“Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17:4)
I’ve seen people give Peter a hard time for not “getting” what was happening in front of him at the Transfiguration. Mark’s Gospel says parenthetically “he hardly knew what to say – they were so frightened.” But I think we need to give our first pope some credit where credit is due.
Peter was thinking quickly on his feet. So he intrudes into the conversation and asks whether he should build three tents. For us, this sounds 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. Now, since they’ve come, he was hoping Christ 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.
The Festival of Booths (Feast of Tabernacles / Sukkoth) is one of the three major feasts in the Jewish calendar (Leviticus 23:39). For a week, they would dwell outside in tents (“booths”) for seven days, reminiscent of their time dwelling in tents during their exodus sojourn. The timing of the Festival of Booths corresponded with a yearly grain harvest, wherein whole communities would work day and night (with the aid of a full moon) to gather in the harvest and do the work of threshing the grain. Removed from its initial agricultural context, the Festival Booths still looked forward to the harvest that was to come at the end of time. Although Peter’s exclamation of “Lord, it is good that we are here” is a fitting expression of eschatological rest, the tent-building suggestion might have been a little too much.
Peter figured out pretty well what was going on. However, Peter still did not know what he was saying. Where Peter erred was not his analysis – the event of the Transfiguration is the fulfillment of the Jewish Festival of Booths – but his approach.
Peter approached the Transfiguration as a problem to be solved, not as a mystery to be entered into.
The Meaning of Mystery
So 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. A mystery is so great that it encompasses the subject.
With a little help from the French personalist philosopher Gabriel Marcel, we should distinguish between “mystery” and its misused synonym “problem.” For Marcel, something is a mystery when the self is implicated in it. A mystery cannot be studied from a distance, but is experienced by entering further into it. Openness to mystery is openness to the whole of a reality.
A “problem,” on the other hand, is something that “is placed in front of me, blocking my way.” To treat something as a problem is to purposely exclude yourself from it. It is a purely notional engaging of a situation, wherein one can find objective and finite answers with universal implications.
Problems are the stuff of scientists. Mysteries are the stuff of mystics.
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!”
Infected as I was by the spirit of abstraction, I told her, “It only looks like it is following you because it’s so far away.” I thought I could maybe explain to her how perspective works at such distances. To prove this, I thought I could 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 get anywhere to disprove her childish notion, she interrupted, “NO. The moon really follows me.”
In the face of 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. Instead of encountering the moon with her, I abstracted. Although technically correct (the moon does not follow you), my approach prevented me from being gripped by the mystery of the moon and sharing in my niece’s wonder.
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.
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.
Although technically correct, Peter’s approach prevented him from being gripped by the mystery. So while Peter was still speaking, a higher voice interrupts him: “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
Through the mystery of the Transfiguration, we are meant to 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 beloved 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.
It is good that we are here.
Post by: Fr. Peter Gruber
Main Image: The Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor