“Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” — (Matthew 17:1-2)
This weekend the Catholic Church commemorates this event in the life of Jesus, known as the Transfiguration. In the Gospel account, the three Apostles also see Moses and Elijah standing and talking with Jesus.
The reason this event takes on such a great importance for the Church is because it has meanings for us on both a spiritual and a practical level. On the spiritual level, the appearance of Moses and Elijah are significant. Moses is the lawgiver. The laws he passes on to the people, however, are not his, but they came from God. His appearance with Jesus signifies to the Apostles that God’s laws were important to Jesus. As Jesus himself says elsewhere in the Gospel, he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. So Jesus becomes the embodiment of God’s laws, which makes it even that much more important to follow Jesus.
Elijah was one of the great prophets of the Old Testament. The role of the prophet was to bring God’s message to the people as to how God wanted them to live. If they had deviated from God’s ways, the prophet was to correct the people and tell them to get back on track. If the people were confused or didn’t know how to live the way God wanted them to, the prophet was to bring enlightenment and understanding. Elijah’s presence meant that Jesus was also fulfilling the role of prophet by being God’s Word bringing enlightenment, correction and understanding to the people.
So from a spiritual perspective, Jesus himself is the law and the prophet. It is in Jesus that we learn what God wants of us, and it is in him that we get the spiritual gifts we need to actually do what we learn from Jesus.
The practical lesson we learn from the Transfiguration is not so much in the vision itself. Notice that Jesus took them up a high mountain in order to do this revelation. But at the end of the passage, they had to come back down the mountain and resume their everyday life. That is the practical lesson for us all. So often we have a great spiritual experience. It may be because we were on a retreat or a revival. Or maybe we went to a conference. Or it could have been simply some time spent in nature. It could be that the experience felt so good that we didn’t want to leave. The Apostles’ experience at the Transfiguration reminds us that no matter how powerful a spiritual experience is, the time comes when we have to come down off the mountain and rejoin our everyday life.
But when we do so, we need to do it as a changed person. A spiritual experience is supposed to change the way we look at life, the way we approach life and the way we react with others. The experience does us no good if just makes us want to stay away from our Christian duties and simply enjoy the good feelings. It also does us no good if we come back to our normal life not having changed at all, just continuing to live the same as before. Strong spiritual experiences are good, and we should seek them out. But they are also meant to change us so that we can have a positive effect on the world around us. It is important that we don’t forget that.
Fr. Kenneth Taylor is pastor of Holy Angels Catholic Church and St. Rita Catholic Church. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.