The Transfiguration of Christ, Paolo Veronese, painted 1555-56
Readings (New American Bible, used in the Philippines and USA)
Gospel (Mt 17:1-9)
Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
“Rise, and do not be afraid.”
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
As they were coming down from the mountain,
Jesus charged them,
“Do not tell the vision to anyone
until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
The Great Wave off Kanagawa, woodblock print created c.1829-1832 by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
When Peter, James and John caught a glimpse of the divinity of Jesus they were ‘very much afraid’. We have recently seen on TV and the internet the destructive power of a tsunami, triggered by the 9.0 earthquake in Japan on 11 March. Many have been ‘very much afraid’. We have also seen the dignity and discipline of the people directly affected in Japan. I saw a BBC reporter near Sendai, one of the worst-hit areas, tell of a man who had lost everything, including his family, but who had found hope when he saw Emperor Akihito address his people on TV. Many Japanese people used to believe that the emperor was a god, until the destruction the country brought on itself in wars in the last century. Nevertheless, seeing Emperor Akihito expressing his solidarity with and his concern for his people has given hope to some who have nothing left.
Jesus was aware of the bewilderment the apostles would go through during his Passion and death. He wanted to give them hope, though they wouldn’t recognize this until after those events. What had made Peter, James and John afraid wasn’t the destructive power of nature but being in the presence of God showing himself as God. They were afraid when told to listen to God’s ‘beloved Son’. Isn’t it strange that when in the presence of the totally good we sometimes can’t comprehend or cope?
In the first reading God asks Abram, later to be called ‘Abraham’, to ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you’. People directly affected by disasters such as that in Japan and the political unrest in so many Arab countries right now often have to do the same. Some go to another part of their own country. Some, such as overseas workers, may choose to return home where they may have no work. And they may have to go through great hardship while escaping, as we have seen in Libya, for example, in recent weeks. I was on the phone recently to a domestic worker from the Philippines in Bahrain who told me that she thought her employers were planning to evacuate but didn’t know what they would do about her. She told me about houses on fire in the area where she is living and also said she hadn’t been paid for more than three months. She too, like the three apostles in the gospel, is ‘very afraid’.
But the responsorial psalm’s response is one of encouragement: ‘Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.’ The psalm contains these consoling words, ‘May your kindness, O LORD, be upon us who have put our hope in you.’ Our hope is not in an emperor or in any official, though the hope that such persons can bring is real and ultimately from God. But we place our hope in God himself and in Jesus, the ‘beloved ‘Son’ of the Father, God who became Man.
St Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy urges us to ‘Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God’. Bishop Martin Tetsuo Hiraga of Sendai is surely bearing this hardship for the gospel. He told Vatican Radio, ‘We are terrified. We only have the government announcements, we have no other source of information. We don't even know what has happened to our parishes in the towns and villages along the coast. We have no way of contacting them. I can only hope that the people of my diocese can stand together and be strong enough to overcome this disaster.’
Yet the same CNS report quotes Father Daisuke Narui, executive director of Caritas Japan, saying to Fides, ‘Young people are continually coming to Caritas from all the dioceses to offer their availability as volunteers to bring aid to the areas most affected by the disaster. This is an important sign that gives us hope for the future.’ Catholics comprise only 0.15 percent of the population of the area the Diocese of Sendai covers and 0.40 percent of the people of Japan. Despite that, they are bringing hope to their people, the hope that Jesus was bringing to Peter, James and John in his Transfiguration and through them to us, as we face whatever ‘earthquakes’, ‘tsunamis’ or ‘nuclear meltdowns’ may come our way.