On Friday I celebrated the school Mass at Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville. Just before Mass began, the principal Sister Mary Raymond mentioned to me in the sacristy that some of the girls had just finished reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in their philosophy class and said if I could find a way to work the Cave into my homily the girls would be delighted. No obvious connection came immediately to mind but, knowing better, I responded without hesitation, “Yes Sister, I believe I can make that work.” As I got to the ambo, I slid my prepared text out from under the Lectionary and read the Gospel with one eye while I looked for the right place to go off script with the other. What I ended up saying worked out, and my detour into Plato seemed to come across as planned from the start. So, I’ll chalk that one up to the Holy Spirit and will be calling upon Sister Mary Raymond whenever I need homily inspiration in the future.
Leaving Mount de Sales on Friday, I turned my attention to the weekend and to today’s Gospel of the Transfiguration, but my mind stayed with Plato. Both, it seems, work according to the same logic: Plato’s calling out of the cave and Christ’s leading up the mountain appear to be parallel movements of ascent, and their similarity deserves some reflection. As I’m unlikely to find a better point of departure for this Sunday’s homily than what has already given me, here we are.
The Allegory of the Cave comes in Book VII of Plato’s Republic and is perhaps his most famous allegory: a medium with which the philosopher illustrates the passage from the narrow, truncated realm of particulars to the expansive world of universals. Plato’s point is primarily about our ideas and concepts, but there is a moral reading of the Cave as well, one in which we find deep harmony with Christ’s Transfiguration.
Deep within the recesses of the cave are prisoners chained to look at images projected as shadows before fire upon the wall in front of them. These prisoners know no other reality. They are content looking at these shapes and even enjoy guessing which might come next. But, speaking for Plato, Socrates suggests that if one of those prisoners were to be set free and led out of the cave to see the real world outside of it, they could never go back in. They could no longer be content with shadows made by fire when they have laid eyes upon the sun itself and the truth of all things its light reveals. What they had seen on high would forever change their perception of what lies below.
In Christ’s Transfiguration, we have the same movements as Plato’s Cave. Prior to their ascent, the disciples quarreled with Jesus over his proclamation that he must suffer, be killed, and be raised. This did not align with their understanding of who he was and what he came to do; they were prisoners of their own truncated vision of God and his plan for redemption. By taking the central three — Peter, James, and John — up to the heights of Tabor, Jesus draws them, as it were, out of the cave in which they were constrained to look upon God only as a shadow cast upon the wall and graced them to behold the surpassing splendor of his true divinity. As the captives freed from the cave, the disciples, too, looked upon the source of all light, as the Gospel tells us: His face shone like the sun. And this light, and the command of the Father to listen to him through whom it shines, forever changes the three disciples who have seen what none before them had: the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.
Plato lived several centuries before Christ, but Christ is the one Plato foresaw setting the prisoners free from the cave. In John’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself as the way, the truth, and the life (Jn. 14:6) — and so he is. Christ is the way that leads captives out from the cave’s darkness. He is the truth of all things that those who have left shadows behind are graced to behold. He is the life that is given to those who have followed the way and embraced the truth. And this life — life in abundance — is such that those whom Christ has set free cannot be contented to live again in the cave below.
This movement of ascent — Christ taking us out of the cave or up the mountain — is what we call redemption; and redemption is the work of the whole Christian life. Redemption is a matter of letting oneself be lifted up out of the imprisonment of one’s narrowmindedness and given new vision of oneself and the world as made new through the mercy of God. It is, in truth, not only Christ who is transfigured amid the heights of Tabor but also Peter, James, and John themselves. And we, too, are likewise transfigured when we allow Christ to unshackle us, lead us out of the cave, and set us to stand upon the heights and there behold his glory. Redemption is not only the work of Lent. Each day Christ descends again to find and redeem us. Each day is the day on which our salvation is at hand.
As Plato saw it, the one freed from the cave cannot return again to live there. But they are compelled to go back to free those still held in chains. When we, too, have known redemption for ourselves, it is our obligation as those set free by Christ to return to those in bondage, announce to them the work of salvation Christ has wrought, and lead them along the way that leads to life. We must, as Christ and with Christ, descend from the mountain and go down into the cave to seek and to save those who are still lost. With the help of his grace, we must release those still bound, take them by the hand, and lead them upward out of the cave, onto the mountain, that they, too, may be transfigured.
Homily preached March 5, 2023 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen