March 8; 2nd Sunday of Lent; Year A

2nd Lent 19 20A Glimpse of Heaven

Whenever I am invited to celebrate mass in another church that does not have air-conditioning, languishing in the sweltering heat with perspiration streaming down my forehead and my soaking wet shirt sticking uncomfortably to my body, I would recall the times when I used to celebrate multiple masses on a Sunday in such similar conditions without complaining. In my youthful arrogance, I would often silence parishioners who complain about the heat with this line, “You have to have a taste of hell, in order to appreciate the pleasures of heaven.” But having been accustomed to the air-conditioning in both JCC and KA, I have come to question the wisdom of my own words. “Hot as hell” still tastes like hell; nothing like heaven at all.

Today we have the familiar scene of the Transfiguration. This event is narrated from the disciples’ point of view: Our Lord was transfigured “in their presence,” Moses and Elijah “appeared to them,” the cloud “covered them with a shadow,” and the heavenly voice addressed them. Clearly, this entire event was meant “for them,” in order to deepen their understanding of Christ’s identity and mission at this critical juncture of their apprenticeship. The event took place near the end of our Lord’s public ministry and served as a prelude to His journey to Jerusalem. Our Lord had been preparing His disciples by predicting His own death, not just once but three times. They will soon face the supreme trial of faith - their Master will be betrayed, arrested, condemned and crucified. Here Jesus gives them an opportunity to see His glory. That is, they were given “a glimpse of heaven” to prepare them for the “horrors of hell.”

To understand this scene, we would need to go back to the Old Testament – a different mountain with different actors. In Exodus 24, Moses led three of his close associates up Mount Sinai covered by God’s glory in the form of a cloud where God spoke to Moses. After this spectacular encounter, Moses returns to his people transfigured, with his face shining because it reflected God’s glory. These parallels reinforce a familiar theme of Saint Matthew: Jesus comes as a new Moses to deliver God’s people – but Jesus is far greater than Moses. If Moses received divine revelation at Sinai, Jesus Himself is the Revelation. Jesus is no mere human mediator like Moses; He is the Son of God, He possesses a glory that Moses only saw.

In seeing this, Peter proposes, “Lord, it is wonderful for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” In the face of a future wrought with suffering, for Peter, this was an oasis, a welcome escape from all the trials and sufferings ahead. A welcome retreat from the cross. A safe haven from suffering. Or at least he thought.

Little did Peter realise that these “tents” were meant to be temporary. The tents recalled the Feast of the Tabernacles, the autumn harvest festival in which the Israelites dwelt in makeshift tents for seven days, commemorating how God’s presence dwelt in the Tent of Meeting, and how the Israelites themselves dwelt in tents during the Exodus on the way to the Promised Land. They lived in tents because they were on a journey. The desert was not their home. The Feast of the Tabernacles also pointed to a future fulfillment, anticipating the time when the nations would come to Jerusalem to worship the Lord as king in an eschatological feast.

The scene of the Transfiguration was not meant to be permanent, at least not for now. It was meant to reveal to them that the disciples were on a journey, an Exodus that would lead them not to an earthly promised land but to a heavenly one where their temporary tents would be exchanged for permanent homes. And to get to that Eternal Homeland, they had to accompany their Master to pass through the doorway of the cross. One cannot understand the event of the Transfiguration without seeing it in the light of the Crucifixion. For the Son of God on the mountain of transfiguration is the same Son of Man who will suffer and be killed on Calvary. The Transfiguration was not meant to be the climax of Jesus’ ministry. The Benedictine liturgist, Dom Prosper Gueranger tells us that “this transfiguration of the Son of Man, this manifestation of His glory, lasted but a few moments; His mission was not on Tabor; it was humiliation and suffering in Jerusalem.” And there is where they and we must go.

The text also tells us that “a bright cloud covered them with shadow.” In the Old Testament, one of the visible manifestation of God’s presence was in the shape of a cloud. God guided the Israelites in the desert in a pillar of cloud. His presence rested on the portable temple known as the Tent of Meeting in the form of a cloud. At Sinai, the cloud overshadowed the mountain when Moses received the Ten Commandments. Later, the cloud would also fill the Temple in Jerusalem at its dedication by Solomon. However, in the sixth century BC, the prophet Ezekiel received a vision that the glory of God left the temple and the city of Jerusalem because of the people’s sinfulness. Since that time, God’s presence had not been visibly manifest to Israel. But the prophets envisioned the return of this cloud to God’s people in the last days. The same glory of the Lord now descends upon the mountain of transfiguration. Jesus, and not the cloud, is the visible sign of God’s presence. He is the glory of God who has returned to His people.

Indeed, in this one instance of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: God became like us, that’s what Peter sees; so that, we might become like God, that’s what Peter eventually learns. The light that radiates from Jesus’ flesh is the same light that spoke the universe into creation. It’s the same light that the world awaits with groaning and labour pains and sighs too deep for words. It’s the light that will one day make all of creation a burning bush, afire with God’s glory but not consumed by it. The transfiguration therefore anticipates our flesh being remade into God’s image so that we may be united with Him. Just as Christ’s humanity is transfigured by glory without ceasing to be human, so too will our humanity be deified, without our ceasing to be creatures. That’s the plot of scripture. That’s the mystery of our faith. This is what makes the suffering of the cross bearable. Without a vision of heaven, our painful experiences in this life would remain hellish and unbearable. And this is the reason why at every Mass, we have a glimpse of heaven. Eucharistic adoration is an invitation to a transfiguration experience. You see, heaven is not just a destination, it is also a motivation. The Eucharistic transfiguration, this desire for heaven, helps us to overcome all fear of suffering for the sake of Christ.

The Christian life is not about going back down the mountain. Rather the entire Christian life is a sort of ascent, venturing further and further up the mountain, to worship and adore the transfigured Christ and, in so doing, to be transfigured ourselves. But if we have accompanied our Lord up the mountain of transfiguration to witness the glory that awaits us one day, we must first accompany Him up the hill where He offers His life in atonement for the sins of the world. But now we do so with less trepidation. Once we have tasted heaven, we would be able to face the torments of what seems to feel like hell. Let us not be discouraged by the ugliness and suffering of the world that does not recognise or accept us, but rather “let us bear the hardships for the sake of the Good News” and persevere in love through holding the vision of a transfigured life before us. For as St Paul tells us (Rom 8:18), “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.”