Soon after the Second Vatican Council representations of the Risen Christ began to appear conspicuously in Catholic churches in America. Parishioners had become quite accustomed to prominent representations of the Passion of Christ, most notably crucifixes, holding pride of place within parish sanctuaries. In fact, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2003) expects that a crucifix will grace every Catholic altar: GIRM #308. “Likewise, either on the altar or near it, there is to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, a cross clearly visible to the assembled people. It is desirable that such a cross should remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations, so as to call to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord.” Since the Mass is indeed the renewal of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, the graphic representation of that redeeming occurrence seems perfectly logical.
In his notable reflections on the Mass, The Spirit of the Liturgy, then Cardinal Ratzinger reflects at length on the place of the Glorified or Risen Christ and the place of the Crucified or Suffering Christ in the Roman Catholic world. The cardinal proposed that a glorified or heavenly Christ held sway in the Christian world for the Church’s first thousand years. Images that nowadays Catholics in the West might label “icons” were the rule. There was an otherworldliness about these images. There was, and still is, an aura of the spiritual, the heavenly, the supernatural, about them. The Transfigured Christ, recalled in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, would be an easy model for the iconographic artist.
Christianity’s second thousand years has focused less on the spirit of Jesus and much more on the body of Jesus. Christ was no longer pictured as triumphant on the Cross but rather as quite defeated on his Cross. The portraits of saints likewise became more realistic, often portraying their struggles and sufferings in this life rather than their glory and brilliance in the next life. Relics that recalled a saint’s earthly existence were prized more than any picture of their heavenly bliss. Cardinal Ratzinger saw this transformation as a shift from the idealized thinking of Platonic philosophy to the more realistic thinking of Aristotelian philosophy. The center of Christian gravity had shifted away from Augustine and Ambrose and toward Abelard and Aquinas, from the Glorified Christ to the Crucified Christ. Christianity was coming done to earth.
Jesus Christ, of course, understood the value of both portrayals. His disciples would get more than a glimpse of the suffering Christ. Even though they fled Calvary, they would witness the agony in the garden and the carrying of the Cross through Jerusalem’s streets. And they would spend nine days, gathered in the mournful upper room. So the dying Savior was very real for them. For this reason then, Christ took Peter, James and John, the “pillars” of the early Church, up Mount Tabor and was gloriously transfigured before their very eyes. “His clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them,” St. Mark wrote a bit more colorfully than St. Luke, probably recalling St. Peter’s first-hand account. Christ’s goal was to strengthen these Church leaders for the fateful days ahead. A taste of heavenly glory might do the trick.
St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, also read this Sunday, reminds his converts that the thought of heavenly glory must strengthen them, too. He tells them not to imitate their neighbors: “Their minds are occupied with earthly things.” He then goes on to insist: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.”
Roman Catholic tradition certainly appreciates the glory of Mount Tabor but it also welcomes the lessons of Mount Calvary. Yet Jesus himself did not leave his Church mere graphic remembrances, no matter how heavenly or how earthly. Jesus bequeathed his Church his own very Sacred Body and Precious Blood, truly present under the humble appearance of bread and wine. The Body given up and the Blood poured out are the sacramental realities that Jesus intended his Church to cherish and to ponder until the end of time, no matter what the prevailing philosophy of the day might be. To the eye of faith, the Holy Eucharist offers both the consolation of Tabor and the determination of Calvary. The Eucharist means the forgiveness of past sins as well as a pledge of future glory. The Eucharist captures the whole Gospel message.