Sermon on the Transfiguration
by Father Prosper Gueranger (1805 – 1875)
The subject offered to our consideration, on this Second Sunday, is one of the utmost importance for the Holy Season. The Church applies to us the lesson which our Saviour gave to three of his Apostles. Let us endeavour to be more attentive to it than they were.
Jesus was about to pass from Galilee into Judea, that He might go up to Jerusalem, and be present at the Feast of the Pasch. It was that last Pasch, which was to begin with the immolation of the figurative lamb, and end with the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Who taketh away the sins of the world. Jesus would have His disciples know him. His works had borne testimony to Him, even to those who were, in a manner, strangers to Him; but as for His Disciples, had they not every reason to be faithful to Him, even to death? Had they not listened to His words, which had such power with them, that they forced conviction? Had they not experienced His love, which it was impossible to resist? and had they not seen how patiently He had borne with their strange and untoward ways? Yes, they must have known Him. They had heard one of their company, Peter, declared that He was the Christ, the Son of the Living God (St. Math. xvi. 16). Notwithstanding this, the trial to which their faith was soon to be put, was to be of such a terrible kind, that Jesus would mercifully arm them against temptation by an extraordinary grace.
The Cross was to be a scandal and stumbling block (1. Cor. i. 23. ) to the Synagogue, and, alas! to more than it. Jesus said to His Apostles, at the Last Supper: All of you shall be scandalized in Me this night (St. Matth. xxvi. 32).” Carnal-minded as they then were, what would they think, when they should see Him seized by armed men, handcuffed, hurried from one tribunal to another, and He doing nothing to defend Himself! And when they found, that the High Priests and Pharisees, who had hitherto been so often foiled by the wisdom and miracles of Jesus, had now succeeded in their conspiracy against Him,–what a shock to their confidence! But, there was to be something more trying still: the people, who, but a few days before, greeted Him so enthusiastically with their hosannas, would demand His execution, and He would have to die, between two thieves, on the Cross, amidst the insults of His triumphant enemies.
Is it not to be feared that these Disciples of His, when they witness His humiliations and sufferings, will lose their courage? They have lived in His company for three years; but when they see, that the things He foretold would happen to Him are really fulfilled,–will the remembrance of all they have seen and heard, keep them loyal to Him? or will they turn cowards and flee from Him?–Jesus selects three out of the number, who are especially dear to Him: Peter, whom He has made the Rock, on which his Church is to be built, and to whom He has promised the Keys of the kingdom of heaven; James, the son of Thunder, who is to be the first Martyr of the Apostolic College; and John, James’ brother, and His own Beloved Disciple. Jesus has resolved to take them aside, and show them a glimpse of that glory, which, until the day fixed for its manifestation, He conceals from the eyes of mortals.
He therefore leaves the rest of His Disciples in the plain near Nazareth, and goes, in company with the three privileged ones, towards a high hill, called Thabor, which is a continuation of Libanus, and which the Psalmist tells us was to rejoice in tHe Name of the Lord (Ps. Ixxxviii. 13.). No sooner has He reached the summit of the mountain, than the three Apostles observe a sudden change come over Him; His Face shines as the sun, and His humble garments become white as snow. They observe two venerable men approach, and speak with Him upon what He was about to suffer in Jerusalem. One is Moses, the lawgiver; the other is Elias, the Prophet, who was taken up from earth on a fiery chariot, without having passed through the gates of death. These two great representatives of the Jewish Religion, the Law and the Prophets, humbly adore Jesus of Nazareth. The three Apostles are not only dazzled by the brightness which comes from their Divine Master; but they are filled with such a rapture of delight, that they cannot bear the thought of leaving the place. Peter proposes to remain there for ever, and build three tabernacles, for Jesus, Moses and Elias. And whilst they are admiring the glorious sight, and gazing on the beauty of their Jesus’ human Nature, a bright cloud overshadows them, and a voice is heard speaking to them: it is the voice of the Eternal Father, proclaiming the Divinity of Jesus, and saying: This is My beloved Son!
This transfiguration of the Son of Man, this manifestation of His glory, lasted but a few moments; His mission was not on Thabor; it was humiliation and suffering in Jerusalem. He therefore withdrew into Himself the brightness He had allowed to transpire; and when He came to the three Apostles, who, on hearing the voice from the cloud, had fallen on their faces with fear,–they could see no one save only Jesus. The bright cloud was gone; Moses and Elias had disappeared. What a favour they have had bestowed upon them! Will they remember what they have seen and heard? They have had such a revelation of the Divinity of their dear Master!–is it possible, that when the hour of trial comes, they will forget it, and doubt His being God? and, when they see Him suffer and die, be ashamed of Him and deny Him? Alas! the Gospel has told us what happened to them.
A short time after this, our Lord celebrated his Last Supper with his Disciples. When the Supper was over, he took them to another mount, Mount Olivet, which lies to the east of Jerusalem. Leaving the rest at the entrance of the Garden, He advances with Peter, James, and John, and then says to them: My soul is sorrowful even unto death: stay you here, and watch with Me (St. Matth. xxvi.). He then retires some little distance from them, and prays to His Eternal Father. The Heart of our Redeemer is weighed down with anguish. When He returns to His three Disciples, He is enfeebled by the Agony He has suffered, and His garments are saturated with Blood. The Apostles are aware that He is sad even unto death, and that the hour is close at hand when He is to be attacked: are they keeping watch? are they ready to defend Him? No: they seem to have forgotten him; they are fast asleep, for their eyes are heavy. Yet a few moments, and all will have fled from Him; and Peter, the bravest of them all, will be taking his oath that he never knew the Man.
After the Resurrection, our three Apostles made ample atonement for this cowardly and sinful conduct, and acknowledged the mercy wherewith Jesus had sought to fortify them against temptation, by showing them His glory on Thabor, a few days before His Passion. Let us not wait till we have betrayed Him: let us at once acknowledge that He is our Lord and our God. We are soon to be keeping the anniversary of His Sacrifice; like the Apostles, we are to see Him humbled by His enemies and bearing, in our stead, the chastisements of Divine Justice. We must not allow our faith to be weakened, when we behold the fulfilment of those prophecies of David and Isaias, that the Messias is to be treated as a worm of the earth (Ps. xxi. 7), and be covered with wounds, so as to become like a leper, the most abject of men, and the Man of sorrows (Is. liii. 3, 4). We must remember the grand things of Thabor, and the adorations paid Him by Moses and Elias, and the bright cloud, and the voice of the Eternal Father. The more we see Him humbled, the more must we proclaim His glory and divinity; we must join our acclamations with those of the Angels and the Four-and-Twenty Elders, whom St. John, (one of the witnesses of the Transfiguration,) heard crying out with a loud voice: The Lamb that was slain, is worthy to receive power, and divinity, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and benediction (Apoc. v. 12)!