated harvest of souls. It was the Christological fulfillment of the Jewish Festival of Booths.

They needed tents.

However, Peter “did not know what he was saying.” He approached the Transfiguration as a problem to be solved, not as a mystery to be entered into. So while Peter was still speaking, a higher voice corrected him: “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

The Limits of Science

When Christians use the word “mystery,” we do not mean a problem without an answer. No, for Christians, a mystery is something that is so intensely knowable that it exceeds the powers of human comprehension.

Let me give you an example.

Once, my five-year old niece told me, “Did you know that, when I’m in the car, the moon follows me? It really does!” My immediate response was to try to explain to her that since the moon is so far away, it only looks like it is following her. My impulse was to set up an experiment, putting her in one car and her sister in another car. They would go separate directions and observe how the moon follows both of them. Then I could prove to my niece that, since the moon cannot possibly be following both of them, there must be another explanation. That explanation would be in the reality of the great distance between the earth and the moon, a distance that can be observed and measured. Science would win out over childish naïveté.

But before I could thoroughly disprove her childish notion, she interrupted, “No. The moon really follows me.” With such opposition, I thus abandoned my attempt to scientifically disprove her childish perception.

For my five-year old niece, the moon was a mystery; it really did follow her. The moon was so beyond her that, rather than disconnecting her, it implicated her in its path. However mistaken her understanding of perspective, she approached it with wonder. And she rightly would not let that wonder be extinguished.

To me, the moon was a problem that needed to be solved; it could be measured and placed conceptually at a distance. I knew that its movements and phases are configured to a different pattern than my sporadic movements. Although technically more correct, the approach that reduced the moon to a problem prevented me from being gripped by the mystery of the moon and sharing in my niece’s wonder. To my niece, however, the moon was a mystery to be entered into.

Like my niece with the moon, a mystery is so beyond us, that we cannot help but be pulled into it. A mystery is so large that it necessarily involves the viewer. In this way, God Himself is a mystery, being so far beyond us that, at the same time, He embraces us and loves us in our very being.

Mysteries are not problems; they are not to be solved – they are to be entered into. A mystery is like a piece of art that pulls the viewer in; it is not a mere opportunity for scientific analysis.

The Mystery of the Transfiguration

It is in this way that the event of the Transfiguration is a mystery. Since mysteries overwhelm us, they implicate us – they require our response. Our response, then, to the mystery of the Transfiguration is not to solve the puzzle of Moses and Elijah’s appearance, but to enter deeply into the reality of what is before us. Through the mystery of the Transfiguration, we share in Jesus’ own prayer with the Father. By beholding the glory of Christ transfigured and listening to him, we become sons and daughters in the Son. By entering in to the mystery of the Transfiguration – by listening to God’s chosen Son – we become what we contemplate.

How do we enter in to the mystery of the Transfiguration? For us Christians, we go to the source and the summit of the Christian life – the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Like Peter at the Transfiguration, we can look at the Mass just as a problem to be solved, a ritual to be analyzed, a puzzle to be deciphered. Or we can enter into the mystery of the Mass.

In every celebration of the Mass, we ascend the mountain with Christ, and we encounter something that overwhelms our understanding: God incarnate – the second Person of the Holy Trinity – comes to us as bread and wine. So great is the glory of Christ in the Eucharist, so utterly beyond us, that we are pulled into the mystery. The altar is our Mount Tabor, where we see His glory, not with the eyes of flesh, but with the eyes of faith. Over the altar the Father’s voice mystically resounds, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” We who enter into this mystery by receiving the Body of Christ in Holy Communion are enveloped by the cloud of the Holy Spirit. At Mass, we enter in to the mystery of God’s glory. He gazes on us, and we gaze on Him, and we become what we contemplate.

 

Main Image: The Church of the Transfiguration

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