Transfiguration: A Meditation on Transforming Ourselves and Our World
On the Road with Jesus

In the summer of 1982, when I was twenty–one, I walked alone through Israel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to Nazareth to Galilee on a pilgrimage to see for myself the land that Jesus knew. I had spent the previous year working odd jobs in Washington, D.C., saving up for the trip as one last voyage into the world before I entered the Jesuits. It was the middle of June when I boarded an Amtrak train to New York City’s Penn Station, walked to Thirty–first Street, and said a prayer in St. Francis of Assisi Church. Then I caught a cab to JFK Airport.

Unfortunately, just then, Israel invaded Lebanon. Many people canceled their plane tickets. I decided to go ahead with my adventure. Instead of the quiet pilgrimage I had envisioned, however, I found myself in a war zone. As I stepped off the plane that day in Tel Aviv, I was greeted with machine guns and interrogated. Wherever I went during those weeks, I saw not the dream of faith, hope, and love but the nightmare of bombs, tanks, and jets. My life would never be the same.

Toward the end of that summer pilgrimage, on a hot July morning, I rode the local Galilee bus from the sea town of Tiberias some twenty miles to the foot of Mount Tabor, the large, round mountain where tradition holds that Jesus was transfigured before his disciples, where Moses and Elijah appeared to him and God spoke from the clouds. After the bus driver let me off and drove on down the deserted road, I stood alone at the foot of the mountain, looking up. I still remember my excitement as I started up the dirt path, through the bushes and olive trees to the mountaintop, thinking about the mystery of the Transfiguration, thrilled and trembling to be climbing the mountain of God.

According to the Gospels, the Transfiguration marks one of the few overtly mystical experiences in Jesus’ life. He was on his way to Jerusalem, where he would engage in nonviolent civil disobedience in the Temple, an act that would lead the authorities to arrest and execute him. On the mountain, in that place of solitude and beauty, God transformed him and gave him a taste of the resurrected life to come. He became the Christ he would become. Suddenly, Jesus’ three closest friends realized that their rabbi was much more than a wise teacher or radical revolutionary. They knew, in fact, that he was the Holy One of God.

Whether the event actually occurred after the resurrection, as some Scripture scholars suggest, or whether it is meant to place Jesus as the fulfillment of the tradition of Moses and Elijah, representatives of the law and the prophets, something dramatic happened to Jesus on that mountaintop, and he found the strength to go back down to resist the empire and fulfill his destiny as the Suffering Servant.

It was blistering hot under a clear blue sky the day I climbed Mount Tabor. I carried only my backpack, with a few clothes, a camera, and a Bible. The road zigzagged, slowly making its way through trees and rocks to the top. The arduous climb often left me exhausted, but I was strangely exhilarated, overwhelmed to walk in the steps of Jesus, to see the land he saw. I rested under the olive trees and marveled at the panoramic view. I looked out at the beautiful brown hills and uninhabited valleys that spread as far as I could see.

After several hours of climbing, I reached the top. I continued along the path toward the majestic towers of the basilica, the huge Church of the Transfiguration, the sole building on the mountain, which commemorates the great event.

I approached the massive church with awe and wonder, walking slowly, mindfully, one step at a time. As I came near the structure, I saw that the front doors stood wide open. Taking a deep breath, I stepped inside, gazed at the huge mosaic of the Transfiguration, and realized there was no one else in sight. I was alone on the mountaintop.

I sat in a pew and beheld the bright, colorful mosaics depicting Jesus in his white robes talking to the biblical prophets while the three disciples slept on the ground. After offering a prayer for my life, my family, and the world, I walked outside, sat down, and looked out at the magnificent view of the hills, mountains, valleys, and in the distance, the Sea of Galilee.

If Jesus ever wanted to get away from the crowds, to be alone with a few friends, to pray and reflect on his difficult journey to Jerusalem, this surely was the place. From that mountaintop, I gained a bird’s–eye view and saw the world as if from God’s vantage point. As I took a deep breath and looked up at the sky, my heart beat fast. I was grateful to be alive. This was—literally and figuratively—a peak experience.

