8-6-2017 Transfiguration of the Lord
Aug 8, 2017
18th Sunday in OT / Transfiguration / A / 2017
Msgr. Patrick S. Brennan
Today we celebrate the great Feast of the Transfiguration. The feast gives us the opportunity to talk about a word we don’t use very often: deification. Becoming God or God-like. I know that has on odd ring to us, but it was very important in the early Church, especially with eastern Church, the Catholic Church of the east. So what does it mean, and why do we talk about it on the Feast of the Transfiguration?
First of all, we should understand one thing: that the Christian life is not just about living a good life, being ethical, being morally upright, good citizens, etc. Rather, Christian life is about deification, becoming like God. There was a Latin axiom in the early Church that said that "God became human so that humans might become like God." The line is similar to what the priest says at Mass at the washing of the hands: "By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share our humanity."
In other words, God became man not just so we might live better lives. Instead, God came to elevate our nature and to invite us to share in his divine nature. Or, as Flannery O’Connor once said, "God came not to give us ‘hearts of gold’ but to give us his own life." To become citizens of heaven. To become transfigured.
So what gave the early Church this conviction? The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead—and the great anticipation of the Resurrection that we call the Transfiguration. Today’s feast gives us a hint of what deification (and Resurrection) is all about. It also shows us what we hope to be: resurrected and transfigured bodies.
Take a look at the text. Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James, and John, and "he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light." We use the word transfigured, but the Greek is metamorphosis, which literally means "beyond form." To go beyond the form to something greater. When else do we
use the word metamorphosis? In science. A caterpillar that becomes a beautiful butterfly. A complete change of form—though, in another way, remaining the same. Jesus shows the disciples the glory, the transfiguration, they will receive at the Resurrection.
So that is the first thing we learn about becoming more God-like: at the Resurrection, we change form, into something greater, more beautiful. Our grubby bodies are destined for transfigured beauty.
Secondly, the transfigured body of Jesus transcends time and space. How do we know this? Because Jesus is conversing with Moses and Elijah. Now, our bodies are caught in the moment. Earthbound. In heaven we will transcend all this—beyond time and space, we will speak with Moses and Elijah—and people of all time and place. We are freed from the limitations of this finite, mortal life.
And don’t we already have a sense that there is something more to life than our present existence? Don’t we all feel a certain restlessness for something greater—don’t we even have "intimations of this immortality" (Wordsworth), fleeting as they may be.
St. Teresa of Avila used to say said that, compared to the life of heaven, our life here on earth is like "a bad night in a bad hotel." We are destined for something greater.
All of this is an antidote to a common understanding of religion as "mere ethics," or just moral teachings—in other words, reducing religion (and leaving God out) to just being a good person—a remnant of 18th century enlightenment and Immanuel Kant.
Christianity is much more than that, something much richer. Ethics, of course, is important—but we are destined for something much greater: deification, transfiguration, sharing the life of God.
That’s what we celebrate at this Eucharist, and that is what we celebrate at this Feast of the Transfiguration.