By Fr. Pete Iorio
In early centuries of Christianity, through authorities like St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great, there were as many as seven “aspects” (lenses) of Scripture: literal, historical, allegorical, moral, symbolic, eschatological and archetypal. No, I won’t give you a test on these.
Last year when I was on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, I mainly connected to the Scriptures through the literal and historical lenses. And one of my favorite places was Mount Tabor not too far from Nazareth. There is a beautiful church on the top of Tabor considered the place where Jesus was transfigured before the 3 disciples Peter, James and John. It is a gorgeous church with gold mosaics indicating the glory of Christ, and when we entered, there was heavenly chanting from a group of pilgrims from Ukraine celebrating liturgy at the main altar. We celebrated our Mass in the chapel of Elijah which was a tiny space for our group. It made for an intimate encounter as we received the transfigured body of Christ in the Eucharist.
As the church itself was a symbolic representation of the Transfiguration event, so we can look at the Scripture itself by moving from the literal and historical to the symbolic level of understanding.
I have brought an icon of the Transfiguration so that we might envision the picture. Jesus is in the middle of Moses and Elijah, two important Old Testament figures who represent the Law and the Prophets which are the two main parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Law is usually associated with the conservative keeping of the Tradition. The prophets are usually calling for change and can be considered in our language, liberals. Jesus stands between them both, symbolically indicating “they are both part of my picture, conservative and liberal. I hold both of them together and resolve the conflict that naturally comes about from liberals and conservatives.” At the end of the event, they disappear, and Jesus was found alone.
Only three of the Twelve accompanied Jesus. Why not the rest? Maybe these were the only ones who were ready for this type of experience. In the midst of prayer, Jesus is visibly changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
In this moment of awesome religious experience, the disciples want to permanently reside there by erecting tents. Peter, as impetuous as he is, says that they should make three tents and in essence stay there forever. Who can blame him? But the text says: he did not know what he was saying.
So the deeper symbolism… of this transfiguration is that the divinity of Jesus is revealed through this beautiful dazzling light. He reveals to them in his very transfigured person that this is possible. He reveals that he is not just a man, but a man/god. We must put those two together. We do not know how to put man and god together. Jesus reveals to them in his very person that this is possible. If we do not know that it is possible, we cannot imagine putting it together in ourselves. And, this is the task for ourselves to realize that we are children of this earth and children of heaven.
As He reveals this to them, a cloud came over them and they became frightened. Spiritual things cannot become totally understood. There is always an aspect of mystery, of unknowing. It is part light and part cloud. You get it and you do not get it. Humble Christians know that they don’t know it all. Let me repeat: people who really know, know that they don’t know. Who of us can understand the face of God, the mystery of love? In the presence of this mystery that is too big for them, they now become frightened.
The voice from the cloud affirms the chosen Son: listen to him. What is together in Jesus, the divine and human, must also be put together in you. Listen to Him and follow Him so you know how to do it.
They fell silent and they did not talk about it. In the other two Gospel accounts in Mark and Matthew, Jesus told them not to tell about it. If you have not had a profound moment of personal transfiguration, you won’t quite understand. If you have ever had a profound mystical experience, which I hope that you have or will have, you know that words always fall short in describing it. You really cannot talk about it. There are no words that are adequate. You need a sacred silence necessary to just soak it in and know the experience at the deepest level of your being. To talk about the experience would be to cheapen it. You must treasure it in your heart, as Mary did. Often times, you ponder it for years. What did that mean? What was God trying to speak to my heart? You will never really be able to talk about it, although talking about it with a spiritual director can sometimes help in affirming it. Treasure it and know that it is true.
From Mount Tabor in Israel, I want to transport us to a holy mountain in the west of Ireland. When St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated throughout the world and helps us to participate in the small island’s culture including green beer and leprechauns, we Catholics may tend to be disinterested in the saint himself. Patrick was not even born in Ireland. He was born in Britain and at the age of 16 was captured by Irish pirates and lived as a slave for 6 years before he escaped and went back home. He studied for the priesthood and was ordained in Gaul/France before a spiritual experience prompted him to return to Ireland to bring the Gospel to people he came to love. He did this for 30 years. The holy mountain of Ireland called Croagh Patrick is named in honor of Saint Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint. It was on the summit of the mountain that Saint Patrick fasted for forty days in 441 AD. It is not known whether Patrick battled the devil as Jesus did during His 40 days in the desert, nor if he had a mystical experience as was experienced on Mount Tabor. Let us continue our Lenten journey of 40 days with the saints among us and those who have gone before us.
In Gaelic: A Naomh Pháidraig guí orainn. St Patrick pray for us. Amen.