Chapter 18: The Transfiguration
The Transfiguration is celebrated on August 6, while the First Sunday after Pentecost is the celebration of the Holy Trinity. In the event of the Transfiguration is clearly seen a revelation of the Holy Trinity: the voice of the Father was heard, the Son – Jesus – was standing on the mountain top, and the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of the cloud that enveloped them.
Can Christians be said to believe in three gods? What is common among the three divine persons (hypostasis) and what is characteristic of each? And how important and meaningful is this event of the Transfiguration in the life of Jesus and in our life today? We will discuss these questions today.
2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: The Transfiguration (Mt 17:1-8)
1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone. 2There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light. 3Suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to them; they were talking with him. 4Then Peter spoke to Jesus. “Lord,” he said, “it is wonderful for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5He was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow, and from the cloud there came a voice which said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.” 6When they heard this, the disciples fell on their faces, overcome with fear. 7But Jesus came up and touched them. “Stand up,” he said, “do not be afraid.” 8And when they raised their eyes they saw no one but only Jesus.
2. 1- Explanation
After Peter proclaimed his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus began to predict to his disciples, making three announcements: that he would go up to Jerusalem where he was to suffer, and die, and that on the third day he would rise again. Knowing how weak the disciples would be when faced with the “cup of suffering” he was destined to drink, he let them experience a taste of glory: the Transfiguration, anticipating the Resurrection. What does it mean then that his face shone like the sun, and that his clothes became as white as the light? It is the image of Jesus in the glory of his Resurrection. Why did the Transfiguration take place? Indeed, this event happened to strengthen the disciples who were to see him crucified, dead and buried, so that their faith would not be shaken. Jesus chose to share this great secret event with Peter, James and John. They had witnessed the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:22-43) and they were to accompany Jesus to his Passion in the Garden of Olives. There is a hierarchical order in the Church that must be respected. Climbing to the mountain takes on a theological meaning, beyond the mere geographical one: it is the mountain of revelation, the holy mountain, that of the new Jerusalem, where all peoples will gather at the end of time. The presence of Moses and Elijah recalls the Old Testament prophecies of the Passion of Christ, his death and Resurrection. Moses represents the Torah, the Law, and Elijah represents the prophets. In the Old Testament, we read that neither had a physical grave and it was widely believed that both were taken up into Heaven as a reward for the earthly service, Elijah being seen to be taken up in a “fiery chariot”.
Peter’s idea of setting up three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah is an allusion to the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkot (Lev 23:33-43), which was celebrated at the time. The Feast is a remembrance of how the shining presence of God travelled with His people through the desert when they dwelt in tents/tabernacles; and it looks forward to the coming of the Messiah, when the presence of God will once again dwell with Israel. The irony here is that most Jews did not recognise that He, in the Person of the Son, had already come amongst them. In Scripture, a cloud is usually an indication of the veiled presence of God, and here – as at the conception of Jesus – in the bright cloud the disciples are overshadowed by God the Holy Spirit, with the Father’s voice being heard from its midst. Just as when the Father’s voice was first heard when Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, the same words are heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved” (a Jewish term signifying one’s first-born and heir), confirming Jesus’ mission, but the essential call here is “Listen to him!”, to the disciples and to all of us. The agitation and fear of the disciples experienced at the end of this passage indicate a natural human reaction in the presence of a theophany, a vision of God.
2. 2- Summary and Practice
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 556) explains this event in the life of Jesus as follows:
“On the threshold of the public life: the baptism; on the threshold of the Passover: the Transfiguration. Jesus’ baptism proclaimed ‘the mystery of the first regeneration’, namely, our Baptism; the Transfiguration “is the sacrament of the second regeneration”: our own Resurrection. From now on, we share in the Lord’s Resurrection through the Spirit who acts in the sacraments of the Body of Christ. The Transfiguration gives us a foretaste of Christ’s glorious coming, when he ‘will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body’. But it also recalls, ‘it is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God’.”
This scene of the Transfiguration invites us to listen to God’s voice as it continues to be heard in the world around us, and within us, calling us to imitate Christ in our lives. The Transfiguration is also an invitation to contemplate the duality of death and the resurrection, as well as glory and humiliation. It is always a temptation for the disciple to remain on the’ mountaintop’, instead of having to go back down into a world of troubles. Thus, we know that when we experience the joy of transfiguration in our lives, we will understand that we must also prepare ourselves to live the way of the Cross. Because true joy is only perfected through the imitation of Christ. On the day of our Cross and death let us recall the days of light and grace.
3- Theological and Spiritual Teaching: The Holy Trinity
Christian faith is rich in its creed and dogmas, but none more than the Mystery of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. From its early days, the Church is aware of the difficulty in accepting such a dogma, but the Church follows what it has learned from the Lord Jesus and what it has grasped by the power of the Holy Spirit. The concept of God as a Trinity is certainly beyond the understanding of man, but is also a deeply enriching concept. Man, created in the image of God, would certainly benefit from grasping the reality of God.
