The Transfiguration –  The Key to Spiritual Success This Lent


There’s a movie called Mask that’s based on a true story about a 16-year-old boy named Rocky Dennis.  Rocky had a very rare disease that caused his skull and the bones in his face to grow much larger than they should.  As a result, his face was terribly misshapen and disfigured. His grotesque appearance caused some people to shy away from him, while others just snickered and laughed and, for as long as he could remember, a lot of the kids called him names.

Through it all, Rocky never pitied himself.  He never gave way to anger.  He never blamed God for his problems.  Though he felt bad about his appearance, he accepted it as a special challenge – a part of life that he just had to make the best of.  One day Rocky and some of his friends were visiting an amusement park.  They went into the place there Maskcalled “the house of mirrors.”  They all began to laugh at how distorted their bodies and their faces looked in the mirrors.  Suddenly Rocky saw something that startled him. One of the mirrors distorted his misshapen face in such a way that it appeared normal – even strikingly handsome.  For the first time, Rocky’s friends saw him in a whole new way. They saw from the outside what he really was on the inside: a truly beautiful person.  Something like this happened to Jesus at the Transfiguration.

During his Transfiguration, Jesus’ disciples saw him in a whole new way.  For the first time, they saw from the outside what he really was on the inside: the glorious and beautiful Son of God.  This event occurred right after Jesus told his disciples that he would have to go to Jerusalem and there be handed over to the Romans to suffer and die.  When Peter heard this is cried out, “God forbid.  Nothing like that is ever going to happen to you.”  Jesus then said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle to me.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Matthew 16:22-23)  Peter, James and John needed a spiritual shot in the arm to strengthen them after that shocking experience.

The-Transfiguration-Of-Christ-300x210In the Transfiguration experience, the three disciples were given a glimpse of Christ’s glory. It was designed to help them understand who Jesus really is, and to strengthen them in their faith so that they would have what to takes to live out their vocation and become what they were called to be.  Peter, James and John were given a moment of grace. Moments of grace are gifts from God.  They can’t be merited.  They can’t be won. They can’t be manufactured.  All we can do is dispose ourselves to receive them.

If we persevere on our spiritual adventure and listen carefully with the ears of faith, the day will come – either here or in heaven – when we too will hear a voice.  It will say to us what the voice on the mountain said of Jesus: “This is my own dear son or daughter, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 17:5) During the Season of Lent, we are especially encouraged to re-visit our priorities, the way we spend our time, and we are promised holy transfigurations when we devote ourselves to God in prayer.

After the Resurrection, Jesus again climbed up the mountain with the disciples and again He was transfigured.  He anointed the disciples with his power and authority, and before Jesus departed, he commanded them to return to the world and to share his Gospel of love.  They didn’t get it in that Transfiguration mountain-top moment.  They didn’t even get it when the resurrected Jesus ascended into heaven.  They didn’t get it until one fearful day they gathered desperately wanting to know what to do, now that Jesus was gone. Seeking to discern who they were to be, they came together to pray.

On that Pentecost day, the disciples finally understood that all along Jesus was teaching them to pray together.  That day they prayed together, and the very power of God came down and filled them with divine glory, light and purpose.  When we pray together, God’s Spirit comes down from the heaven and fills us with the prophetic energy of Jesus.  All of us need the vision of the mountaintop.  All of us need transfiguration experiences, where our entire perspective is changed, where the fog is lifted and we see more clearly.  If we stop and reflect upon our lives, it’s likely that we’ve all already had such experiences.

We can identify with Peter, when he attempts to capture and prolong the moment by asking to make three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses.  However, like Peter, James and John, we come to realize that we cannot live on the mountaintop forever.  The valleys beckon us to come down and live our lives as servants with other people, just as Jesus and the three apostles did.  The mountaintop had prepared them for the loving service of others, and the same is true of us.  The three disciples needed this mountaintop experience to uplift, encourage and inspire them, to teach them the importance of prayer, and to strengthen them for the challenges ahead.

The Transfiguration reminds us that when we climb with Jesus, pray with Jesus and listen for God’s Word with Jesus, God’s glory will surround us and we will be guided down the mountaintops into the world, there to be Christ’s healing people.  Jesus descended the mountain into a crowd of people who sought a new humanity, and he immediately proclaimed the reign of God by preaching good news to the poor, teaching by word and deed, healing the sick, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe in the gospel.  He wanted his disciples (and now us) to do the same things.  Like Moses and Jesus, we are called to be a light in the darkness of our world.  Lent is a time for asking ourselves how well we are living out our calling.

