SHOWING THE WAY TO GOD
By Fr Richard Leonard SJ
Love as the defining feature of Christianity was first revealed in one of the first and most dramatic events in Jesus’s public ministry: The Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Here is a story to illustrate its importance to us now.
An American Jesuit theologian, John Powell, tells the story in his book, The Challenge of Faith, of a young man named Tommy, who was the resident atheist in his “Philosophy of God” class at Loyola University in Chicago. At the end of the course, as he turned in his final paper, Tommy said to Fr Powell, “Do you think I will ever find God?”
“No,” Powell replied, “but I think God will find you.”
Tommy walked away.
Years later, Tommy returned to see John Powell to tell him that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. More than ever, Tommy said, he wanted to find God, or at least to be in the right place at the right time to be found by Him. John Powell told Tommy to go and tell the people that he most loved that he loved them.
Within a week Tommy reported to Fr Powell that in the midst of doing this he had a genuine and significant encounter with God. They had found each other. Tommy died three months later. John Powell reports that the only way to describe the final three months of Tommy’s life was to say that in the process of telling others he loved them, he was transfigured by God — by divine and human love.
The Transfiguration of Jesus is no mountaintop light show. Borrowing heavily from similar stories in the Old Testament, it describes dramatically how loved Jesus was by God and how this experience was seen and known by his disciples.
Most of us will have noticed that in recent years the Church has put much more emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. We can see why. For a long time, Christ’s divine nature was often over-emphasised, sometimes at the risk of us thinking of Jesus as God parading around in human form. With new biblical tools, more recent scholars started recovering the equally important human nature within Christ. But there can be a danger here as well. Christ can be seen as a man, albeit a good, noble and selfless man, but simply one of us.
The Transfiguration holds both realities together. Mark, Matthew, and Luke, who all recount this event, tell us that Jesus was changed before the eyes of the three disciples. On Tabor Jesus’ divine nature was seen directly and immediately by them, which is why this feast was once called the Manifestation of Divine Glory.
Trying to describe the indescribable, the evangelists use Old Testament shorthand to set the scene: the mountaintop religious experience, a cloud covering them, and the glory of God revealed through dazzling light. Matthew is especially interested in the details of this event because it parallels one of the most important refrains of his Gospel: that Jesus is the new Moses, the fulfillment of the law, and the light that illuminates the darkest night.
As interesting as the similarities are between Moses on Sinai and Jesus on Tabor, the differences are even more revealing. Moses goes up the mountain alone, Jesus takes companions with him who share the experience and witness to it. The face of God is hidden from Moses, whereas on Tabor, Jesus is given to us as the face of God for the world. On Sinai, Moses receives a code of law and is told to make sure the people obey it. On Tabor, Jesus receives a proclamation of God’s love and we’re told to listen to him. While Moses’ face shines, Jesus’s whole body is transfigured with light. Moses descends to enforce the law; Jesus comes down to die that we might live. In fact, Peter, James, and John want to stay on Tabor, but they must come down and start another journey with Jesus to another mountain, to Calvary. They discover the divinity of Jesus in and through his humanity, the uncompromised and uncompromising love of the world’s only complete human being.
As for seeing this event as all about externals, I remember teaching a Catholic grade school (primary school) class on the Transfiguration. When I told them what we would be doing, they all beamed, which given the subject matter was an entirely appropriate response. It soon became clear, however, that the kids and I were not on the same page. As soon as I started to talk about Jesus and Mount Tabor, one girl said, “But what about Harry Potter?” What about Harry Potter indeed! When I last read the Gospels, Harry wasn’t mentioned. I was then told that in J. K. Rowling’s books, when Harry, Ron and Hermione go to Hogwarts School, they have to take a course entitled “Transfiguration”.
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the class on transfiguration is about spells and charms, mostly for show, where the young magicians perfect their abilities to transform the world around them. They are instructed to be careful about what spells they cast and upon whom, and to make sure that if they transport someone somewhere, they know how to get them back as well. J. K. Rowling saw transfiguration as proof of one’s wizarding credentials. In this sense it shares something with the Gospel narrative as well. The disciples are indeed convinced of Jesus’s credentials on Mount Tabor, not because of the show of power, but because of the power of love.
The Transfiguration shows us that if we want to encounter God then we must experience love. This is not an option for the Christian life. As St John says in his first letter, “If you say you love God, yet you hate your brother or sister, you are a liar,” (see 1 John 4:20).
Mount Tabor is not a one-off event for Jesus alone. It is meant to set the pattern for all of us to experience the love of God as sons and daughters through Christ. The problem with the concept of love is that we’ve devalued the currency. We say it too often about things we don’t or can’t love. We say, “I love you” to people we don’t love, and because we’ve learned that “actions speak louder than words,” we don’t easily believe others when they tell us they love us. We can feel unlovable and cynical about the whole experience.
But there are three things of which we can be sure:
- If we feel distant from God, we only have to guess who has moved away from whom.
- Nothing we do stops God from loving us.
- God loves us as we are, not as we would like to be. As the old saying goes, “You don’t have to get good to get God, you have to get God to get good.”
Finally, as the song goes, “You’re nobody till somebody loves you.” Being loved and loving others is no sentimental exercise but a participation in the heart of our Christian God, discovering ourselves transfigured by the personal love of God. In the process, God may move from being an idea, an abstraction, even an object of curiosity, to the focus of a loving experience that can give our lives meaning, purpose, and hope. We encounter God’s body language in Christ.
The God of Mount Tabor is not interested in each of us feeling isolated as we fulfill the letter of a legal code. God wants all of us to have hearts that listen to the Gospel of love so that we can gain the power to transform the world through the sacrifices of our daily lives. If we let it, love can be the defining paradigm through which we understand the revelations contained in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Christian tradition, and most importantly God’s love letter to the world: Jesus Christ. Love changes everything.
This extract is from the new book by Fr Richard Leonard SJ, ‘The Law of Love – Modern Language for Ancient Wisdom’. The book is already available at Pauline Books or at Garratt Publishing, as well as other leading websites, although the official launch will be held on Wednesday 12 July from 7:00pm – 8:30pm at St Peter’s Parish Centre, 583 Toorak Road, Toorak. Register for this free community event.