Brief synopsis of the readings: Today we don’t celebrate the eighteenth Sunday in ordinary time, but instead, the Transfiguration of the Lord. We do this every August 6th and it’s an important enough feast to displace the eighteenth Sunday. Our first reading comes from the Old Testament book of Daniel. Here he describes someone “of a great age” who was seated on his throne where “a thousand of a thousand waited on him.” Daniel then saw “coming on the clouds of heaven, one like the son of man.” He was granted sovereignty which will never pass away. Matthew’s Gospel speaks of Jesus, Peter, and James, and John climbing a high mountain. When they completed their journey they saw something amazing: Jesus’ face became as white as the light and he was joined by Moses and Elijah. After this experience where they recognized that “it is wonderful for us to be here” they suggested that they create a memorial of this. Before he could finish a bright cloud appeared and a voice proclaimed: “This is my Son; the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him.” Jesus then told them not to tell anyone about this until “the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
Do you remember where you were on September 11, 2001? I think we all remember; I was at work that day and several of my patients wanted to speak about where they were on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. These were bad surprise memories. Many of us remember good memories that were not surprises: our wedding day, the birth of our children, the weddings of our children, etc.
But do you remember days that were surprisingly good? Some of those days were days we didn’t recognize how important they would be (remember when you met your spouse?) but there are other days we knew we would remember decades later and remember them with joy.
When we think about the best or worst days of our lives we think about days that inform our human experience: when we witnessed the birth of our child, when we experienced the death of someone we care about.
Our first reading from Daniel speaks of what we call “apocalyptic literature.” We normally think of these readings from Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. But apocalyptic literature comes to us from Daniel too. This homily isn’t about apocalyptic literature but I do want to point out that this type of literature is written during times of oppression to give hope to the oppressed. Today it’s often seen as a way of frightening good, faithful people, but that’s the opposite of its purpose.
In any case Daniel described a dream and with dramatic imagery: the Ancient One on his throne and “one like the Son of man” is presented. Clearly we can see this through the eyes of the Father conferring authority on the Son.
And that imagery continues in the Gospel. If we see the Twelve as Jesus’ inner circle, Peter, James and John are clearly the leaders of this circle. We don’t know why this group was so small, but it was, and it conferred authority on them as well as Jesus. In a scene that foreshadowed the first generation of our church, these three apostles became the leaders.
But we don’t read these readings for simple historical value. We read and reflect on them to give direction to our lives today. And while we likely aren’t going to have Daniel’s dream or be invited to climb a high mountain to see Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, I believe we all have these “mountaintop events.” We call them sacraments.
I’ve been Catholic all my life and I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of people who chose to become Catholic. Over the years I’ve had hundreds of conversations and the majority seem to follow this narrative: “I fell in love with a Catholic and at first I thought it would just be simpler to become Catholic, especially as I looked toward starting a family. And that’s all true but I also came to love the Sacraments, fixed points in our lives where I can feel God’s love like no other.”
There are seven official sacraments in the Catholic church (baptism, eucharist, reconciliation, confirmation, matrimony, holy orders, and anointing of the sick). They are sometimes called “windows on the Divine,” and aren’t limited to only these seven events.
The Transfiguration described in Matthew held no value unless it led to a Transformation of Peter, James and John. And it did. Seeing Jesus with his face shining like the sun and clothes as white as light, and in the presence of Moses and Elijah, marked a milestone in their understanding of who Jesus was.
At the beginning of this homily I asked about transformational events in our lives. September 11th, our wedding, the birth of our children, we know that at the end of our lives we will remember these events. But I also think we can look back in our faith life and remember simpler moments. Maybe it was a moment when someone went out of his way to be kind to us and made us feel welcome in a community that became an important part of our lives.
I tell this story not to brag but to show how a small event can make a difference. Like many former and current priests, I was an altar boy when I was a child. The priest in charge of us was a wonderful priest and we’re still in touch. The Altar Boy Association when I was a teenager comprised about 70 or 80 boys (sorry, this was in the days before altar servers included girls) and I was elected President; it was a great night for me. In the celebration that followed I was speaking with someone else who pointed to an altar boy who couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9. The person I was speaking to asked me if this 8 year old was a good altar boy; I didn’t give it much thought but said: “Oh, he’s the best.” He heard what I said about him and was so excited he ran and told his mother what I had said; his mother knew my mother and told her how thrilled he was. I really didn’t give it much thought and was surprised by it’s effect on him.
I don’t know what became of him, and I honestly dont’ remember his name. But my simple act of kindness (and accuracy) meant a great deal to him, more than I imagined. I like to think boosted his confidence and his place as an altar boy and perhaps made the church a place where he felt more comfortable. I like to think that it was, in its own way, a sacramental moment.
And while we can all look back on our lives and see dozens (or even hundreds) of these sacramental moments, I hope we can also recall times in our lives when we created sacramental moments for someone else.
The Transfiguration in Matthew’s Gospel not only caused Peter, James, and John to see Jesus in a new light, it also caused them to see themselves in a new light. By being party to this event it also caused them to recognize their place in this evolving church. It gave them an understanding of belonging, of empowerment, and ultimately of leadership.
When we look at these readings, let us look not only with awe, but also with determination. Let us see that Transfiguration events make sense only when they lead us to transformation. And let us see that we have a place on both sides.