“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James and John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone by themselves. There in their presence he was transfigured: his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them. Elijah appeared to them with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. Then Peter spoke to Jesus: ‘Rabbi,’ he said, ‘it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah’. He did not know what to say; they were so frightened. And a cloud came, covering them in shadow; and there came a voice from the cloud, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him’. Then suddenly, when they looked round, they saw no one with them anymore but only Jesus.
As they came down from the mountain he warned them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” (Mk 9, 2-9)
In this reflection I will limit myself to underlining some of the points that touched me most, as a missionary who returned to Italy less than two years ago.
On a high mountain
One day, right in the middle of their pastoral work, Jesus decides to take his friends Peter, James and John up a high mountain. Jesus knows that, in the midst of so many challenges and difficulties, it is easy to be discouraged, to settle for the lesser evil and abandon one’s original goals. He therefore decides to take his friends up “a high mountain”: from its summit it is possible to view a beautiful panorama and take note of other summits, other valleys and other skies never before dreamt of.
In the previous chapter, Jesus had spoken of the cross: “If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8, 34). It is not Jesus who gives us a cross: we already have it. At times it may be a cross that we do not want to see and so we build up a false image of ourselves. Jesus tells us: “Reject this false image of yourselves and take up your cross with humility. That is the truth about yourselves; if you follow me and place your cross in my hands, I shall work miracles with the truth of your fragility, and you will experience the resurrection.”
As Jean Vanier states, we are inclined to hide our real selves because we are afraid that if people were to see us as we really are, they would think little of us. “I therefore assume an attitude of power or amiability since I do not want to reveal my secret: I am afraid the others may discover my dark, depressive side. I am afraid of being rejected”. In brief, I am afraid to find myself alone with my limits, alone with my cross. But Jesus says: “Take up your cross! Then we will go up the mountain!” How wonderful! We do not need to be different to what we are in order to be worthy of the company of Jesus: Jesus wants to walk the mountains with me: he could have chosen someone more handsome or more agile; instead, he takes me up the mountain together with my crosses in order to make me understand that, illumined by the Transfiguration, even my wounds may shine and be a source of life. All of us need to spend some time on the high mountain. In fact, if we stay at the foot of the mountain and concern ourselves only with a certain problem or fragility, – unable to see beyond these – we risk becoming lost or ‘dying’ with that problem or being crushed by that problem. All the while the broad vision of God opens up horizons that are new and undreamed of.
What do the disciples see when they reach the summit of the mountain? They see the beauty of Jesus who shines: “His clothes became shining, shining white... And Peter said to Jesus: Master, it is good for us to be here”. Jesus evangelises his disciples, first of all by his beauty and splendour: the beauty of the transfigured Jesus glows, fascinates; it makes one desire God, to stay together with Him, to enter into his Heart; it makes one want to live truly as his son and brother.
What is it that makes Jesus resplendent and transfigured? I think the answer to this question is to be found in the words which come from a cloud that suddenly appears: “This is my beloved Son”. It is the word of love that transfigures us, for when one feels profoundly loved, there is no longer room in the heart for passivity, cynicism, sadness or violence; the beauty experienced in that moment fills the heart, producing sentiments of gratitude and tenderness that infuse it with strength and energy.
This Word is addressed by the Father to Jesus, to his brothers and to each one of us. When we feel we are loved and important to someone we are prepared to introduce changes in our lives: this thought gives us the energy necessary for transformation and enables us to face the cross with faith and hope.
Listen to Him!
The transfigured Jesus is most beautiful; we are called to live and witness to that beauty. How? First of all by listening to Him, listening to the words of Jesus.
Listening and being listened to is another experience that transfigures us. When we speak knowing that our hopes and our sufferings truly touch the hearts of our listeners, we are moved and feel a profound sense of gratitude. At the same time, the person who listens is moved when he sees that his brother wants to enter into the sacred space of his heart. Thus it becomes a transfiguring experience for both: the one who hears and the one who speaks.
The Word has, in effect, enormous power: “The word that goes forth from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do” (Is 55, 11). The Word of God – provided we listen to it, guard it and allow it to render us fertile – may really transform us and produce great change: in our personal lives and in that of the community.
The descent from the mountain
Once we have heard His Word, we are called to live it in all its beauty, and this is why we must descend from the mountain. “When they looked round, they saw no one with them anymore but only Jesus”: certainly, the vision lasted but a short while; it disappeared, but not entirely. It is like striking a match in the dark that produces light for a moment and in that moment reveals unexpected pathways. Then it burns out, but leaves behind it a sort of smoke, the odour of fire and beauty. This smoke remains in the heart, continuing to nourish the dream and to give a sweet odour to life.
We are, therefore, called to be faithful to the beauty of this vision and of this Word even when we have descended from the mountain. The light of the transfigured Jesus, closely guarded in our hearts, will help us keep the spirit of the transfiguration even when faced with the heaviest cross possible, and to keep the warmth of this smoke even amongst the cold dryness of the difficulties of daily life.
The transfiguration experience is fundamental for every human being. A life without moments of transfiguration would be inhuman.
This experience, however, must be present at every stage of our missionary life. When one returns home, to Europe for me, one runs the risk of ‘living on one’s interest’, closely guarding in one’s heart moments of transfiguration experienced in Africa or Latin America. In order that our life may be fully human even here at home, we need to experience the beauty of the transfigured Jesus here as well. The youth must see in us transfigured communities that live a beautiful life, a life that fascinates them.