The Old Testament speaks about how God brought people to adopt monotheism – the “one god” religion – after centuries of idolatry. God revealed His love and care to the people, having created them: supporting them, loving them despite their many sins, helping them in the numerous hardships they encountered and faithfully being with them at all times. The people rejoiced in God’s call, and they believed that God is one, and that all idols worshipped by neighbouring peoples did not count.
God loved and cared for His people to such an extent that He sent His own Son, as John’s Gospel says: “For God loved the world so much that He gave His only son” (Jn 3:16). Witnessing the suffering of humanity, God did not wish to remain in heaven and provide His help from afar, but He chose to intervene in person in the life of His people to save them. Thus, God gave His Son, of one substance with the Father, not another god, a second god, for Christians worship no other. Just as the sun sends forth its rays of light, so God sent His Son; the ray of the sun is not another sun, but it is the essence of the sun, and yet at the same time it is a little different from the sun itself. The Son is of one essence with the Father, yet distinct from Him at the same time.
Throughout the centuries, Christians have fully accepted that belief in Christ is the continuation of their belief in a single God, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is of one substance with God. The Holy Spirit came at the Resurrection of Christ to help the Church grasp the depth of the faith it has received from Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of love, which binds the Father and the Son. Love knows no division and is indeed the way to complete the unity.
Our faith is in One God, who is the One God in Three Persons. God the Father is our Creator, God the Son is our Saviour, and God the Holy Spirit is our Sanctifier. What unites the work of the three divine Persons is love, for God is love. We offer an image of the mystery of the Trinity: the sun. In the morning, the sun sends forth rays of light; at noon it gives out heat; and in the evening it becomes a round shining disk; well, the rays of light, heat and disc are still one sun. For God, there is a single Son; He sent him to bring us to Him, so we become His adopted children. Jesus is His Son according to the substance, but we have become sons by His grace. That is why Jesus taught us and invited us to call God, when we pray, in the same manner as he calls Him himself: “Our Father”. What grace we are given, we creatures, to be able to call God our Creator as “Our Father”! What a joy it is for us to recognize that the one who sows in us the desire for prayer and faith is God Himself, for He has lodged in our hearts His Holy Spirit! He is the Spirit of love, who calls us to participate in the love poured into our hearts; this is an immense love, for it is the love of the Father and the Son, it is the love of God. In philosophy, it would be difficult to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity, but the Christian knows well that this truth concerns him in his life; it is a source of great joy and great desire to unite with God, who is perfect love in all His essence.
4- Reading and Meditation: A Reading from Jacob of Sarug (c.451-521)
The Prophets and the Apostles
The Gospel approached and took from the Law the burden of bringing riches to the needy earth which was in want. Up until then the Prophets had escorted and carried the great treasure, and they rested so that it might proceed forth to the world through the apostles.
The prophets were praising the Son for how much he was brought low, and they marvelled about him, and they praised him for how much he had humbled himself. And they prostrated before him because he had come and perfected their revelations, and all the mysteries and their interpretations were explained by him. And such things as these were being spoken to our Redeemer by Elijah and Moses on the mountain when they spoke with him: “It is wonderful to you, my Lord, perfecting the books of prophecy, that all the symbols of truths should receive their seal in you.”…
Moses said, “Descend, my Lord, and follow the way for which you have come. Bind the sin and liberate Adam through your crucifixion. Ascend the Cross and put to shame principalities and powers, unmask them because the rulers were in error. Go, die and redeem, for behold, all the dead look to you, visit the prisoners and make your light shine forth among the dead. Behold, in the cave of the tombs all the captives are shut up. Go, enter into it and make the bereaved return to their place. Conquer the victorious one, and grant victory to Adam who had been vanquished.”
Then it may be that Elijah too spoke to the Son on the mountain, and after the words of Moses, he gave testimony as someone trustworthy. “Zion is wicked, as you also know her. She resembles Jezebel who until she was killed, was not relieved … She loves to commit adultery, and since you are holy, she flees from you; she loves idols, and since you are God, she hates to see you.”
The disciples heard the conversation, which was carried out there, and clearly they understood the sufferings of the Son … The discussion of Elijah with Christ pleased Simon and the words uttered by Moses, filled him with wonder. The light pleased him and his soul took delight in the great glory; and he loved the place and did not want to descend from there … He heard the prophets speaking of the crucifixion and was terrified to come down to encounter the bloodthirsty dangers. That is why he says, “Lord, if you will it, it is good for us to be here and we shall make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah; and we shall remain here.” The talk of Simon had not pleased the invisible Father because he had said, “Let us make three tents for the three of them.” The zeal of the Father reproved Simon because he had made them all equal. The Father showed him that the Son alone is in a state of honour. And He spread out a single cloud, covering over the glory upon the mountain, for the One worthy of honour, and He left the other two as they are.20