In the Beauty of the Lilies
2nd Sunday in Lent
The way each of us thinks about the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is very indicative of the type of spirituality we practice. Because Jesus was both God and Man, we nearly always place an emphasis on one or the other. The mystery of this Hypostatic Union of the human and divine in this one Being, like all mysteries, can never be completely understood by us mere mortals, and so we try to compensate for our lack of insight sometimes, by focusing in on one or the other of these aspects of the Son of God, mortal or immortal.
We find this inordinate attention to the human element of Christ especially among some of the Protestant sects, and now in the post-Conciliar Church also, where they think of him as a friend, someone who is always there to give solace, advice, guidance. Their images of Christ show him with little children, or holding a lamb, a gentle figure full of love. They’re not wrong in any of this, of course, but we might detect in their approach a certain sentimentality, one that often leads to a self-indulgent exclusion of the divine, a subconscious attempt to make Christ in their own image and likeness, a good buddy who would never presume to judge them or send them to damnation for their sins.
Such a version of Christ can have a debilitating effect on our spiritual life. It obscures the divine aspect of Christ, the Son of God, King of kings and Lord of lords, who will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead. It transforms God into mere man, and if that’s all he is, then he very quickly appears fallible and vulnerable, losing respect in our sight. Our blessed Lord wanted to make sure his apostles did not fall into this overly human way of thinking. He especially did not want their faith to fail them when they witnessed his coming Passion and Death, when he endured without a struggle all the tortures that went with it. In retrospect, we know that his failure to defend himself was not a sign of weakness, but of submission to the will of his Father, and his desire to suffer for us, his creatures, redeeming them for a higher end. But at the time, such a sight as the apostles were to witness on Good Friday could very easily have driven them to despair, to discarding completely the faith they had in their friend.
And so our Lord prepared them for this sight with another perspective of his nature. “He bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the snow.” They were granted a vision of the divine aspect of Christ’s nature, insomuch as their own finite and mortal minds could grasp. The evangelist St. Matthew seems to struggle for the right words to describe the vision, so vivid and impressive was the sight before them. He compares it to things with which he is familiar, conscious, no doubt, of the inadequacy of the comparison. Our Lord’s face, bright as the sun, his raiment, white as the snow. But how can he sufficiently convey what was, in effect, a brief glimpse of the beatific vision that can be ours forever in Paradise. We mentioned a couple of weeks ago how we see God in this world as through a glass, darkly, but then in heaven we will see him face to face. On Mount Tabor, the apostles saw Christ face to face.
From that time on, they must have been convinced that this man was more than just their friend, more even than their Master. And when a voice from the clouds proclaims that “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear ye him!” they were confirmed in their faith that this was indeed the Son of God.
We call this momentous event “the Transfiguration.” The dictionary defines Transfiguration as “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state”. It is not a mutation from being one thing to being another, and the dual nature of Christ in no way changes. He doesn’t shift from a human state to a divine being, he merely changes his appearance. He reveals to his apostles the aspect of his nature which had been thus far hidden from other men. But this is the same Word of God that was in the beginning, that was with God, that was God and is God.
In the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the last verse describes how “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.” That same God who created the entire universe out of nothing was born a little Child and placed in a manger. The glory that was his divine nature was hidden “in his bosom”, and would not be revealed until this day of Transfiguration. But the glory was there all along, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and manger of Bethlehem, and, later, even in the suffering and bloody figure hanging from the Cross. And as Julia Ward Howe wrote in her famous poem, it was a glory that “transfigures you and me”…
What exactly does that mean? As mentioned earlier, “transfigure” doesn’t mean to change the nature of something. Christ’s life and death did not alter our essential nature, which still remains the sad remnant of what it was before the sin of Adam and Eve. Our fallen human nature is still intact. And yet it has been transfigured by Christ’s life and death. Our Lord’s own transfiguration shows us exactly how it is with us. For by his Redemption of mankind, we are now able to live in the state of grace. Our bodies, if we remain free from mortal sin, can be temples of the Holy Ghost. And through the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, our bodies can receive within them Christ’s own Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. In other words, we receive not just the Body of Christ when we go to Communion. We receive his human Body, yes, but we receive also his Divinity! Within us is that same transfigured Christ, Man and yet God, his face shining as the sun and raiment white as snow. Listen to God as you return to your pew from the communion rail, and you will hear him proclaim that “Here is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” We are never closer to pleasing God than when his Son dwells within us.
Rejoice in this intimate moment you have with our Lord. He is our friend, yes, but he is also our God who deigns to humble himself in this way so that we may come as close as we possibly can to dispelling the darkness and seeing him face to face. And when the Mass is over, go forth into the world, and remember God’s words: “Hear ye him!” Obey his commandments, follow his words of wisdom and truth, love both God and your neighbor, God and man. Renew your commitment to your apostolic duty by drawing your neighbor closer to God, and by making this world a better and holier presence through your own presence in it. Let yourself be transfigured by Christ, and “as he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free!”