“Being in a condition of darkness, what do you most desire?”
The appropriate response to this question is “light”. It’s a Q & A (Question and Answer) that would not require any second-guessing. When you are in a condition of darkness, the very thing that you would desire or want is “light”, thereby putting an end to the fear or anxiety or even confusion that surely abound in such a state of being.
While some may associate darkness with calmness and serenity, others regard it to be somehow breeding fear and anxiety. Kids learn this early in life when they tell mother “Leave the lights on, Mom”. They “know” that with lights on, those terrifying “monsters” in the closet have no chance to come out and scare the heck out of them.
Darkness also induces confusion. From experience, we know that we usually end up getting disoriented without light in the room or in the house. We could only rely on our ability to remember where things are but as a norm, darkness prompts confusion.
Hurt and discomfort are some of the resultant effects of darkness, as in tripping on your children’s toys that somehow have become part of your living room landscape along with that vacuum cleaner that never got put away.
These are a few of the reasons why when asked: “Being in a condition of darkness, what do you most desire?” we do not hesitate to reply “Light”. It is also a question that could have easily been floated around among members of the early church and to which a similar response would have been given, no doubt.
In some sense, a “condition of darkness” could have been attributed to the disturbing mindset that characterized the transition period of the early church. Putting this in context, recall that Christianity has its roots in the Jewish faith. Christianity was not an invention of some sort that somehow appeared out of nowhere. It was the Jewish religion that served as the opening act of the great salvation drama that prompted the formation of a group we now call Christians.
God chose to reveal the God-self by naming Abraham to be the father of a great nation. God chose to reveal what was expected of Israel with the giving of the Law through Moses. God also sent the Prophets in His attempt to remind Israel of the covenant that continued in spite of their repeated wanderings. It was also to them that God promised to send the Messiah; the Savior of mankind and this prophecy was believed by some to have been fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
These early believers of the new faith community included those who “dropped” their nets; who “left” their trade, their family and went to follow Jesus. They were the ones who first responded to the call of discipleship and continued to believe in Him, especially after His death and the convincing mystery called ‘resurrection’.
There were, however, those who were not so clear about this new dispensation, especially on the primacy of Jesus. They somehow became “confused” where Jesus’ death and resurrection stood vis-a-vis the Law and the Prophets. And the reason for this was due to the exceptional depth of how their faith was ingrained in them.
With their sense of history intertwined in their faith formation, it was not easy for most of them to let go of the primacy of the Law and the Torah. Moses was very much active in their religious milieu. The same could be said about the level of importance they ascribe to the Prophets. Of the major ones, Elijah gained quite a distinction. He and the other prophets continued to serve as beacons during Israel’s long perilous journey; hence, for those who were introduced to Jesus as the new leader, they saw him perhaps as of equal category with Jeremiah and Isaiah and Elijah, to name a few.
In other words, they had some un-clarity in their new set of faith beliefs regarding the primacy of Jesus. With Jesus physically no longer with them; having resurrected and ascended to His Father, the new community’s condition of “darkness” was beginning to foster “anxiety and confusion” and disunity so much so that they needed to be “enlightened” with the “light” that Jesus, the Son of God, represented.
The issue had to be settled and the onus was on those who chose to write the Gospel, the “Good News”, to tell the primacy of Jesus as above the Law and the Prophets. Hence, the story of the Transfiguration had to be told.
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” (Mark 9:2-9)
This story appears in all of the Synoptic Gospels, namely, Matthew, Mark and Luke. With a slight difference on the timeline of the event, with Matthew and Mark saying “after six days” while Luke says “after eight days”, all three are in agreement when it comes to the individuals who purportedly witnessed the event. Peter, James and his brother John saw it.
They are also in agreement in the way Jesus was portrayed, with his garments becoming white as light; becoming glistening as light and becoming dazzling white. Again, all three gospel accounts are in agreement that there were two others who were in conversation with Jesus; Moses and Elijah. The other things we readily notice include the voice that proclaimed Jesus as God’s son and that the witnesses were to “listen to him”. The final observation is that, in the end, Jesus was the only one left; Moses was gone. Elijah wasn’t there either and that they were not to tell others about it, not until after He has resurrected.
These distinct pieces in the Transfiguration Story are very much related to the introductory materials about “darkness and light”. Yes they are but perhaps not that obvious. So, let’s do some unpacking here.
Let me begin by saying that this gospel account fulfilled that need to provide some clarity as to who Jesus really is. Jesus, with his dazzling white raiment, could be viewed as a good imagery of how brightness is indeed a tool of illumination. In the case of the early faith community’s “confusion” and their being “in a condition of darkness”, they were induced to accept the “blinding” truth that Jesus, after all, transcended the Law and the Prophets. They, therefore, no longer had to cling to the old now that the new has come. This allusion to Jesus’ primacy over the Law and the Prophets is wonderfully illustrated in the scene where Jesus was in the midst of Moses and Elijah and after that transfiguring moment, when they were back to reality, Moses, the icon of the Law and Elijah, the icon of the Prophets, were nowhere to be seen. In other words, only Jesus remained; only Jesus really matters.
This was the truth about the Transfiguration Story. This gospel story, with all its surreal language, was a strong reminder of Jesus’ centrality in their faith. It is this very same truth that has been passed down to us and continues to be a source of clarity amidst conditions of darkness.
One scene in the Transfiguration Story that is so relevant to us is the thundering voice heard, claiming Jesus as God’s beloved Son, also enjoining them to “listen to him”. Hearing this reminds us of yet another dire need that has to be addressed; our being “lost” amidst these “voices” competing to attract our attention.
I happen to have frequent nightmares and as the term suggests, they often leave me gasping for breath when I am back to reality. One of these nightmares is about me drowning but not the kind of drowning that happens in a body of water. This was “drowning” amidst loud voices; lots of voices that seem to “push” me down into some kind of an abyss and usually ends with me gasping for air; hence, the imagery of drowning.
In some sense, this imagery speaks of the conflicting interests that demand our attention and even our loyalty and in the process blurs our vision about who God is in our lives. Our work, unabated, pulls us away from that focal point. Our family may follow suit, along with all other “voices” claiming our undivided attention. But we all know that they are not really the ones that should matter. It should be God.
The Transfiguration Story could help us in this regard. The thundering voice once said: “This is my beloved Son: listen to him.” It’s the same voice that speaks to us today. Wherever we might be, in our condition of darkness, we need to seek for the Light. We need to seek for the Light who was alluded to in the Transfiguration Story. We also need to “listen” to the One who occupies or ought to occupy the most central place in our lives. We also need to tell others about this, not just through words but also through the more concrete manifestations of those beliefs. It has to be proclaimed today and in the days ahead.
My dear friends in Christ, by Wednesday, we will be entering another season in our liturgical year; the season of Lent, 40 days of reflection and waiting for the Resurrection of the Lord. That penitential season of Lent should be a good time to challenge us to really think about our actions and intentions toward others.
As we end today the liturgical season of Epiphany with the Transfiguration Story, let us be inspired by it to attempt to transform ourselves into better persons. May there be no more doubt about the primacy of Jesus in our lives. God said: “This is my Beloved. Listen to him.” May we listen to that voice and open our minds and our hearts to his transforming presence.