Saturday, August 7, 2010


The Transfiguration

On August 6 each year the church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. It commemorates the event that is recounted in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Here is Luke's version:

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Lk 9:28-36)


The center section of Luke's gospel is a single long trip up to Jerusalem (Chapter 9: 51 through Ch 19, Palm Sunday). The Transfiguration occurs just before Jesus announces this journey, and immediately after he has predicted for the first time that he will have to go up to Jerusalem and suffer, die and rise again. Peter wasn’t buying it and had gotten scolded for not understanding the plan. That is the context for the Transfiguration: Jesus takes his three closest disciples (Peter, James and John) up a high mountain to be "transfigured before them."

The great writers and preachers of the early church loved to meditate on the rich and varied symbolism of this passage. I’d like to lift out just a couple of details that may be of help to us in our “spirituality for troubled times.”


Much of the significance of the transfiguration, from the apostles’ point of view, comes from the fact that only a few verses earlier Jesus had predicted that the Son of Man would have to go up to Jerusalem to suffer and die. The experience on the mountain is meant to strengthen them for the day when they will indeed see him arrested and condemned to death. (Whether or not it was successful in Peter's case you can judge for yourself.) A closer look at just a couple of specific words and details will show us how appropriate the Transfiguration event for our own troubled times. Let me lift out two that are unique to Luke’s account.


First, all three gospel accounts tell us that alongside Jesus appear Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the prophets). But in Luke the two “appear in glory,” connecting the Transfiguration to Jesus' prediction concerning the Son of Man in “his” glory. Remember, for instance how when the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds near Bethlehem “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Lk 2:9), and how the aged Simeon held the infant Jesus in his arms and called him “the glory of your people Israel.” In 7:32 we are told the kernel of the whole Transfiguration incident: "Jesus appeared in glory."Glory is connected with the divinity of our savior.


Second, only Luke tells us what it was that Moses and Elijah were conversing about with Jesus. They were, he says, speaking about the exodus [Greek exodos] he was about to undergo. This is of course meant to connect Jesus with Moses and thus to show Jesus as a prophet like Moses. But in Jesus’ case the “passing over” includes the entire “paschal mystery:” his death, resurrection and ascension. Moses and Elijah were, then, discussing precisely the same mystery that Jesus had just revealed to his followers.

Interesting, too, is the verb Luke uses with “exodus:” they were speaking about “the exodus which he was about to fulfill [Greek pleroō]” Luke uses this verb in1:20 when the angel tells Zechariah “But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled [pleroō] in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’”) and in 4:21 after Jesus had read the scripture in the synagogue: “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ ”, pointing us toward the notion of the “fulfillment of prophecy." Luke will use it, too, with reference to Moses and the prophets in that powerful sentence that Jesus speaks to the two travelers on the road to Emmaus on Easter afternoon (24:44): "It was necessary to fulfill everything about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.”


So in Luke there are two themes: “glory” and "the fulfillment of prophecy." They both point us toward the same idea: that Jesus’ suffering, like our own, somehow makes sense, it’s part of a mystery that is far beyond our feeble intellects, but well within the power of the Almighty. Further, this suffering, both Christ’s and ours, will somehow lead to glory.

The vision was evidently intended to give the three apostles a glimpse of Jesus' glory so that, as we said above, they might understand better when the Son of Man did in fact suffer and die. AS it turned out, though, it was only after the resurrection, when they thought back and reflected on the vision they had seen on the Mountain of Transfiguration, that they finally began to understand. While they were going through the terrible experiences of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the prophecies, the insights into God’s plan, the talk of glory, none of these were of much help to them. I'm sure you've had that experience, too: when you're going through the suffering it's hard to get a pertspective on it.


What can we take away from the story of Christ’s transfiguration? Here are a couple of thoughts.
1. There’s More Than What You See

The primary lesson of the vision is that Christ gave Peter and the others a glimpse of his divine glory as an encouragement: what you see on the surface is not all there is; the really important things in life are not the ones we can detect with our senses. When things get difficult, remember that there’s more, so much more.

2. At Least It Makes Sense to God

Another comes from that word “to fulfill:” God, who has this whole thing in hand, has a plan for the world which is being fulfilled, carried out; from God’s side it all makes sense, even (and especially) the moments when we are suffering with Christ on the cross.

3. Being Transformed Yourself

This suggests a third idea not directly based on the scripture passage. Remember the “Caroline Conspiracy?" (See my posts for July 1 and July 23.) It’s based on the assumption that we can help and encourage one another in troubled times by giving others occasional glimpses of God’s glory by our deeds of charity, thoughtfulness, sharing and so on. But I wonder if in addition to helping the other person, we ourselves are not transformed and transfigured by our very acts of kindness. Maybe participating in the Caroline Conspiracy changes me as much as it does the other person.

In any case, the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord gives us plenty to reflect on during our troubled times. Let us pray for one another that we can profit from the opportunity.

. ............The Assumption of the Virgin - Francesco Botticini


  1. Not only transformed by our very acts of kindness, but the very tension toward the glory promised by Christ Himself AND our helping each other live in that glory right now. Since we live in the end times now because of the Incarnation, the Transfiguration is that pre-eminent foreshadowing of our destiny.

    May the Lord give His peace!

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