The Transfiguration is one of the most amazing events in the New Testament. Years later it remained etched in St. Peter’s mind; he never forgot that day. To one of the early Churches St. Peter wrote:
We were eyewitnesses to his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father . . . we were with him on the holy mountain.
—2 Peter 1:16,18
But what did Peter and those other disciples see? What were they “eyewitnesses to” on that “holy mountain”? Mark’s Gospel describes a breathtaking scene in which Christ “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Mark 9:2-3). Imagine what it must have been like to see Christ transfigured on that mountain.
The Greek word St. Mark uses is metamorphothe; it’s where we get the word metamorphosis. It means to change (meta) form (morphe). Jesus was literally trans-formed right before their eyes. They no longer saw His human form, which had been so familiar to them. Instead, they saw His divine form, the glory that He shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit before the foundation of the world.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, talks about that same transformation, that same metamorphosis, but in reverse. He describes how the Son of God left the glory of heaven, humbled Himself, and became man. The word he uses, morphe, is the same one we just heard in St. Mark’s Gospel. St. Paul says that although Christ:
Was in the form (morphe) of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . . And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
That was the appearance of Christ in His humanity; it was the very thing that the disciples had seen all throughout their time with the Lord. But now—for that brief moment on the mountain—Christ reveals Himself to them in His divine glory. But why? St. Leo the Great says that there are two reasons why Christ chooses Peter, James and John to witness His transfiguration.
The first is so that they will be strengthened for that time when Christ will be taken from them and crucified. Having already seen His glory in the Transfiguration, they will be able to endure the scandal of the cross. They will eventually come to see that the suffering Jesus experiences is a voluntary one, where, as St. Paul says, he "humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2: 8). In the Gospel of John, Jesus says:
I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down and power to take it up again.
In those days following the cross, the disciples will look back on what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration, and remember that our glorious Lord gave Himself willingly so that we might have new life.
The second reason for the Transfiguration is to give the disciples a glimpse of the glory that Christ is calling them, and us, to share in for all eternity. That is why Christ “emptied Himself” to begin with, the reason why He took on our human form; so that we could undergo the greatest transformation, the greatest metamorphosis of all: to share in the very life of God.
Now, the temptation is to try to walk through door number 2—the glory of heaven and eternal life with Christ—without ever passing through door number 1: the labor and the toil, as well as the suffering and the cross that we all must share with Christ. You’ve heard it said before: no cross, no crown.
We see that temptation revealed in St. Peter, who desires nothing else but to remain on that mountain for as long as Christ will permit it.
“Rabbi,” he says, “it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:5).
Peter likes it up there! They’re away from all the crowds, away from the toil and the difficulties of everyday life. And Christ is certainly calling Peter to one day share in that serenity, to bask in that glory . . . but not yet! Not now! There is still much more to be done in the days to come, for Christ and for Peter.
St. Augustine, in one of his sermons on this scene of the Transfiguration, becomes so worked up about Peter’s desire to stay on the mountaintop that he stops preaching to the people and begins to speak and shout to St. Peter himself! He says: “Come down, Peter! You were desiring to rest on the mountain; come down!”
Then, reflecting on how Christ humbled himself, how He emptied Himself to take on our human form, Augustine goes on to say to Peter:
The Life came down, that He might be killed;
The Bread came down, that He might hunger;
The Way came down,
The Fountain came down, that He might thirst;
And you [Peter] refuse to suffer?
—St. Augustine, Sermon 78, #6
The Transfiguration is given to us on this Second Sunday of Lent so that we, too, might catch a glimpse of the glory that Christ is calling us to share in, but most of all so that we may be strengthened in our resolve to follow Christ on the way.
But where are we tempted, like St. Peter, to stay on the mountaintop and not labor here on the earth? What are those things Christ has called us to do—in our vocation, in our daily practice of faith, in our Lenten observances as Catholics?
We are reminded today that even as Christ came down from heaven, and took upon Himself our human form and burdens, we too must strive here on earth to complete the work and the mission that He has entrusted to us.
And the goal of all this striving, the very point of everything that Christ wants to accomplish within us, is transformation; His desire is that we will undergo a metamorphosis in our own lives so that we will come to share in His glory forever. But that will never happen unless we are willing to come down with Him and labor here on this earth.
This second Sunday of Lent we renew our commitment to follow Christ on the way to Easter. Strengthened in the power of this sacrament we come to share in the Eucharist, we make ourselves ready to go back down the mountain, with St. Peter and so many saints after him.
And laboring here on this earth, might we experience that metamorphosis, that transformation of our hearts and minds, which sets us apart in this world as followers of Christ who will one day share His glory.