The Lenten Meditations 2020, Week 2

The Transfiguration of the God-Man

Raphael (1483-1520)[1], The Transfiguration (16th century)[2]
in the Dulwich Picture Gallery


If you want what visible reality
can give, you are an employee.[3]
If you want the unseen world,
you are not living with your truth.[4]
Both wishes are foolish,[5]
but you’ll be forgiven for forgetting[6]
that what you really want[7] is
love’s confusing joy.


FIRST POINT – It is my experience that God makes sense. (Humans often do not.) I do not mean this in a general sort of way but in relation to specific actions God takes in history, and in each of our personal histories. However, it can often take a long time, even many years, for a person to understand God’s meaning: what God was up to inside specific experiences we have, those of institutions, of cultures, and even those of epochs.[9] My favorite example is that of a profound woman, Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-1416 CE), who knew to wait on God for the understanding that she was seeking – waiting fifteen years for understanding to be given her. (How long have you waited for a significant understanding to be shown you by God? So very recently in my life I had to wait twenty years.) Julian writes at the end of her Showings:[10]
And from the time that it was revealed, I desired many times to know in what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love399. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.[11]

At Matthew 16:21-23, Jesus shocks, upsets his disciples with the news that in Jerusalem He will be killed (He does not say by whom) after “suffering greatly” at the hands of those whom they all assumed would love and support a man like Jesus. They did not understand; it made no sense. Why? Could you stop reading right here and wait, even for fifteen years, for God to answer this question for you, in a way that makes sense to you?

SECOND POINT – Jesus recognized a malign presence here (Matthew 16:21-23), a presence too subtle for the spiritually immature disciples to notice it. This malignant presence had so skillfully insinuated[12] itself into the consciousness of the disciples that they did not notice it. So effectively that presence hid itself, and so effectively it manipulated the disciples, that they spoke for that presence, served it, and struck directly at Jesus Himself.

22 Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke Him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”[13]

They did not notice, and not Peter either, the demonic power manipulating them; Jesus did.

Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” [14]

How chilling it is to us to be taught by God this unsettling truth (the Gospel is not for the faint-hearted). Jesus recognized not only that such using of us unawares by a malign spirit is possible, but that it had actually happened that day in the consciousness of His disciples. Satan struck at the Christ, and Satan did not hesitate to do this by using His closest friends to do so. That is why Jesus immediately rebuked Satan, and why He then began to teach His disciples … but now with a markedly more serious tone and content.

24 qThen Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,* take up his cross, and follow me. 25 rFor whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.* 26 What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? 27 *s For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct. 28 *Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” [15]

This is fully grown-up spirituality. This is as deep as Jesus goes in words of instruction.

And, now, this to me can help us understand why the Transfiguration happened, and why at this specific moment.

THIRD POINT –  I am suggesting that the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8) was a response of the Father to His beloved Son, who had called out to His Father to allow the full measure of His love for Him, for His Father, to be revealed. “Father!”, Jesus might have cried out, “Let them (not Satan) see my love for you. Do it, Now, my dearest Father!”

Psalm 37:

Commit your way to the Lord;
     trust in him and he will acte
And make your righteousness shine like the dawn,
     your justice like noonday.f [16]

Or better, from John 17:

3 *Now this is eternal life,c that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ. 4 I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.d [17]

But why now? I believe that Jesus, seeing that the Satan had dared to strike at Him through His closest companions – the Corrupter at work in them - knew that the malign spirit operating in them needed to be driven from them, powerfully, implacably, and with Jesus “showing His teeth” to Satan, if I may crudely say it this way. Jesus is teaching us that that the way to free people from the dark forces that render them “bent”[18] is never about teaching them to fight the dark forces directly (only a fool would attempt this; that is God’s work and that of the holy Angels), but to teach them to see Jesus Christ clearer, through love, and in His incomparable beauty. Seeing Jesus, as did the three disciples on the mountain that night, broke the power of the dark forces manipulating them.
SETTING A TASK FOR WEEK TWO – The following text I received from my brother Mark.
[1] From the Google Art Project (– “Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael, was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance. His work is admired for its clarity of form, ease of composition, and visual achievement of the Neoplatonic ideal of human grandeur. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he forms the traditional trinity of great masters of that period.”

[2] See copy of painting here:

[3] These opening lines articulate what a person eventually knows when he or she owns a lot of stuff – “what visible reality can give”. He or she recognizes how quickly a person’s material possessions can end up owning him or her, demanding more and more of his or her concern: where to store that; how to take care of that; how to protect all of it, etc. Our concern for our material possessions reduces us to servants of those possessions, or as Rumi remarks, we become employees “hired” by all of our possessions to care for them.
[4] There is proof, widely attested, that we humans more often than we admit to ourselves desire insatiably (a kind of life, a kind of personality, a kind of job, or a kind of reputation, a kind of friend, and so on and on). In this sense, I am interpreting “the unseen world” here as anything that is not real, not actually present, not “with” us. We hitch our hopes to wishing and wanting (“wanting the unseen world”), saying to ourselves, “if only things were like this rather than how they are”. Having become so attached to what we do not have, we never do the hard work (at least in our intensely materialistic culture) of learning the ways of contentment – contented with who we are, with what we have. I think contentment is something profoundly difficult to achieve in our materialistic American culture. And finding a truly contented person is a rare find in my experience.
[5] Notice that Rumi places the emphasis not on the objects of our desiring, but on us, the ones desiring, we who are rendered unceasingly dissatisfied, or as we might put it, diabolically discontented, because of all that we feel that we are lacking. Our desires are out of our control. St. Ignatius of Loyola understood this with particular sagacity.
[6] One of the beautiful things that proves that Rumi’s wisdom is the real deal is that he never condescends! He says, “you’ll be forgiven for forgetting” – so gentle! Rumi is unnervingly perceptive of the false ways of us human beings; he sometimes scares us as do many of the wisest among us. Yet we find ourselves able to receive Rumi’s remonstrances with relief. “He knows!”, we cry out to ourselves, and then we feel wonder at a person so rightly attuned to reality. We feel so grateful that we have been “found out”, so restoratively “called out,” by the truth that Rumi himself paid a great price to learn.
[7] In my experience of people, and of myself among them, we rarely know what we really want, and especially when suddenly asked, as Jesus once asked a man who actually knew what he really wanted: “What would you like me to do for you?” We are a people awash in desires, who have often lost our ability to distinguish among all of these desires what … or Whom we really want.
[8] Barks, Coleman. A Year with Rumi (p. 60), at February 14th. HarperOne, 2006. Kindle Edition. Concerning Rumi, see – “Jalaluddin Rumi, better known simply as Rumi, was perhaps the finest Persian poet of all time and a great influence on Muslim writing and culture. His poetry is still well known throughout the modern world, and he is one of the best-selling poets in America. Jalaluddin Rumi was born in 1207 CE in Balkh in present-day Afghanistan. Increasing Mongol incursions when he was around the age of eleven forced his family to leave Afghanistan, who travelled to Baghdad, Mecca, Damascus and finally settled in Konya in Turkey. Rumi lived here for most of his life. Rumi was the son of a renowned Sufi scholar, and it is more than likely that he was introduced to Sufism from a young age. Sufism is a branch of Islam primarily concerned with developing the spirituality, or more precisely the inner character, of a Muslim.

[9] The Oxford English Dictionary at “epoch”, from the ancient Greek meaning “a fixed point in time”, defines it: “The beginning of a ‘new era’ or distinctive period in the history of mankind, a country, an individual, a science, etc.”
[10] From the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed – at “Julian of Norwich”: “According to her own account, in May 1373 she received a revelation, consisting of 15 ‘showings’ (and one more ‘showing’ the day after). Her book, commonly known in modern times as Showings or Revelation(s) of Divine Love, survives in two recensions. The first draft (the Short Text) was prob. written soon after 1373, but it was not until 1393 at the earliest that she completed the Long Text, in which she expounds an original and competent theological vision of life, on the basis of the revelation and her reflections upon it. [F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 916.]
*399 ‘What did … Love’ from SS; P, C omit.

[11] Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-1416 CE), Julian of Norwich: Showings, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 342–343.

[12] The Oxford English Dictionary at the verb “to insinuate” – “To introduce tortuously, sinuously, indirectly, or by devious methods; to introduce by imperceptible degrees or subtle means.” The Latin root sinuare means “to bend in windings, to curve”, in other words, to look or move like a snake, even like the Snake in Paradise.
[13] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 16:22.

[14] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 16:23.

q Lk 14:27.

* Deny himself: to deny someone is to disown him (see Mt 10:33; 26:34–35) and to deny oneself is to disown oneself as the center of one’s existence.

r Lk 17:33; Jn 12:25.

* See notes on Mt 10:38, 39.

* The Parousia and final judgment are described in Mt 25:31 in terms almost identical with these.

s 25:31–33; Jb 34:11; Ps 62:13; Jer 17:10; 2 Thes 1:7–8.

* Coming in his kingdom: since the kingdom of the Son of Man has been described as “the world” and Jesus’ sovereignty precedes his final coming in glory (Mt 13:38, 41), the coming in this verse is not the parousia as in the preceding but the manifestation of Jesus’ rule after his resurrection; see notes on Mt 13:38, 41.

[15] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 16:24–28.

e Ps 55:23; Prv 3:5; 16:3.

f Wis 5:6; Is 58:10.

[16] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ps 37:5–6.

* This verse was clearly added in the editing of the gospel as a reflection on the preceding verse; Jesus nowhere else refers to himself as Jesus Christ.

c 1:17; Wis 14:7; 15:3; 1 Jn 5:20.

d 1:1, 2; 12:28; Phil 2:6, 9–11.

[17] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 17:3–5.

[18] C.S. Lewis in his Space Trilogy talks of human beings who have become servants of the dark powers as “bent.”

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