Lent is a time for asking ourselves how well we are letting our light shine before others, so that they may see it and give glory to our Father in heaven.  If we aren’t doing as well as we could, Lent is a time for repenting and beginning anew to live out our calling.  Let us realize that there is, indeed, more beyond what we can see on the outside.  Let us be transformed and changed as we resolve to do better this Lent.

Deacon Greg Ollick teaches sacred scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online. He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and runs The Epiphany Initiative website.

Jesus the Gardener (or Mary of Magdala Is Always Right)


Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did now know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Thinking that he was the gardener, she said to him, Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew: “Rabbouni!” (which means teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary of Magdala went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her (John 20.14-18).

Few casual readers of the Gospel of John realize that it is rife with riddles, a favorite type of fun for ancient folks. And we all know them even now: “John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” Jesus to Nicodemus, “you must be born again!” and to the Samaritan Woman: “I will give you living water to drink.” And perhaps the most famous line and most overlooked riddle: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

JG and MMHow can the Word be with and be at the same time? Are the Word and God, in other words, two or one? We are so accustomed to the grandeur, and the received meaning, of the first verse of the Fourth Gospel (4G) that we no longer hear the inherent riddle. Riddles were a popular form of entertainment in the ancient Mediterranean, just as they can be for us today; if we don’t recognize that, we miss a lot of the fun in the 4G.

The 4G relishes the use of riddles, much as the synoptic gospels use parables (of which there are none in the 4G), to “reward” the reader who already “gets it” and to help the readers who don’t see the world around them in a new way. Not only is the wordplay unfortunately and unavoidably often lost in the English translation, the irony is often lost on those who want an either/or answer: to “get it,” one must often be open to a “both/and” solution. The joy is that the riddles themselves, like parables, are designed to help one open us to a new way of seeing the world, often one that is less either/or than both/and.

While most readers pick up on the creation references at the beginning of the 4G, may miss the use of creation symbolism at the end. We begin the end, so to speak, with the creation motif and the final (7th) sign: the resuscitation of Lazarus (11.1-44), again emphasizing the theme of acts of creation, of giving life. Jesus’ resurrection could be counted as an eighth sign, foreshadowed in the seventh and beginning the time of renewed creation. In the 4G, however, the crucifixion and resurrection are one moment, as it were, indicating renewed creation.

That context lies in the background of the 4G’s narration of Jesus’ death on the cross, which is distinct from that of the synoptic gospels. Jesus’ final words here are “It is finished” (19.30), placed to repeat the narrator’s assertion in v. 28, “when Jesus knew that all was now finished” (teleo). The Greek word translated “finished” is best understood not as “ended” but as “brought to completion” or “fulfilled,” and just after Jesus dies, we read immediately that the Sabbath is about to begin (19.31). Jesus’ doing the Father’s work of bringing “life” as he completes stages of that work (see 4.34 and 5.36) and fulfilling it by his voluntary offering of his life “for his friends” ushers in the Sabbath renewal.

This new creation is underlined again in 20.1 as the resurrection narrative begins: “Early on the first day of the week [sabbaton].” The garden setting of the resurrection appearance to Mary of Magdala, like the “in the beginning” and other symbols that open the 4G, points us back to Genesis. When Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, and that’s a both/and: she is literally wrong but spiritually correct, and that points in itself to a symbolic meaning: the portrayal of Jesus as the new Adam, a motif present in other early Christian literature. Jesus is the Word, fulfilling the creation, and is also the new Adam, ushering in a new human participation in that creation. It’s then a short step to think of the Creator God of the garden, the earth.

Mary’s own awareness comes when she hears the voice of her shepherd speak her name (recalling Jn 10.3). This scene is, without a doubt, one of the most intimate scenes of the Bible that can lead each Christian to ask: by what name does Jesus address me? How do I know Jesus’ voice? And in her great love, Mary does what all of us do: she tries to hold on, to freeze the happy moment in space and time. (“Touch” is a very poor translation.) But Jesus instructs her not to hold on to this experience: she is to be open to the new experience of Jesus not physically present but freed from the  bounds of space and time and so always present in eternal life now in the context of the entire creation, permeating the whole cosmos. The encounter between the risen Jesus and Mary is clearly a message to and by the community: do not only look back at the so-called “historical” Jesus, but be aware of his constant presence now in each other as you live and breathe in the universe. Be aware of the eternal and life-giving presence of the Gardener.

Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.