THE TRANSFIGURATION OF JESUS AND THE CHURCH’S UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN DIGNITY

Introduction: The Eighth Day

Now it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that is, about eight days after the first prediction of his passion, that Jesus took Peter, John, and James up on the mountain to pray.

Matthew and Mark tell us that it was six days after these sayings that Jesus went to the Holy Mountain. But Luke tells us that it was eight days, and that is because for Luke the eight-day is the everlasting day after which there are no more days. You may recall that in Luke’s Gospel the Last Supper is the seventh meal and that the eight meal scene in the book is the Supper at a village inn on the Emmaus Road where Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and the eyes of two disheartened disciples were opened.

So then the Mount of Transfiguration is the pre-figuration of the Resurrection and the everlasting eight-day of humanity’s final destiny and glorification. On this day, on this mountain, the Church makes its definitive statement about human dignity. This day, Transfiguration Sunday, is when the Church each year, implicitly, makes its universal declaration about the final dignity, status, honour, glory, and destiny of the human race.

I. The Church was Present

The Church makes this universal declaration because the Church was present on the Holy Mountain. Jesus took Peter, John, and James with him. Peter represents the Church, the whole Church, the ordinary, the catholic Church. Peter does not know it yet, but Luke knows it, for by the time this Gospel is written, the fisherman who first confessed then thrice denied that Jesus was his Christ and Lord, had already met his death in Rome and was already, as Jesus’ closest associate and chief apostle, in some sense understood to be the universal pastor of the Church. Peter, as Pope John Paul II said, is the one who expresses the faith of the apostles, the faith of the church. And so in Peter the whole of the ordinary believing Church is represented on the Holy Mountain.

And so is the Church of the saints and holy ones, for John, the beloved disciple is present. And the suffering Church is also present, for James is here, the first of the original apostles to face his martyrdom, as Luke recounts in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Acts.

The believing, the holy, and the suffering Church are represented here on the Mount of Humanity’s Transfiguration, the Church of the many, the mystics, and the martyrs. None of us were excluded.

Which is to say that the Church, the whole Church, and each of its members is and must ever be irrevocably committed to the preservation of the dignity of every human person, to their welfare, to the maximum degree of human flourishing for each and every child of Adam, to the defense of human existence in all its modes. And this for two reasons.

II. The Two Reasons for a Declaration of Human Dignity

First, the Church witnessed there on the Holy Mountain, the utter glorification of human nature. This is what the image of God was originally to have meant, what the writers of Genesis would have talked about endlessly and forever but for some original primordial catastrophe that plunged the created order into sin and death almost from its inception. And now in the transfiguration the image of God is re-established and the foundation of human dignity laid a second time.

The Latin word dignitas lies close to two Greek words that, taken together, mean to show forth a shining manifestation, glory or honour, inherently proceeding or bestowed from without.[1] Jesus, at prayer, Jesus worshipping, Jesus in unfathomable communion with God the Father, his face altered, his robes glistering, is Man as he was meant to be, is humanity in the full dignity and power of its original creation, clothed in robes of honour, the precious bestowal of God.

The second reason that the Church is irrevocably committed to the defense of human dignity is that, although Jesus could from here have walked out of earthly existence into the vast amplitude of the worlds beyond, through straits of human fear into that great expanse of liberty that should have been the inheritance of the created order, he did not; for we were not past the point of rescue. We had fallen into a darkness deeper than sorrow and blacker than pain, but we were not past the point of rescue. And so it came to pass that in the company of the Law and Prophets, Moses and Elijah, Jesus contemplated his exodus. Although now revealed in the perfection of his humanity, they spoke to him, Israel spoke to him, the whole of human history represented in the two great representatives of the representative people, spoke to him of his decease, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. Christ, even in his glory, especially in his glory, must suffer our indignity that we in our sorrow might be dignified in his resurrection.

It is to this that the Church must bear witness. For we join not only the witnesses of the Hebrew Scriptures in this declaration but say only what God himself had said from the cloud of glory. And we were all witnesses of these things for we were there, represented by the Apostles. As St. Peter was to put it many years later: “We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from the Father when that unique declaration came to him from majestic glory, ‘This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Pt 1:16-18).

We ourselves heard this voice, we Christians heard this voice; for we were there. We are therefore committed to the defense of human dignity for on the Holy Mountain we have seen our own destiny in the exaltation of the human nature of Jesus the Messiah and in his humiliation with us, for us, he have witnessed the cost God has paid in the defense of our dignity.

III. Conclusion

Many years ago, during a fierce repression of believers, a Soviet commissar in charge of education gave an impassioned speech at a public conference in the Polytechnic Museum in Moscow. The self-satisfied orator systematically attacked the Christian faith at length but then smugly announced that any one courageous enough to identify himself was welcome to join the dialogue, provided he speak for no more than five minutes. A young, bearded priest from the countryside stepped toward the platform. Remember, said the scoffing commissar, only five minutes. I will be brief said the timid priest.

Climbing to the podium, he turned to the large audience, and declared:

Christ is risen.

They all answered with one voice:

He is risen indeed.

I am done said the priest; that is all I wanted to say.[2]

Risen indeed. The transfigured one is risen indeed. He suffered his exodus in Jerusalem as foretold in the Law and the Prophets, but he is risen, as he promised. And in his transfiguration, death, and resurrection is secured the inalienable dignity of every human person. This is at the heart of the Church’s message. And that is all I wanted to say.

 

 


[1] See the essay Dignity Rather than Right, by John Milbank.

[2] Michel Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon.