In the twenty-third chapter of the book of Leviticus the Lord God instructs the people of Israel to build temporary homes in which they are to live once a year, for seven days (Lev. 23: 33 ff). These dwellings are to act as a reminder of their itinerant forty year exodus, from captivity in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. The annual commemoration of these events is known as the feast of tabernacles, and we read that it was a time appointed for the gathering together as the People of God, to offer sacrifices to the Lord in thanksgiving for his saving acts. Two important themes bear attention: first, the thanksgiving sacrifice of a covenanted people for their salvation from bondage to freedom as children of God; secondly, the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to his people, giving to them a land of their own inheritance.
We know from our yearly observance of the Sacred Triduum that the great feasts of the life of Our Blessed Lord are always intimately connected with the liturgical life of the ancient people of Israel. The feast of the transfiguration is no exception. In fact, it is held that the events which we commemorate today took place on the last day of the feast of tabernacles: the high point of the celebrations, and the very day on which the Lord God instructed the Israelites: “you shall hold a holy convocation and present an offering by fire to the Lord” (Lev. 23: 36). And so, inherent in the events on Mount Tabor, are these old testament notions of freedom from slavery and the inheritance of a promised land. In the new covenant, sealed in the blood of Christ poured out on the altar of the cross and shared with us in the sacred font, this dual divine action takes on a new and elevated meaning, as the people of the new covenant are freed from slavery to sin by the Red Sea of baptism, and delivered into the promised land, not of earthly but heavenly inheritance.
In the Lord’s transfiguration, then, we are presented with a rich opportunity to meditate on our holy convocation; our thanksgiving offering to the Lord for our salvation from slavery to sin; our exodus from bondage to the promised land of heaven. We are offered a chance to ponder the sublime mystery presented to us in the beauty of the Sacred Liturgy, illumined by the glorified presence of the Lord who “has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will” (Eph. 1: 9). Thus our thoughts on this feast must, first and foremost, be a consideration of how the actions of the Lord on Mount Tabor reveal to us the true nature of authentic worship. We must learn how to be disposed to offer such worship, receiving the graces which from it flow, and which cause us, like the apostles gathered with the Lord, to benefit by sanctification from our participation in the life of the triune God.
Throughout history, the Church has spoken of certain elements which are essential to this worship: four principal ends of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass which are to be found in every genuine cultic action of prayer to Almighty God. These are found in the scriptures, and particularly in the events of the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord. Indeed, because Christ (not Man) is the principle actor in the Sacred Liturgy, we find these traits not only in the central moments of his life, but in his very person; the same person whom we—the Church at prayer—seek to imitate in our liturgical action, joined to Christ in prayer to the Father. In the transfiguration of Our Blessed Lord, we find these ideas together, shedding light on the coming events of his suffering and death, and teaching us the true purpose of all prayer: the glorification of Almighty God and our preparation for eternal life with him.
The first of these ends is ADORATION. In the gospel of Saint Matthew we are told that Peter, and James, and John, “fell on their faces and were filled with awe” (Mt. 17: 6). In the presence of Christ in authentic worship, then, adoration must be our first reaction also. Indeed, this revelation of the glory of God is echoed at the end of almost every Mass: “we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father” (Jn 1: 14). Thus it is by the light of the Lord’s transfigured presence that the purpose of our salvation, the beatific vision, is revealed to us. As the psalmist says, “in thy light do we see light” (Ps. 36: 9). Here the uniqueness of Christ as the means of salvation is revealed; the fulfilment of the law and the prophets in Christ is revealed; the mystery of the fullness of the Triune Godhead is revealed. Our response to this, then, must be to fall on our faces in wonder and awe.
In the Sacred Liturgy such adoration is inherent. In the actions of the ministers before the altar, and particularly before the Lord enthroned in the tabernacle, the Church imitates the adoration which, by his transfigured presence, Christ teaches his apostles. In our reverence to the glorified Lord in Holy Communion, we each learn anew the interior and external adoration which is due to Almighty God, and are ourselves formed by Christ to become citizens and subjects of his everlasting kingdom. Here, then, as the apostles on Mount Tabor, we must be adorers of the one who turns his face to us, bathing us in the light of his countenance (cf. Num. 6: 26).
