That awkward moment I was bounding up the main stairs of the Catholic high school just as all the teens were being dismissed and filing out into the halls and parking lot, and my foot missed the next step and I face-plant in front of all of them… not a good way to make a first impression.
One of the most profoundly important scenes in the Gospel is one that is often overlooked or treated as a nice story but left behind quickly as it is a bit confusing… the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is contained in all three synoptic Gospels, with a brief reference in John; in each instance the Transfiguration is a turning point, the fulcrum to the whole story of our redemption.
To see the face of God… to see God, Face to face… it is the destiny, the dream of every human heart because it is the fulfillment of every human desire. Yet, to see God’s face is death; that is, we cannot see God’s face until we have faces with which to see him. (Peter Kreeft).
What do the above two points have to do with each other? What do they have to do with Good Friday and Easter? Why write about his today? I’m so glad you asked.
The Transfiguration is the fulcrum to the entire Gospel and yet is so often misunderstood or glossed over because there is simply so much going on. Prior to the Transfiguration Christ had spent his entire ministry in Galilee, healing, teaching and doing miracles. After the Transfiguration he sets his face towards Jerusalem and to his ultimate glory. The story is a Theophany in that it reveals God. It is a mountain top experience, a foreshadowing of our destiny in heaven. And it is a Christophany in that it reveals the true nature of Christ, the summation of the Law and the Prophets (Moses and Elijah), but not just a summation for Christ goes beyond them, becoming the lasting fullness of God’s revelation… the revelation of the Face of God.
As Jesus is praying his face was changed and his clothes became dazzling white. This is a vision of the heavenly glory that awaits each of us, but more importantly, it is a vision of the Face of Christ unveiled for our human eyes to see. In this glimpse we see the glory of God, but it is just a glimpse. One of the most important lessons I have learned from this passage is that in order to obtain the beatific vision in its fullness, like Christ we must first pass through the valley of the cross.
I love the reaction of the Apostles because it shows clearly that even they didn’t get it. They were as thick-headed as I am. Just a few days prior Jesus had told them that “if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Then, in the Transfiguration, he discusses his exodus, i.e. his Passion, with Moses and Elijah; Peter, John and James, completely miss the point! They want to make three tents, three chapels where they can keep that encounter alive. They want to stay on the mountain. Can you really blame them?
To the ancient Jewish mind (and the modern mind too), suffering meant that God had abandoned you, that you had somehow caused God to leave you to wallow in your misery. That’s what Job’s three friends accused Job of when he suffered more grief and loss in one day than most people suffer in a lifetime. And Peter, John and James didn’t want to descend into the valley, to leave behind this mountaintop experience. They wanted to stay there, where it was safe and comfortable and “heavenly”. Who can blame them?
But a cloud comes down upon the three disciples and the voice of God booms, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him!” I love this! It reminds me of the countless times I’ve bent down to my four year old who is blessed with an active imagination, so much so that he rarely hears what others are saying to him or asking of him. I repeatedly bend down and call out his name, “Dominic! Listen with your ears!” The apostles, like us, needed to learn to listen to Jesus, who had just commanded them to take up their crosses, to descend into the valley of the cross and suffer like Christ.
Why? Why must we suffer? Simply this… to find our faces. What’s the point of suffering, of Good Friday? What’s so good about it anyway?! As Peter Kreeft describes, our hearts are like granite blocks in the hands of a master sculptor who must chisel away the stone until our true image appears.
I remember hearing once that a master sculptor, when he obtains a new block of granite, doesn’t just start chipping away but rather listens to the stone, spends time with it and studies it in order to find it’s true nature. I like to imagine the Father does the same with us, he sees the true nature, our real faces inside the deep recesses of the stone. And the blow of the hammer against the chisel, our suffering, is what brings our true nature out.
That’s what’s so good about Good Friday… the true nature of Christ is revealed in his face, the most beautiful face of love, the suffering Christ, the Holy Face, the scourged face, the crucified face of Christ. And in that most horrible moment, in the suffering that broke the world, Christ took upon himself the suffering of the world and transformed it into the most beautiful, powerful, death destroying love. That is a good Friday! That is the beauty of our suffering… it enables us to find our faces so as to meet Him face to Face.
The mountaintop experience gives us hope and strength to endure the valley of the cross. We cannot stay on the mountain any more than we can stay in heaven… until we have found our faces. And so like Christ, having encountered his glory on the mountaintop (the retreat or prayer experience) we must set our faces towards Jerusalem… our own individual exodus’ by taking up those little crosses of daily life and follow him. And as we walk through this valley of the shadow of death we find that each thorn, each whip, even the nails piercing our hands and feet become as beautiful roses, a garden of joy and peace… because like Job, we find our own faces and are able to meet God, Face to face and be satisfied.