1978 was an eventful year for the Catholic Church. To begin with, it was the four hundredth anniversary of the transfer of the burial shroud of Jesus to the city of Turin in 1578. In honor of the anniversary, the Church in Italy decided to host a rare exposition where the Shroud of Turin would be on display for the first time in nearly a hundred years. My friend, Father Bernie O’Connor, and I, along with two of our friends, made plans to attend. We made reservations to fly to Rome on Friday, August 25, spend two nights there, then drive to Turin to attend the opening of the exposition on Monday, the 27th. On the sixth of August, only about two weeks before we were scheduled to leave, Pope Paul VI died. We watched the news with great anticipation while the Vatican put plans in place for the convening of the consistory of cardinals who would elect the new pope. We were thrilled to learn that the consistory would open on August 25, the day of our arrival in Rome.
The consistory opened and the first ballot took place on the evening of the 25th, while we were still in flight. We landed and got to our hotel late, tired, hungry, and jet-lagged. We knew the next ballot would be early the next morning, on the 26th, and we were anxious to stand in Saint Peter’s Square and watch for the famous smoke that would signal the results of the ballot. However, our fatigue had other plans. We missed it. It was okay, though, because the morning ballot was inconclusive. There was black smoke. No pope. We didn’t miss much.
That afternoon, we were in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Bernie and I were in the back of Saint Peter’s in the sacristy, signing up to offer Sunday Mass the following day. We signed up for the chapel of Pope Saint Pius X, just to the right of the main altar. As we were leaving the sacristy, Bernie said to me, “I want to say Mass tomorrow in white vestments.” I told him that would be impossible. The color for that Sunday was green, and we were not going to just waltz into Saint Peter’s and say we want to use a different color. But he was unswayed.
Things were not going according to plan. Bernie was being difficult, and our time was short. We had less than twenty-four hours before we had to be on the road to Turin. I went off alone and sat in one of the pews in front of the main altar. I seldom ask God for anything in particular, but this time, I said a little prayer…something like, “Lord, if it isn’t too much trouble, we’d really like to be here for the new pope’s election.” Immediately, I distinctly heard in my mind a jovial voice saying these exact words: “Just you wait, little man. Just you wait.”
Less than an hour later, we four were standing in the crowd in the middle of Saint Peter’s Square, watching the white smoke billowing out of the little chimney over the Sistine Chapel, and heard the proclamation, “Habemus papam.” We have a pope. Moments later, Albino Cardinal Luciani, Pope John Paul I, stepped out onto the balcony and bestowed on us his first apostolic blessing.
The next morning, Bernie and I went into the sacristy at the appointed time to vest for Mass. There must have been twenty vesting tables arranged around the room, one each for the many chapels that make up Saint Peter’s. Every one was laid out with green vestments…all but one. On the vesting table for the chapel of Pope Saint Pius were laid out white vestments in honor of the papal election. Bernie and I were the only ones in the whole Basilica to offer Mass in white vestments that morning.
Why do you think I shared with you that long piece of my personal history, and why on this day, the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord? It’s because people think that the Transfiguration was something that happened to Jesus. It wasn’t. It was something that happened to Peter, James, and John. All the imagery in the gospel story was taken from and referred back to the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the revelation of God to Moses and the Israelites on Mount Sinai from the Book of Exodus. Since that was borrowed imagery, we have to ask, did the Transfiguration happen just as it was described in the gospels? Almost assuredly not. Then, was it just a made-up story? Not at all. The gospel describes a profound spiritual transformation happening within Jesus’s disciples. It compresses into one event their dawning realization that they were in the presence of divinity.
The cloud and the voice reflected the shekinah, meaning the cloud of the glory of God that descended on the mountain upon Moses and the people. On that mountain, God revealed his name. The radiance of Jesus’s face reflected how Moses’s face shone when he conversed with God. Moses and Elijah reflected the Law and the Prophets—the Hebrew Scriptures. The tents the disciples wanted to pitch reflected the festival of Succoth—or the Feast of Booths—that celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai. Now, however, it was no longer just Moses and Elijah—the Law and the Prophets—there was also Jesus taking his place alongside them as the voice from heaven identified him as the Son of Yahweh God. On that mountain, God revealed his Son.
The Transfiguration of Jesus was actually the transformation of the disciples. They originally chose to follow Jesus because they had certain understandings about the way things worked in God’s world, and certain expectations of Jesus and what the will of God would be. Don’t we all? What do we say? “That’s not the way it works?” or “That’s not the way it’s done?” Like the disciples, we expect God to operate in a certain way because that’s how we’ve been taught, and that’s what our experience has shown us.
What if the disciples had not had the Transfiguration transformation? What if they had continued understanding the Kingdom of God as a political state and the Messiah as an earthly ruler? What if they had continued seeing Jesus as just another prophet giving moral exhortations—a prophet who, like so many before him, had come to a bad end? What if the disciples couldn’t fit the resurrection into their worldview like so many other spiritual people then and now? Would there have been any provision in their understanding for the presence and power of the Holy Spirit? I think not.
Just as happened to us in Rome that time, the will of God will always make mincemeat of our expectations. It did for Peter, James, and John. It’s not that we expect too much from God, we expect too little. Our imaginations are too limited, our trust, too feeble. For the disciples, the Transfiguration didn’t happen on just one day in just one place. Neither will it be like that for us. The revelation of the love of God, the revelation of the grace and peace of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the revelation of the power and fellowship of the Holy Spirit happen gradually as our understanding of the world and the presence of God within it is transformed by faith. Like the Magi, we can come to see a star, but so much more than a star. Like Peter, James, and John, we can come to see a prophet, but so much more than a prophet. And like Christians throughout the centuries, we can come to see bread and wine, but so much more than bread and wine.
For people of faith, the Transfiguration is happening all around us. The transforming power of the Holy Spirit allows us to see God where the world says God can’t be found: in tragedy, in poverty, in suffering, in sin, and death. The grace of the Transfiguration is no small event. It allows us to see the world anew, to see one another anew, to see ourselves anew, and even to see God anew. And, yes, we can even get to wear white vestments on a green day.