Renowned photographer Katie Thurmes famously wrote: “We take photos as a return ticket to a moment otherwise gone.”
Consider these examples: youngsters nowadays are far more likely to photograph a restaurant meal than to say grace over it. A significant proportion of public event attendees will end up watching most of that event ‘second-hand’ through a screen as they record it, rather than directly with their own eyes. Once, on the deck of a cruise ship sailing majestically into the Norwegian fjords, I watched a man struggling to film a seagull in flight as it ate the morsel of food he was holding out for it with his other hand!
Technology and social media have shaped our behaviour to such an extent that we feel compelled to capture every moment – however exalted or trivial it may be – on our devices, in a quasi-religious ritual. If we don’t have photographic proof, did it even happen? In our unending quest to immortalise fleeting instants, we have lost the capacity to fully immerse ourselves in the present moment.
Even St Peter was not immune from this tendency, it seems; in today’s gospel, awed by the sight of the transfigured Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah on a mountaintop, he utters: “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.”
Like us, St Peter seems unable to simply contemplate the beauty of the divine event he is witnessing; rather, he wishes to capture that moment of glory, to clutch at this transitory experience and make it permanent.
Yet the fact that he suggests raising tents is not insignificant. This is not merely the ancient world’s equivalent of someone tweeting a selfie while commenting: “Feeling cute; might delete later!” In biblical culture, tents also have spiritual significance. In the Exodus story, the presence of God abides in a tent throughout the Israelite people’s sojourn in the wilderness. When St John announces that the Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” in the prologue to his Gospel, he literally writes: “He pitched his tent (or tabernacle) among us.”
St Peter understands that something truly outstanding is at work here; what he fails to comprehend, however, is that this unveiling of Christ’s glory is but a temporary foretaste of something that will only become definitive and permanent after having passed through the crucible of suffering, that is, Christ’s passion and death. For this reason, it is significant that after the vision of Christ’s glory, God’s voice resounds on the mountain. Not – as in the case of Moses – with earthquake and thunder; neither – as happened for Elijah – in a still, small voice. Here God the Father vouches openly for Jesus: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
This unveiling of Christ’s glory is but a temporary foretaste of something that will only become definitive and permanent
The vision then ends, and the terrified disciples are left with Jesus alone, as the evangelist notes. The cloud is lifted, the great light has faded, and Moses and Elijah have disappeared: Christ alone remains. It is for this reason that St Paul writes to Timothy in today’s second reading that God’s grace has been “made manifest through the appearance of our saviour Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel”.
The sacred authors are reminding us that in this life, joy and glory will always be fleeting and transitory, even on the spiritual level. The light of Tabor will eventually give way to the darkness of Calvary, which in turn will be overcome by the glory of Easter. Through it all, the one constant is God’s Word, Christ himself: listen to him.
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