The Transfiguration of Humanity (Homage to Paul VI)

Gaudium et spes, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” is rightly invoked to support Catholic commitment to issues of social justice. However, often lacking in appeals to the document is due appreciation of the Christological foundation that underlies and governs the Constitution’s approach.

Especially important in this regard is the remarkable Christological vision:

The Church firmly believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through His Spirit offer humanity the light and the strength to measure up to its highest vocation. Nor has any other name under heaven been given to man by which he must be saved. She likewise believes that in her Lord and Master is found the key, the center, and the goal of all human history. The Church also holds that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, Who is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever. Hence in the light of Christ, the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creature, the council wishes to speak to all men and women in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time. (GS 10)

In relation to Jesus Christ who, as the Constitution boldly states, is “the key, the center and the goal of human history,” humankind discovers its own true identity and vocation.

The confession confounds our minds and we strain to comprehend something of its magnitude. Here, as Cardinal John Henry Newman knew, an image or icon can serve to focus our attention and open new vistas to explore, both intellectually and affectively.

Does any image more richly and suggestively portray Christ as “key, center, and goal of history” than that of the Transfiguration? Moses and Elijah are portrayed flanking Jesus, bathed in his light. Their own luster is but a partial and passing reflection of the glory that radiates from him.

Jesus transfigured not only fulfills Torah and prophets, he recapitulates in himself all God’s dealings with humanity. Jesus concentrates and intensifies all the spiritual forces of the universe, and redirects them toward the awe-struck disciples. They receive him as they are able, “grace answering to grace.” For he is the true, if not always recognized, desire of every human heart.

The Transfiguration (artist unknown), c. 1516 [Transfiguration Monastery, Yaroslavl, Russia]

In the “Preface” to the Eucharistic Prayer on the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, we rightly pray that there be fulfilled “in the Body of the whole Church what so wonderfully shone forth first in its Head.”

But we know, from Saint Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, the subject of the interchange between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah: “They spoke of his exodus which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” (Lk 9:31) So the exodus from Egypt led by Moses and the exodus accomplished by Elijah, as Elisha gazed on in wonder, were sacramental foreshadowings of the true exodus of Jesus to the Father.

As Gaudium et spes proclaims in another place: “the Holy Spirit, in a way known to God, offers to all the possibility of sharing in Christ’s paschal mystery.” (GS, 22) The logic of the Transfiguration is always paschal logic. Transfiguration only transpires by way of the Cross.

Thus two other images, personal icons if you will, illuminate this feast for me. One is a photo that hangs on my wall, dated late June 1963. That day, Francis Cardinal Spellman shepherded fifteen New York priests and seminarians, who were studying in Rome, into an audience with the newly elected Paul VI. In the photo, we are grouped in a semi-circle – the vibrant Pontiff stands in our midst, his face aglow – ready to undertake the Lord’s call.

One of Pope Paul’s first momentous acts was to reconvene the Second Vatican Council, whose first session had ended the previous December and whose future was uncertain. In his address at the opening of the second session in September 1963, Paul summed up the goal of the Council in these words: “to proclaim to the whole world. . .that Christ is our beginning and guide, our way, our hope, and our goal.” Each of the documents that the Council laboriously produced over the ensuing three sessions bears this clear Christological imprint, as Paul skillfully steered the conciliar ship to port.

The second image placed beside that of the newly elected pope dates from fifteen years later. It shows a gaunt, exhausted Paul in the pulpit of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. The turbulent years had wreaked their toll – not least the reaction to his re-affirmation of moral teachings in Humanae vitae. Now a final heart-stabbing thrust: the kidnapping and assassination by the Red Brigade of Paul’s friend the Italian statesman, Aldo Moro.

Paul presided over the funeral, and from the pulpit, like an Old Testament prophet, berated the Lord. “We pleaded to you for the safety of this good and innocent man who was my friend, but you did not heed our prayer.” But the pope, in grief, reaffirmed the faith in Christ that had sustained him his entire life. He exclaimed: “you, O Lord, have not abandoned his immortal spirit, sealed by faith in Christ, who is the resurrection and the life.”

Contemplating these two images – the energetic young pope and the old pontiff, face furrowed by depths of trial and suffering – the eyes of faith discern the paschal trajectory of transfiguration in a human life. Whether pope, prophet or everyman, the cost of transfiguration is “not less than everything.”

Paul VI, his death surely hastened by Moro’s murder, completed his own exodus to the Lord a scant three months later, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1978. It was Sunday: the day of resurrection.

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations on the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press).