Secondly, authentic worship must involve THANKSGIVING. Saint Luke’s account of the transfiguration reveals this in the words of Saint Peter: “Master, it is well that we are here” (Lk. 9: 33). The apostle who eight days before confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”, now recognizes the graces that are his by his closeness to Christ (Mt. 16: 16). By acknowledging the goodness of being with Christ and staying true to that good to the point of death, Saint Peter offers a true sacrifice of prayer and praise (cf. Ps. 50: 23). That this takes place at the high point of the feast of tabernacles when, as we have seen, the Lord commanded the people of Israel to “hold a holy convocation and present an offering by fire to the Lord”, further enforces this point (Lev. 23: 36).
This idea is also fundamental to our Eucharistic offering. Here we give thanks to Almighty God for the graces he bestows on us through his presence, by offering ourselves in a humble spirit and with a contrite heart to be a sacrifice that is pleasing in his sight. By joining ourselves to the sacrifice of Christ the High Priest, spiritually placing our lives with the host on the paten, we are joined with Saint Peter and all the apostles in the sacrificial oblation offered by Christ once and for all (cf. Heb. 10). In this union of prayer and spirit, we become one with Christ and his Church, here and in the life to come; the promised land of heaven no longer a distant hope but a reality given to us as we see the Lord, glorified and reigning with his eternal Father.
In knowledge of this union with the sacrifice of Christ we see also that ATONEMENT, that is the offering of Christ as the propitiation for our sins, is essential. True thanksgiving must come from sacrifice, and the sacrifice of Christ is that which atones for our sins, re-presented for us in the Sacred Liturgy. In his ascent of Mount Tabor the Lord prepares us for the mount of Golgotha, the means by which his glory is shared with us. This parallel reveals not only the manner of his death, then, but also the intrinsic link between the sacrifice of Calvary and the Mass.
Thus the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is far more than a mere sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; it is a propitiatory sacrifice which profits us for eternal salvation (cf. Trent, Canon 3). Here we come to the holy hill and dwelling which is both Tabor and Calvary alike (cf. Ps. 43). This altar is the mountain of temptation and preaching, of prayer and of agony, of the cross and of the resurrection itself. It is the fulfillment of Sinai, and Horeb, and Moriah. It is the fullness of the sacrifice and life that is bestowed on us by the Father through the gift of his only-begotten Son. And it is the mountain which we are to ascend in order to reach the heavenly kingdom, the New Jerusalem, by the new covenant sealed in the precious blood of Christ; blood which is shed in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world. True worship, then, is always rooted in the sacrifice of Christ, which takes away the sin of the world.
And if authentic Christian worship is found most perfectly in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, then we must say that PETITION is a constitutive element also. In both Saint Matthew and Saint Mark’s accounts of the transfiguration we are told that the Lord and his apostles simply ascended the high mountain, but Saint Luke tells us that they “went up on the mountain to pray” (Lk. 9: 28). As Noah, and Moses, and David, and Elijah before him, the mount is for the Lord a place of encounter with his eternal Father; a place of intercession, the work which he continues now in eternity at the right hand of the Father. By his ascent of Mount Tabor to pray, we are shown that petition is to be an essential element of the ascent of Calvary, and thus one of the ends find in the re-presentation of that sacrifice here in the Mass.
In the atoning sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, the Lord makes reparation for our sins and those of the whole world by his petition to the Father. Christ is the only mediator between Man and God, “who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (Rom. 8: 34). Thus the Church’s authentic prayer in the Eucharistic offering does not simply contain this essential element, but demands also of us a petition to God the Son, joined to his perfect prayer to the eternal Father, with and through the action of the Holy Spirit. So here, too, is our privileged place of intercession—not simply for ourselves, but for the whole Church and the world, living and departed.
In this, as in every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, may we be more perfectly united to the fruits of Christ’s eternal offering. May we seek to imitate the perfect prayer of Christ the High Priest, revealed to us in the Sacred Liturgy. And, conforming ourselves and lives to the pattern of worship which he orders, may we be made fit to share in his divinity, and so be transfigured from glory to glory, reigning with Christ and his saints in the promised land of our inheritance, freed from the bonds of sin and death, and alive to the fullness of joy and peace forevermore.