Skip to comments.Transfiguration
Posted on 08/06/2005 9:05:59 AM PDT by hiho hiho
Summer days in the Holy Land are hot and still; the relentless sun beats down on green-gray shrubs and dusty rubble. It was on one such day--on August 6, as the church remembers--that Jesus took his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, and led them up the side of "a high mountain." It is Mt. Tabor that claims this honor.
Perhaps the three were used to being taken aside for private conferences. But they werent prepared for what happened next.
When they reached the peak, St. Matthew tells us that Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light (Matthew 17:2). Moses and Elijah appeared, speaking with him. Peter began to babble the first excited thing that popped into his head. Then a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice was heard: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him. Peter, James, and John tumbled to the ground in awe. When Jesus came and touched them, saying, Have no fear, they looked up to find they were alone.
What can we make of a story like this? What did Peter and John make of it? It seems, understandably, to have made an indelible impression. In his second letter, Peter retells the story, preceding it with this assurance: We were eyewitnesses of his majesty (2 Peter 1:16). John begins his intricately woven first letter with a similar eyewitness claim: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes (John 1:1). John continues, This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.
God is light. Throughout the Scriptures, God appears repeatedly in the form of overwhelming light. A cloud covers the mountaintop when Christs glory is revealed, just as one shook Mt. Sinai with lightning when Moses spoke with God. When Moses descended the mountain carrying the tablets of the Law, his face was shining from the presence of God: The Israelites could not look on Moses face, because of its brightness (2 Corinthians 3:7). Pillars of cloud and of fire led the Israelites in the wilderness. St. Paul on the road to Damascus was overwhelmed by a light from heaven, brighter than the sun (Acts 26:13).
But there is something about light that most previous generations would have known, that doesnt occur to us today. We think of light as something you get with the flip of a switch. But before a hundred years ago, light always meant fire. Whether it was the flame of a candle, an oil lamp, a campfire, or the blazing noonday sun, light was always accompanied by fire.
And fire, everyone knew, must be respected. Thats one of the lessons learned from earliest childhood. Fire is powerful and dangerous. It does not compromise. In any confrontation, it is the person who will be changed by fire, and not the other way round. As Hebrews 12:29 says, Our God is a consuming fire.
Yet this consuming fire was something Gods people yearned for. In some mysterious way, light means life. John tells us, In him was life, and the life was the light of men (John 1:4). Jesus says, I am the Life (John 11:25), and also I am the Light (John 8:12).
Light is life: we live in light, and couldnt live without it. In some sense, we live on light. It is light-energy that plants consume in photosynthesis--an everyday miracle as mysterious as life itself. When we eat plants, or eat the animals that eat plants, we feed secondhand on light. Light is converted into life, literally, with every bite we eat.
The fire of God consumes us, and we consume it as well. His light is life. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you (John 6:53). What could Jesus have meant by this? In recent centuries, Western Christians have offered competing theories. Some hold that Jesus meant a memorial meal, a simple commemoration of his sacrifice.
But, in the Greek text of Johns Gospel, Jesus makes a literal interpretation inescapable, by choosing the most offensive terms he can. He didnt use the ordinary word for eat (phago), but trogo, to munch and chew as a cow chews its cud. And it wasnt even his body (soma), but his flesh (sarx). Chew my flesh he couldnt have made it much more graphic. His audience got the message, and were appalled. John tells us that many of Jesus disciples abandoned him because of this hard saying. When Jesus asks the twelve whether they too will leave, Peter hardly sounds enthusiastic. But stalwart resignation speaks: Lord, to whom else shall we go?
On the far side of everything--the Last Supper, the campfire denial, the Resurrection, and the Pentecost outpouring--Peter tries in a letter to make sense of what happened on Mt. Tabor that day. Peter saw Gods glory, and he knows it is for us. He says that Gods divine power calls us to his own glory. Through his promises we may become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-4).
Partakers of the divine nature. The life that is in Christ will be in us. In Western Christianity, we tend to take Scriptures like this metaphorically. When St. Paul refers to life in Christ some 140 times, we expect he means a life that looks like Christs. We try to imitate our Lord, and sing of following him and seeking his will. We ask What would Jesus do? We hope to behave ethically and fairly in this life, and after death take up citizenship in heaven.
But it appears that Peter had learned to anticipate something more radical and more intimate: true oneness with Christ and personal transfiguration. We partake of, consume, the light and the life of Christ. We receive, not mere intellectual knowledge of God, but illumination. This participation in the divine nature is not a treat squirreled away for the select few, for mystics or hobbyists of spiritual formation, but Gods plan for every single human life. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world (John 1:9). Participation in this light is not a lofty or esoteric path, but one of simplicity and childlike humility. Its not won by sudden, swooping supernatural experiences, but by daily, diligent self-control. Through prayer, fasting, and honoring others above self, we gradually clear away everything in us that will not catch fire.
