Only Jesus – Johnny Go, SJ

Matthew 17:1-9, The Transfiguration of Our Lord

The Transfiguration of our Lord was–quite literally–“a brief shining moment.” It was that one fleeting moment when Jesus’ divinity–normally hidden during his earthly life–shone through, but only for one fleeting moment.


One moment Jesus’ face was bright like the sun, and his clothes white as light as he stood there between the two great prophets, Moses and Elijah. The next moment he was alone and it was “only Jesus.”

“Only Jesus” is a phrase I first encountered when I was preparing for the Jesuit novitiate over thirty years ago. When I received the letter of acceptance in December of 1986, I resigned from my job in Manila and flew to Cebu to spend the next few months in a retreat house getting ready for my new life. The Jesuit there suggested I read Archbishop Alban Goodier’s The Public Life of our Lord Jesus Christ. I remember pulling the dusty volume off the library shelf and thinking: “Now, this looks like a really old book and certainly smells like one!” But I read the book as instructed, and despite the author’s somewhat old-fashioned style, got into it.

I was particularly struck by the author’s use of “only Jesus.” It was precisely a reference to the story of the Transfiguration, when Peter and the disciples looked up and saw Jesus back to his ordinary earthly form.

Theologians and biblical scholars have a Greek word for Jesus’ ordinary earthly form: kenosis, which means “self-emptying.” St. Paul was the first to use that word to refer to Jesus. In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle wrote:

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).

When God became human, He gathered His Infinite vastness to become “only Jesus.”

I wonder: Were the disciples disappointed that the divinity of Jesus went back into hiding? Or were they relieved to find the Jesus they knew?

Given all the things that are going wrong in the world today, I think we could all use a little display of the Lord’s divinity. To be honest, I’m beginning to wonder if this business of the kenosis, this subtle hidden divine presence–will it really do the work? Has the time come for some change in strategy?

So, how about a little Transfiguration, Lord? Just a minor one to shake us back into our senses and cow us back to some decency. We’ve all been feeling so self-sufficient and growing so blatantly self-entitled we no longer leave any room for You nor give enough regard for truth. Is it time for a little coming out party?

But we do believe that God is not only all-good, but also all wise. He wants what’s best for us and knows what’s best for us. If He prefers the way of kenosis, the subtle hidden and humble way, He must have a very good reason. And maybe today we are being asked to accept God’s way and even follow His lead by ourselves choosing the way of kenosis–even if we don’t understand completely.

How can you practice a little kenosis in your life?

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