Occasionally, when I’m visiting patients at the hospital, a hospital staff member will remark, “You look like a priest!” Typically, I respond, “Sometimes, I even feel like a priest!”
I don’t know the cause of the staff members’ surprise at seeing a priest at the hospital. It might be the fact that, because there are so few priests remaining in active ministry, seeing a priest is an increasingly uncommon experience. Alternatively, it might be a reaction to the increasingly common experience of seeing ministers of non-traditional denominations dressed in traditional clerical clothing. Regardless of the motivation behind the exclamation, I hope I give credible evidence of being the real thing. The story in today’s Gospel is about credible evidence – the sort of credible evidence that everyone wants and needs.
The Transfiguration probably seems other-worldly to most people today, but it would have been considered a normal religious experience in the ancient world. Visions and ecstatic experiences were thought to be legitimate proof of an encounter with God. When the disciples saw Jesus transfigured and conversing with Moses and Elijah, they did not hesitate to believe their eyes. Peter went so far as to suggest that they remain there for an extended period of time. (Mt. 17:4)
The author of the Gospel added a further layer of meaning to the event. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Transfiguration serves not only as a brief revelation of Jesus’ identity as uniquely favored by God, it serves also to identify Jesus as the One who fulfills the Sinai Covenant. The presence of Moses and Elijah is a direct reference to covenant fidelity. The Transfiguration, then, is intended to be credible evidence of Jesus’ divinely ordained mission to call God’s People to renewed faithfulness.
The original readers of the Gospel would have understood the Transfiguration to be compelling evidence of the validity of Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing. As we are very far removed, culturally and historically, from Jesus’ lifetime, the evidence is probably less compelling today. If, for example, you told me that you had seen a vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, I might be tempted to ask how many cocktails you had just before you began seeing things.
As our culture doesn’t recognize the validity of religious visions and ecstatic experience, we might want to look for other ways to provide evidence of the truth of the Gospel message. There are, in fact, many ways to provide such evidence.
One of the experiences judged trustworthy by our culture is personal wealth. There are, in fact, many people who judge religious experience to be valid if it leads to greater material wealth. It is important to note, however, that Matthew’s Gospel does not embrace this opinion. (Mt. 6:24)
Other people appeal to sentimentality, a different form of materialism, to provide credible evidence of the validity of religious experience. Our society can be very harsh and unforgiving, but we love sentimental stories in which the protagonists live happily ever after. Those who trust sentimentality as credible evidence of an encounter with God, however, place their faith in something even more short-lived than money; while money might last a lifetime, sentiment tends to last no more than a few moments.
I would like to propose a form of materialistic evidence that differs significantly from the two mentioned above. While the ecstatic, other-worldly aspect of the Transfiguration is a little too esoteric for most people today, another aspect of the Transfiguration is easily grasped, even by post-moderns.
Renewed fidelity to God’s Law was at the center of Jesus’ preaching. This renewed fidelity to God implied and required a renewed commitment to wider society. (Mt. 7:12) Credible evidence of the validity of religious experience can be seen, I think, in one’s commitment to build a more just and peaceful secular society. No human society will last forever; therefore, any good one does in the world will last only as long as the world lasts. While the criterion of positive change to society is no less materialistic than the criteria of personal wealth or sentimental thoughts, there is a fundamental difference between these forms of evidence about the validity of religious experience. The difference is made by the beneficiary.
Religious experience that provides only a benefit to oneself provides no guarantee of a valid experience of God; rather, it guarantees only a valid experience of oneself. On the other hand, religious experience that benefits others (preferably, on an indiscriminate basis), is an accurate expression of covenant fidelity. After the Transfiguration, Jesus told his disciples not to speak about their experience until after the Resurrection. (Mt. 17:9) He did so for the simple reason that his preaching, miracles, death, and resurrection were not intended for his personal benefit nor for the restricted benefit of his disciples only. The salvation God offers through the death of Jesus is intended for the universal benefit of all God’s creatures; this universal character of God’s saving will was revealed fully only on the Cross.
The suggestion that service to others is credible evidence of moral rectitude and legitimate religious faith is rather counter-cultural today, but it isn’t any more counter-cultural than belief in a crucified Savior was in the ancient world.
The story of the Transfiguration is included in the Gospel to provide credible evidence of the possibility of encountering God in the life and teachings of Jesus. Still today, the world wants and needs credible evidence about who God is and where God can be found. The credible evidence of real faithfulness to the real God is seen in our commitment to imitate God’s mercy by working for a peaceful and just secular society. There are many ways to provide this credible evidence to wider society; our Lenten collection of food for Pinellas Hope, our ministry to the sick and hospitalized, the Catholic Ministry Appeal, and countless other acts of charity are visible evidence of belief in the God who desires the salvation of all.
Jesus didn’t intend for his disciples to remain on the mountain after they saw a vision of God’s glory. Rather, he commanded them to return to society and provide evidence of their faith in God. This remains our mission today.