A Vision in Darkness
Radiant light shown around Christ. His clothes became dazzling white. For one moment, the disciples gazed at Truth itself, bare and undisguised. Nothing else in the world was ever beautiful again. All music, all paintings, all pleasures were just a cheap imitation of this glimpse into paradise. Peter, James, and John were lead up Mount Tabor, where their eyes were opened to the beatific vision. In a time with so much unknowing, stress, and fear, we are reminded today to focus our eyes on Christ.
“Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them” (Matthew 17:1-2).
What were the disciples experiencing? St. Augustine calls the beatific vision the climax of salvation. The ultimate ecstasy is to gaze on God in his perfection and beauty, in all and all. This is the vision of the saints and angels who worship before the throne of God. This is the vision offered to all who trust themselves to God. It is an eternity of feasting our souls on beauty.
It is hard for us to imagine what this would be like. Looking at anything for a long time sounds boring actually. You can find the prettiest picture or a lovely garden and spend a few minutes, maybe an hour, admiring it. Eventually, you have to move on. But there is nothing dull or static in paradise. Thrill and adventure do not even do it justice. To gaze on the beauty of God is the one thing we can do that is not really boring or disappointing, but which fulfills our most personal wants.
The beauty of God satisfies. Psalm 17:15 prophecies: “I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness”. No pleasures here on earth really satisfy. If you have labored outside all day, there is nothing like a cool glass of water to satisfy. But then, you get thirsty again. You have an “aha” moment, and it is gone. These are glimpses, samples, of the ultimate satisfication of gazing on God. The disciples eyes were opened entirely.
“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (v. 2-3).
What happened at the Transfiguration? There was nothing different about Jesus Christ. That same light shown from Christ the moment he was born in the cradle, as a baby, as a toddler, as a young man helping his father in the carpenter shop, and when Christ set off for the mountain that morning. The disciples’ eyes were blind to it. Everyone’s eyes were blind. We bumble along, day after day, with eyes shut to God’s light.
“Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).
There is a comic strip called Calvin and Hobbes, in which the young boy, Calvin, finds an old picture book of his dad’s. He flips through it for some time. Then he looks up baffled and asks his dad, “Why is it that the world was black and white when you were growing up?” Indeed, biologists believe that a wide range of animals see only in black and white, including dogs, cats, whales, and dolphins. Can you imagine being cut off entirely from the vast spectrum of beautiful colors in this world? Indeed, our ability to see the reality around us, compared to the saints and angels, is as limited as our pet’s. We see in shades of grey.
God gave humanity a gift on the Feast of the Transfiguration. He opened the eyes of the disciples for one passing moment. He let them see in color for the first time, giving us all hope to see in color.
“To you I lift up my eyes. O you who are enthroned in the heavens. Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress; so our eyes look to the Lord our God for He is gracious to us” (Psalm 123: 1-2).
Seeing is not just about eye sight. Seeing has to do with whatever fills our heart and thoughts. So what do you see?
When we look around this world, we see a pretty grimson sight. Tuesday afternoon an explosion occurred in Beirut killing 164 people, wounding over 6,000, and leaving 300,000 homeless. This takes place while everything else around us seems to be falling apart. Here in America, stress levels are up to the neck. Everyone is apprehensive about the elections this Fall. The BLM has stirred up racial tension and social unease. In addition to its wake of death and illness, Covid-19 has rocked the economy and thrown everyone’s personal lives upside down. As the cream of the crop, you cannot even see human faces any more. I do not question the sanitary importance of the masks, but I also believe they are psychological disturbing. Somehow, a world of half-faces feels dehumanizing — it is like living in a B-rated scifi. The other day, Bishop John told a group of young adults: “If you are not depressed nowadays, you are not healthy.” Jonah cried from within the whale: “The waters engulfed me up to the neck; the watery depths overcame me; the seaweed wrapped around my head” (2:5) This is how we can feel today, in all the stress of our times. This is what we see so easily when we wake up in the morning.
“Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome” (v. 5).
They ascend up the mountain. Christ is transfigured before their eyes. Everything else in the world fades. A heavenly voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to Him.” How do we survive in such a turbulent world? We must turn our hearts to Christ. Without ignoring the struggles, without denying the world, we have to open our eyes. We cannot get bogged down by our losses here and now. Why, because it is all merely passing. It is all shadows. It is all black and white. The eternal light of Christ, the beauty that satisfies, shines around us. We too must follow the disciples up the mountain of holiness and fix our hearts on Christ.
I will wrap this up now with the words of St. Ephraim of Katounakia, Mt. Athos:
“Little one, say the prayer. Decide on an hour, day or night, and say the prayer. Word by word, and let your mind perceive it! Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me! Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me! Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me! Say the prayer like this. And with time, according to your purity and according to your zeal, the first thing you will find is joy! And the joy will strengthen your disposition to say the prayer more. And the prayer will give you even more and greater joy! Within yourself, another joy will shine, which until now you did not know of. Another radiance, another beauty, another sweetness, another state of wellbeing. You will see the entire nature bathed in beauty, in a sweetness. You will see the entire nature, all the creation of the Unseen God. And these are nothing, they are small things, a grain of sand on the beach… Then you will have a new spiritual horizon, new spiritual nourishment, a new spiritual garment; things which now you cannot even conceive. When God will see your disposition, your zeal, that you seek out God through prayer; then you will see what these spiritual things are, these unspeakable goods, what Paradise is…of which you feel, foretaste, get a glmpse of, even here in this life. Even from here, we can get a taste of the eternal joys! And they will give us great zeal, so that we can serve Christ even more.”