In the peace of that mountaintop moment, I felt loved by the Creator of the world and experienced new hope for myself and humanity. Not only was I not alone but I was deeply loved by God. Like the disciples in the story, I was waking up to reality. I perceived an invitation to walk with Jesus down the mountain to Jerusalem, into the heart of the world, where he would risk everything for love of the whole human race, and where I might dare that same risky, all–inclusive, sacrificial love.

From that mountaintop, the journey into the heart of the world, to Jerusalem, made eminent sense. I could see the road ahead, the inevitable tragic outcome, the world’s repeated rejection of God’s gift of peace. I also could see the glorious epilogue, God's resurrection of Christ and the crucified peoples of history, and the risen Christ’s gift of peace. I felt renewed in spirit. Yes, I could go forward in faith and hope to walk the discipleship journey with the Holy One of God.

I started down the mountain, brimming with hope, praising God, bursting with love for everyone, ready to take on the world, to uproot mountains, end wars, convert the masses, heal the sick, and raise the dead. I felt so high because I knew that I was walking with Jesus, and that he would do these things. All the way down I sang an Easter hymn of resurrection. The chorus was easy: “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Whenever I get the chance to speak with others about the spiritual life, I share this basic truth, that we are on a journey with God through life toward death and new life. If we choose, we can transform our life journey immeasurably by deliberately following in the footsteps of Jesus. Through contemplative prayer, Gospel study, and shared community, we can learn to walk with him and let him lead us where he will. Even though we fall flat on our faces time and time again, he always helps us up and enables us to take another step forward on the journey home to God’s house of love and peace.

If we can respond to this call and try to follow Jesus, our lives will be transfigured because they are no longer our own. They will belong to Jesus. They take on universal meaning and find a place in the cosmic scheme of creation.

But we cannot find that place on our own. If we hand over our lives to Jesus and start walking with him, he will lead us to new places, new people, and new truths, so that the journey is no longer a journey from crisis to crisis, from death to death, but from life to new life, peace to deeper peace, glory to even greater glory. As we walk with Jesus, we find ourselves entering his story and beginning to share his life. Like Jesus, we start serving the poor, healing the broken, liberating the oppressed, speaking up for justice, and making peace. All kinds of miracles occur, not by any effort of our own but by the grace of God working through our brokenness and discipleship. Our lives suddenly blossom. We come alive because our lives are now in the service of the God of life.

For the Christian, life makes most sense as a journey in the footsteps of Jesus. With Jesus, there is not only purpose, meaning, and direction but unconditional love, unlimited compassion, unbounded forgiveness, real hope, and true peace. With Jesus, we have the love of God present and available to us, guiding us through life, showing us how to live, teaching us to serve one another, giving us a mission on behalf of humanity, and leading us home into the fullness of peace.

I can think of no greater life than radical discipleship to Jesus. Companionship and friendship with Jesus, and the Gospel works of justice and peace that this life entails, may sound quaint, pious, and naive, if not idealistic or surreal, but I submit, as the saints and martyrs testified, that it is the most authentic and rewarding life. Each one of us can choose to live our days in the company of Jesus, to walk in his footsteps, enter his story, and become his friend and companion.

If we dare undertake the discipleship journey and remain faithful to Jesus, one day we will look back on our lives and realize that we were never alone, that our lives have borne good fruit, and that we have fulfilled the mission God intended for us. On that day, Jesus will welcome us home as his best friends and companions. At that moment, we will rejoice at the immense gift given to us, the blessings we have received, and the warm welcome we have been offered. The journey will end because we have fully entered into the presence of Jesus to dwell in his company in peace and joy forever. That moment makes every step of the discipleship journey worth the price.