We are made to catch fire. We are like lumps of coal, dusty and inert, and possess little to be proud of. But we have one talent: we can burn. You could say that it is our destiny to burn. He made us that way, because he intended for his blazing light to fill us. When this happens, your whole body will be full of light (Matthew 6:22).
Our bodies, not just our souls. Just as Jesus body on Mt. Tabor was radiant with the glory of God, our bodies will bear the image of the man of Heaven, St. Paul says (I Corinthians 15:49). This very same too-familiar body, that embarrasses and disappoints, that is marred by flaws and flab, will one day be raised in glory (1 Corinthians 15:43). As Cyril of Alexandria wrote in the fifth century, Even though [the disciples had] heard that our flesh would rise up again, they did not know how. Now [Christ] was transfigured in his own flesh, and so gave us the example. And as John, another witness of Mt. Tabor, writes: It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him (I John 3:2).
It is easy to forget this. C.S. Lewiss literary demon, Screwtape, was able to get a mans mind off hair-raising spiritual realities just by showing him a shouting newsboy and a passing city bus. We are grateful for distractions because, if this is true, we will have to change our lives. If Gods plan is to fill our souls and bodies with his brilliant life, we must decide whether we will cooperate. If we do, well have to train ourselves to pray without ceasing (I Thessalonians 5:17), gazing constantly on God who dwells in our hearts, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master (Psalm 123:2). Well have to start remembering that every other human being we encounter, no matter how exasperating, is a recipient of this same divine invitation; every person we meet is called to blaze up with glory. The fear and trembling that seized Peter, James, and John on the mountain will accompany our every remembrance of God, driving out triviality and self-satisfaction. We supply the coal, God supplies the fire: So work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you (Phillipians 2:12).
Where are we going? Were all going up Mt. Tabor. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).
|The Transfiguration Of Christ
Theophanes the Greek,
late 14th century
"Thou wast transfigured on the Mount, O Christ God, revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as far as they could bear it. Let Thine everlasting light shine upon us sinners! Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to Thee!"
August 6, 2007
Transfiguration of the Lord
All three Synoptic Gospels tell the story of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36). With remarkable agreement, all three place the event shortly after Peters confession of faith that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus first prediction of his passion and death. Peters eagerness to erect tents or booths on the spot suggests it occurred during the Jewish weeklong, fall Feast of Booths.
In spite of the texts agreement, it is difficult to reconstruct the disciples experience, according to Scripture scholars, because the Gospels draw heavily on Old Testament descriptions of the Sinai encounter with God and prophetic visions of the Son of Man. Certainly Peter, James and John had a glimpse of Jesus divinity strong enough to strike fear into their hearts. Such an experience defies description, so they drew on familiar religious language to describe it. And certainly Jesus warned them that his glory and his suffering were to be inextricably connecteda theme John highlights throughout his Gospel.
Tradition names Mt. Tabor as the site of the revelation. A church first raised there in the fourth century was dedicated on August 6. A feast in honor of the Transfiguration was celebrated in the Eastern Church from about that time. Western observance began in some localities about the eighth century.
On July 22, 1456, Crusaders defeated the Turks at Belgrade. News of the victory reached Rome on August 6, and Pope Callistus III placed the feast on the Roman calendar the following year.
The Transfiguration of the Lord
Pinacoteca Comunale, Recanati
This feast became widespread in the West in the eleventh century and was introduced into the Roman calendar in 1457 to commemorate Christendom's victory over Islam in Belgrade in 1456. Before that, the Transfiguration of the Lord was already celebrated in the Syrian, Byzantine, and Coptic rites. The Transfiguration prefigures the glory of the Lord as God, foretells his ascension into heaven, and anticipates the glory of heaven, where we shall see God face to face. Through grace, we already share in the divine promise of eternal life.
Source: Daily Roman Missal, Edited by Rev. James Socías, Midwest Theological Forum, Chicago, Illinois ©2003
God our Father,
in the transfigured glory of Christ your Son,
you strengthen our faith
by confirming the witness of your prophets,
and show us the splendor of your beloved sons and daughters.
As we listen to the voice of your Son,
help us to become heirs to the eternal life with him
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
2 Peter 1:16-19
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
Gospel A - Matthew 17:1-9
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah." He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and have no fear."
Gospel B - Mark 9:2-10
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah." For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, "This is my beloved Son; listen to him." And suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only.
And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant.
Gospel C - Luke 9:28b-36
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.