by Father Mike Stubbs
The question asks: When a tree falls in the forest and there is no one present to hear it, does it still make a sound?
We might similarly ask: If Peter, James and John had not climbed up the mountain with Jesus, would the transfiguration of Christ still have taken place? If there was no one present to see the vision, would it still count? Would there have been anything to see? Was the presence of Peter, James and John essential for the Transfiguration, or only incidental? Did the Transfiguration take place for their benefit, or did they only happen to be there?
We should notice that Sunday’s second reading makes no specific reference to that dramatic event described in the Gospel reading, the transfiguration of Christ. Rather, in general terms, it discusses the manifestation of God’s grace through the appearance of Jesus Christ. One could argue that God’s grace manifests itself also in other significant events of Jesus’ life besides the transfiguration: in his birth, in the visit of the Magi, in his baptism at the Jordan River. Similarly, one could argue that the totality of Jesus’ life counts as his appearance in the world. Why single out one event?
In any case, the Second Letter to Timothy makes an interesting claim. It maintains that God’s grace was given to us long before any moment of Jesus’ life, long before he even arrived on earth. That is why it refers to “the grace bestowed upon us in Christ Jesus before time began.”
At the same time, it does not imply that God had given this grace independent of the events of Jesus’ life, but rather, in anticipation of them. That is what the phrase “in Christ Jesus” means.
We might compare it to a buyer making an advance payment before delivery of the purchased item. God gave before Christ delivered. But God had planned what Christ would do for us. It was “according to his own design.”
This long-standing plan becomes apparent in Jesus Christ. One could even say that Jesus Christ is God’s grace made visible.
That is the vision that Peter, James and John see on the mountain. It goes beyond the seemingly physical — Jesus’ face shining like the sun, or Jesus’ clothes turning brilliantly white. All these are outward signs of the spiritual reality produced by Jesus, “who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.” That is the important insight that the Transfiguration brings to these three apostles. That is also what it can bring to us.
If Jesus Christ is God’s grace made visible, why can’t all people see that? Why are there some who have not accepted the Gospel?
It takes faith. Otherwise, the vision will remain invisible, even if we climb up the mountain. Our presence is not enough. An open heart and open mind are also needed. Without faith, Peter, James and John would have seen nothing.