Living in Relationship with Jesus

Before Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, she spent twenty years teaching secluded, well–to–do high school girls as a Sister of Loreto in India. Then one day, while riding the train to Darjeeling to make her annual retreat, in a moment of “intimate prayer with Jesus,” as she later described it, she heard a voice tell her to leave the order and serve “the poorest of the poor.” She obeyed, and for the rest of her life she lived with that intimate prayer, served the poorest of the poor, and walked with Jesus. As all the world knows, she helped tens of thousands of dying people, missioned thousands more into the life of loving discipleship, and inspired millions around the globe.

Martin Sheen tells the story of visiting Mother Teresa in San Diego in the early 1990s, along with a popular motivational speaker. This speaker was in great demand, appearing frequently on television, addressing conventions and business conferences, telling people how they could become successful. He is a tall, outgoing man, and he towered over the diminutive Mother Teresa when they met.

“How did you manage to become so successful, so famous?” he asked Mother Teresa.

She looked up at him, smiled, and said confidently, “Jesus.”

“No, I mean, how is that you run such a huge religious institution, serve the most desperate people, travel constantly, and yet touch so many people?” he continued.

“Jesus,” she said again, with a big smile.

“No, I'm asking how you do it,” he persisted, still not satisfied. “How do you continue to live this life, speak to millions, win the respect of the world, and manage to be one of the greatest people in the world, even in the history of the world?”

“Jesus,” Mother Teresa answered once again with a beaming smile.

The man shook his head and turned away, totally mystified. He had no idea what she was talking about.

Martin Sheen was delighted and amazed by the exchange and her childlike yet powerful answer. He thought Mother Teresa was brilliant, compelling, and entirely convincing through her simplicity and transparency, and he was stunned by her reliance on the person of Jesus.

Reliance on Jesus is the heart of the Christian life. The saints testify that the key to their lives was not their great accomplishments, their terrible sufferings, their bold prophecies, or even their astonishing miracles. It was Jesus. Somehow, he had touched them, invited them to follow him, and managed to walk by their side. Through his grace, they remained faithful to him, rooting everything they did in their intimate relationship with him. Their lives made sense and bore good fruit because they were centered on Jesus.

All the outstanding figures of the past century exemplify this devotion to Jesus. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, wrote shortly before her death in 1980 that she was grateful and lucky because “Jesus has been on my mind nearly every day of my life.”

Standing alone on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, at 5:50 p.m. on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., called down to the gospel singer Ben Branch in the parking lot below and told him to sing King’s favorite hymn at the rally that evening. Just as he named the words of the hymn, “Precious Lord, take my hand,” King was shot through the throat and killed.

On his way to a special evening Mass where he was assassinated on Monday, March 24, 1980, the Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero stopped at the Jesuit community house in Santa Tecla, a suburb of San Salvador, to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. He told his Jesuit confessor, “I want to appear clean before the Lord.”

The Hindu peacemaker Mahatma Gandhi lived in a bare mud hut in his ashram in Wardha, with only one picture on the wall: a small portrait of Jesus walking on a road, with a caption that read, “He is our peace.”

Flannery O’Connor began her classic novel Wise Blood with the observation that integrity for her meant not being able to get rid of the “Ragged Figure moving from tree to tree in the back of the mind.”

We see reliance on Jesus in the last words of the Trappist monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton in Bangkok on December 10, 1968, when he had just finished his lecture “Marxism and Monasticism.” Many of the abbots, prioresses, and other monks present were disturbed by the talk because it was not what they expected; they did not agree with his broad vision of modern religious life. As Merton walked to his room to take an afternoon nap, one of the monks approached him and told him that a nun in the audience had been disappointed because he had said nothing about evangelization. “What we are asked to do at present,” Merton said to the monk, “is not so much to speak of Christ as to let him live in us so that people may find him by feeling how he lives in us.”

In 1993, while sharing a prison cell with the antinuclear activist Philip Berrigan, who died in 2002, I discovered a piece of paper listing all the biblical names for Jesus, such as Son of God, Son of Humanity, Lamb of God, Root of Jesse, Prince of Peace, Good Shepherd, and Bread of Life. I asked Phil about it, and he explained that he was memorizing this list so he could recite the names as a mantra and call upon Jesus throughout the day to help him, sustain him, and strengthen him.
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