by Sr. Mary Ann Zimmer, ND
I am always learning from my students. Often the ones with the best questions are those who have been raised with little or no religious background. Their questions can be so fresh and honest. I had a student ask me last year what was with God always thinking he had to be the center of attention and get all the glory. Wasn’t that pretty self-centered? So today what are we to think of this Sunday’s feast day about Jesus’ transfiguration into glory?
We get important clues from the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Daniel, which promises the Son of Man (later used as a title for Jesus) everlasting dominion, glory, and kingship—and service from all peoples, nations, and languages. The Book of Daniel belongs to what we call apocalyptic literature, highly symbolic literature written by oppressed people to encourage hope in God’s inevitable triumph—even when hope is least reasonable. To praise God as king or the one having dominion is to contrast this promise with the life the people are experiencing in history. It is not that kingship is the ideal system of governance but that God, who requires justice and compassion, displays the ideal characteristics of one who rules.
What are we today, who put our trust in democracy and self-determination, to make of this Biblical insistence on God’s kingship? I think the primary thing we overlook is that the people describing God in the scriptures lived most of their lives as people dominated by exploitive foreign powers or by many of their own kings who used their power for domination. To praise God as king, as the psalm says, is to “proclaim God’s justice.” The emphasis is not on a self-glorifying kingship but on God’s justice, compassion for the poor, and protection of the lowly. God is king, exercising authority in contrast to what most people experienced most of the time. This is why the proclamation that God is King is good news. God and God’s justice are meant to govern us and govern through us.
Jesus was the least likely person in his own day to be thought of as glorious. The Transfiguration was a manifestation of how God evaluated him and his choices. As human beings all of us exercise agency in some way. We have the God-given power to get things done in some large or small sphere. The readings today tell us how to exercise that agency and how to evaluate the use of power in our own day.
All this is meant to gradually teach us to see things with God’s eyes, which may transform how we see the world around us and how we act in it. This is not so that God can exercise domination over us, but so that our individual and communal humanity may flourish.