During my years in the Holy Land, my frequent visits to Mount Tabor always left me with a great sense of awe, wonder, mystery, fear, and reverence before Jesus. Each time I visited Mt. Tabor and the beautiful church depicting the three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, I was also very aware of the memory of Pope Paul VI who climbed Tabor as a pilgrim in 1964, and had a very special place for the mystery of the Transfiguration in his own prayer and pontificate.
The theological meaning of the Transfiguration is central to our understanding of the mission of Jesus of Nazareth. In the past, every icon painter began his or her career by reproducing the scene of the Transfiguration. It has been said that the destiny of every Christian is written between two mountains: from Calvary to the mountain of the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is celebration of the presence of Christ which takes charge of everything in us and transfigures even that which disturbs us about ourselves. God penetrates those hardened, incredulous, even disquieting regions within us, about which we really do not know what to do. God penetrates them with the life of the Spirit and acts upon those regions and gives them his own face.
Today marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the death of Pope Paul VI. He closed his eyes on “this stupendous, dramatic temporal and earthly scene” on the very feast that so marked his life and Petrine ministry in the Church. I was on a Basilian Formation Retreat on Strawberry Island in 1978 when we got word that Paul VI had died at Castelgandolfo. The era of excitement and newness that so marked Vatican II seemed to be coming to an end. At his funeral, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Carlo Cardinal Confalonieri described him with these words:
His greatness of soul was seen in his lively intelligence and a heart filled with goodness that opened up to the spiritual needs of his sons and daughters… He became a real prince of peace. He established with pressing solicitude a continuing dialogue with all peoples. He gave his attention with all affection and hope to the weak and defenseless, the poor and those in want of every assistance. He conversed with all in order to strengthen them in faith…
At times we are very critical of the Church, and even dismiss Church leaders and their messages without giving them a fair hearing. History is now teaching us that the patience and wisdom of Pope Paul VI, especially in the aftermath and implementation of the Second Vatican Council, was a great gift to God’s people and to the world. Pope Paul VI did not see dialogue merely as an instrument but as a method. He was so close to people, especially to those who were distant or who opposed him in theory or in practice. He also loved the Holy Land, and desired that the greatest possible number of people should have the experience that was his as a pilgrim to the Land of Jesus in 1964.
Now this great Servant of the Lord lives in the Resurrection of Jesus, in whose glorious Transfiguration sign he closed his eyes some 35 years ago. Paul let us feel on earth the joy and glory that awaits each of us in the New Jerusalem. Christ’s transfiguration was in the past. The God, whose Light breaks into the earth on this feast, is present. Let our prayers today be that the world will see the Light, the Light of healing and reconciliation. Let us strive to be counted among those who listen to Christ’s Word and are transfigured by it.