A shining community
In the opening passage above from St Mark, it is the community – represented by Peter, James and John – that sees and experiences the beauty of transfiguration: it is the community that is called to be resplendent. Just as the three disciples are fascinated by the splendour of Jesus, so, too, the Christian communities are called to “shine like stars” (Ph. 2, 15). In the Aparecida document, the bishops of Latin America affirm that “the Church, as a community of love, is called to reflect the glory of the love of God so that it may thus attract persons and peoples to Christ” No. 159). They then add: “Each Christian community must transform itself into a powerful centre radiating Christ’s life” (No. 362).
Applying all this to our situation, we may ask ourselves: are our Comboni communities beautiful? Are they resplendent? Do they attract others? How can they shine?
Following the suggestion of this passage, the first means to being resplendent is the practice of listening. First of all, we must listen to the Word of God in personal prayer and also in community prayer. The community celebration of the Word ought to be for us the first ‘high mountain’ where we experience transfiguration.
Secondly, we must listen to each other as members of a community. One of the first difficulties the returning missionary experiences is that of finding someone who is willing and able to really listen to him. When one returns home, one experiences the difficulty of parting from the mission, the difficulty in trying to become part of the community dynamics so different from those left behind, etc. In this sensitive time, it is true grace of God to find someone willing to listen to us, a true experience of transfiguration.
The miracle of listening
On the day of Pentecost, the apostles “began to speak in various tongues” and all the believers coming from all parts of the world “heard them speak in their own tongues” (Acts 2, 4.6). The real miracle lies in listening, not in speaking. The miracle lies in listening to someone who knows how to reach your heart and speaks a language you understand.
Each religious community is called to be a small Pentecost community in which every people, every person is listened to, understood, loved and valued in their uniqueness and diversity. When in our communities we succeed in creating a climate of listening, a great miracle is worked, a miracle more beautiful and more overwhelming than all those sensational ‘miracles’ or apparitions that many seek.
In reality, it is the listening that creates a home: when one feels listened to, one finds a home. The sociologist Luigi Gui holds that not all the homeless are without a home. I may have no roof over my head but have a home, somewhere I feel welcome, where there are friends who listen to me; at the same time, not all those with good accommodation automatically have a home. We may ask ourselves: are our religious houses like homes? Could there be missionaries with a house but no home?
With the people
Thirdly, we must practice listening to the people. In this regard, among the main characteristics of the “beautiful life” (1 P 2, 12) led by the Christian community, St Peter mentions “hospitality” (1P 4, 9). Our communities in Italy receive many people (young people, poor people and old people) all seeking to be listened to and welcomed. Only a community that lives the “beautiful life” in hospitality and in listening can reveal the beauty of the transfigured Jesus.
Only a community-home can attract the youth to the religious life. It cannot be just the ‘promoter’ but it is the whole community – while listening to the Word, to the concrete situation and to its members – which is called to promote a beautiful and fraternal life that may fascinate the youth.
Transfiguration as a human right
As stated above, Transfiguration is the experience of a beauty that transforms us: “It is wonderful to be here!” exclaims Peter. Yes, all of us want to experience and stay within this beauty; we may even say that transfiguration is a human right. Instead, the system we live in does not take account of moments of transfiguration: it does not even know what they are or it considers them a waste of time, unproductive moments.
We know that there are companies throughout the world that do not give their employees a day off each week, not even Sunday. “Work, eat and sleep” is their cry. As if nothing else mattered! But even workers need transfiguration, deep experiences of beauty in which they feel welcomed by a love that consoles and communicates energy because a life without an experience of transfiguration is an inhuman life. From this point of view, the assault on the Christian Sunday is very significant: the idea of spending a day in a special listening to Jesus and meeting him is absurd to the dominant system, it is time lost and so they would like to transform even Sunday into a normal working day, a day of production and consumption. Witnessing to the Transfigured Jesus, therefore, means struggling so that no human being is considered a simple instrument of production or just a consumer, so that the right of all to a beautiful and fully human life is recognised.
By peculiar coincidence, the 6th of August, the feast of the Transfiguration, was the day when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Jesus on the mountain was transformed into the light of life, mankind on Hiroshima launched a bomb that created the light of death that vaporised 100,000 human beings and disfigured the faces and bodies of many more survivors.
Today, too, we may observe the struggle between these two ‘lights’, these two projects: on the one side we have ‘The Transfiguration’, the projects of God that wants to transfigure the world, to transform it into a Kingdom of justice, beauty and peace; on the other we have ‘the Disfigurement’, the project of some powers to destroy the environment and kill their brothers and sisters in the pursuit of their economic interests.
To witness as a missionary community to the transfigured Jesus also implies commitment to life at the social and political level and against all the political systems of death that are prepared to disfigure and destroy both the world and the people in it.
For our reflection
- As a community, do we observe times for going up the ‘high mountain’ together to hear the Word of God? How do we organise and live these times?
- Do I feel loved in my apostolic and community life? Do I have experiences of transfiguration?
- Does hearing the ‘Word of life’ (I Jn 1, 1) urge us, as missionary communities, to commit ourselves actively to the fight against the words and projects of death?
Brother Alberto Degan, mccj