The Feast of the Transfiguration

The Transfiguration is a unique event in the life of Jesus, and appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. I call it unique for a number of reasons: 1) It is the one event in Jesus’ earthly ministry in the Synoptic Gospels in which Jesus’ glory is made manifest visually (unless we include the later resurrection appearances); 2) He chooses an "inner circle" of three apostles to accompany him, though why these particular three are chosen is not made obvious (though Peter has been shown to be, in a number of ways, chief of the apostles); 3) The meaning of the event it is not exactly obvious, especially the presence of Moses and Elijah, though scholars have often seen in the presence of them Jesus’ continuity with the Law and the Prophets; 4) Peter blurts out, "I will make three tents here," though it is not clear what purpose these might serve (see Mark 9:6 for a convincing motivation for Peter’s "blurting" aloud: "He did not know what to say, for they were terrified"). Some have seen in Peter’s remark an attempt to "routinize" or ground the divine or create an equality between the three prophets which he ought to know Jesus transcends. 5) Jesus tells them to say nothing of this to anyone, which is in fact a theme in the Synoptic Gospels, particularly in Mark, but notable in Matthew and Luke also. On the other hand, the Scriptures are not always "clear," hence the need for interpretation. One reason I continue to come back to the Transfiguration and try to understand it, is that the feast day falls upon the birthday of my oldest son, Jacob, and so the day is indeed a Transfiguration for me, the day on which it was clear that I had entered into a mystery, parenthood, I could not comprehend until I had started to partake in it. I recall wondering as I left the hospital a few days after Jacob’s birth why they were even letting me be a father and whether they ought not to check my fitness or my papers or something that proved I was up to the immense challenge. I was scared. I wonder if this mystery of parenthood, shared by millions upon millions, does not begin to explain Peter’s response to the manifestation of Jesus’ glory: what have I gotten myself into? The mystical experience Peter shares with James and John overwhelms them, drives them to their knees when they hear the voice of God, and, one suspects, leaves them shaken in every sense. It is also the profound revelation of Jesus’ divinity, about which they are to say nothing, and the background against which their constant inability to grasp Jesus’ claim that he must suffer and die must be seen. Surely, it resounds for James and John when they ask of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel (10:35-45) that they sit one at his right and one at his left hand in glory immediately after Jesus has told them that the Son of Man must suffer and die. In Matthew’s account, it is their mother who makes the request, but the subsequent scene and response of Jesus and the other apostles is nearly identical (Matt. 20:17-28. Surely, it makes some sense of Peter’s claim that Jesus need not suffer and die (Matt. 16:21-24). They apostles grasp the glory, but why the need for suffering? In fact, the glory of God, made manifest in the divine being of Jesus in the Transfiguration, is the reality of who Jesus is, a glimpse of what he truly is and a foretaste of what we are to share, along with the apostles. But the desire to forego suffering, to sideline and marginalize it, to eradicate and get straight to the glory is a constant temptation for any follower of Jesus. On our behalf, the Messiah suffered and died so that we could share in the glory made visible to Peter, James and John. But, like parenthood, and life itself, there is a constant desire to think we have made it, that we know all we need to know, that we understand all there is to understand. Jesus’ constantly beckons us, to enter his mystery and to get to know him in his fullness. Sometimes it is terrifying and it is hard to know what to say. John W. Martens
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10 years 7 months ago
Thanks Bill and David for your insightful comments. I agree with you Bill that this event must have been a continuing touchstone through the suffering, persecution and, probably, sheer confusion at times as the Church began to form following Jesus' resurrection and ascension. This, I think, is connected to David's comment about the "transfiguration" of understanding by his key disciples. The reason I focused on the mystery of the event itself and the need to continue to return to the wellspring Himself, Jesus Christ, is that even after this event these very apostles continued to challenge Jesus' notion of the nature of the Kingdom and its establishment and even deny Him, after the experience of this transforming and sustaining moment. On the other hand, it is quite clear, in the very reality of the Church itself, the transformation amongst the apostles took place!
10 years 7 months ago
A very nice reflection on the Transfiguration. I also ''continue to come back to the Transfiguration and try to understand it.'' I'm glad it was included as one of the five Luminous Mysteries. I like to think that once Peter, James, and John recovered from the sensory shock and awe of what they witnessed, they must have been heartened and reassured to have seen the glorified Jesus with Moses and Elijah. I also like to think that the memory of such a powerful experience helped to sustain the three, especially Peter, during the harsh difficulties they faced preaching the Gospel in the post-Ascension world. Their ''foretaste of what we are to share,'' together with their direct knowledge of the Risen Christ, must have been incredibly motivating during the birth pangs of the Church.
10 years 7 months ago
The Transfiguration has long puzzled me. As a former Protestant, I aw the presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus as a way to demonstrate visibly Jesus as the fulfillment of what the law required and what the Prophets had predicted. But the text revealed little more than this. Today as a one who has recently entered into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, I have the privilege of looking back to tradition to help flesh out the meaning of some of Scripture's more cryptic but no less inspiring passages. Some of the early Church fathers, I am told, held that in the Transfiguration it was as much the disciples who changed, as much as Christ. Their perception, understanding, and insight became clearer, less obscured by preconceptions, and thus they were able to behold Christ as he truly is. And more recently, our own beloved Pope John XXIII said regarding the Transfiguration: ''What was Jesus speaking about with these two personages of the Old Testament? Certainly not about human and worldly opinions and enterprises, nor about the enjoyment of this transient life, but about the fulfillment of the purpose of God's infinite goodness, in accordance with which the Son of God made man was about to suffer and die on the Cross in order to save mankind.'' Therefore, in some respects what was changed (Trans-figured) was not so much Christ's appearance but the level of understanding by his key disciples of his mission figured in the plan of salvation, and how in his death he destroyed death and in his life he would restore life for those who loved him.


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