Lifting Up Our Eyes: The Transfiguration of the Lord
“And having lifted up their eyes, they saw no one, except Jesus only” (Mt 17:8).
The saying goes that most people see only what they want to see. If that’s true, then most of us live with a kind of selective blindness. Either we deliberately ignore certain things on certain occasions or habitually on all occasions—covering one or both eyes before the unpleasant or unwanted reality before us.
At one extreme people fear to see evil because of the uncomfortable demands it makes on their conscience—in righting the wrong or confronting the wrongdoer. At the opposite pole a grudging recognition of goodness may reveal a deep-seated cynicism bordering, perhaps, on despair.
The Lord’s Transfiguration proposes a third alternative which accounts for human fear yet engenders unbounded hope in God. Whether we walk through a valley of shadows or verdant pastures, Jesus shepherds us between two extremes: On the one hand elation, as in Peter’s impetuous offer to build three tents on the spot, and on the other hand the paralyzing fear that overcomes anyone caught off guard by a sudden showing of divine glory.
“‘This is my beloved Son; … listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’ And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only” (cf. Mt 17:1-8).
Whether in consolation or distress, lifting up our eyes to see only Jesus dispels our apprehensions and reminds us that we live in a conquered world, a world that Jesus has already overcome. His encouraging “Rise, and have no fear” takes our fears and aspirations seriously. Where good and evil might seem to duel as equals, Scripture tells us “No,” in St Paul’s words, “but in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rm 8:37).
Both the blindly positive and obstinately negative miss the rich if disconcerting texture of life in a fallen world—the world that God so loved as to send His Son to save it. Jesus redeemed us not because the world was wholly good or entirely bad, but because it was neither hot nor cold. “I have come,” He declares, “to cast fire on the earth,” and certainly the fiery apparition atop Tabor signified how ardently He wished it to be ignited (Lk 12:49).
Eyes that shield themselves from certain realities or truths undermine the supernatural point of view which St Josemaria counsels us to cultivate.
“I have asked you to keep on lifting your eyes up to Heaven as you go about your work, because hope encourages us to grasp hold of the strong hand which God never ceases to reach out to us, to keep us from losing our supernatural point of view” (Friends of God, no. 213).
More than a slight departure from ordinary Christian spirituality, going about with blinders on also shows a deeper lack of confidence, of hope, in God. Hope is the virtue that keeps us striding toward difficult but possible goods—especially heaven itself, but also innumerable lesser goals. Hope, says St Josemaria, moves us to take hold of the stronger hand continually held out to us, because “I am convinced,” he says “that unless I look upward, unless I have Jesus, I will never accomplish anything” (Friends of God, no. 213).
Behind this supernatural perspective is the conviction that God is always at work, that God “never ceases to reach out to us,” that He is always asking for our faithful cooperation—even when the sky seems to be falling or the earth opening to swallow up the good that we wish to accomplish. Jesus asks that we have the courage to meet, not dodge, trouble—to overcome and not ignore.
Those who only want to see one side of things endanger the very supernatural point of view that alone leaps hurdles and finishes the race. Temperament or habit might incline us to the sunny or gloomy side, but either deceives if clung to. Either can obscure the fact that the Lord’s is the earth and the fullness thereof, where even on the darkest days, the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
That God puts us squarely into a world mixed with good and evil is as old as Eden: even the idyllic Garden admitted a serpent. But if you’ve preselected a side and determined only to see the good or only the bad, the larger story remains untold for you. You see the first man and woman fallen and close your ears to the promise of a Redeemer. Or you only hear the promise and forget that toil and hardship also make up our path to salvation. We want to be doves but not serpents, or vice versa, but not both.
The Christian is made for the light. The paradox “I came into this world that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (Jn 9:39), reveals that only Jesus can open our eyes wide enough to see things as they are. A second paradox, no less important, also emerges: we must first see that we do not see in order to ask for light. The darkness of incomprehension, of confusion, humbles one to the dust, but also makes one thing perfectly clear: Jesus is the only light in the only world we have.
For us, as for St Paul en route to Damascus, the lights need to go out before our eyes are opened. But the same Apostle subsequently reflects: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). The same brilliant flash that toppled Saul had similarly reduced Peter, James, and John to prostration atop Tabor. They hid their faces from the too dazzling glory radiating from the Lord’s human frame.
The Transfiguration is traditionally understood as the ultimate counterbalance to the ignominy of the passion. It was a kind of unforgettable vision that would so impress Peter, James, and John as to keep them believing in Christ’s divinity when He appeared to be most ungodlike as a sentenced and condemned criminal. The liturgical preface of the feast interprets the mystery in just this way: “For he revealed his glory … that the scandal of the Cross might be removed from the hearts of his disciples.”
But the vision wasn’t a seamless consolation. A troubling conversation passed between the Lord and Moses and Elijah: Jesus is going to die in Jerusalem. His “exodus,” as St Luke calls it, would be accomplished soon in the holy city. And His passage will entail even more than crossing a parted sea or ascending heavenward in a chariot of fire. Jesus won’t be spared. He will be brutalized, shackled and dragged around the streets of Jerusalem like an animal on a chain, and then hurried out of the city to be crucified at a crossroads where many would gawk and few would sympathize.
The supernatural outlook to which St Josemaria calls us takes in all of this, not only in meditation on the mystery, but practically when disturbing events overturn the even course of our lives. In a powerful way, the Transfiguration teaches us to lift up our eyes when we are troubled and look for Jesus, so that we can see Jesus only, and not merely the trouble around us.
It is telling, and moving, that on the several poignant occasions in the Gospels when the heavenly Father allowed His voice to be heard by men—both on Tabor and at the Lord’s baptism—His message to Jesus amounts to “I love you.” We might expect some other declaration commanding bystanders to draw back and tremble at the vision of a glorious Christ. Instead, the Father wants His surpassing love for His Son to thunder in our ears and virtually blind us with its intensity.
This is because the Father’s message to us is: Contemplate my Son and hope in Him, whether in suffering or exaltation, He is Lord. And as the Father never ceases to reach out to us with a mighty hand, so in our lives should we see this same tender and encouraging gesture reflected in Jesus on the mount of the Transfiguration: “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’ And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”
*This article was first published in 2015.
Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community’s seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms (Scepter Publishers 2019). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.