The evangelists have recorded many of the remarkable things Jesus did in his public life; they are astounding for their powers and revealing about about Jesus' being and about his empathy with and sympathy for others. Jesus' miracles and teaching are considered by the evangelists as nothing less than divine in origin. Yet, no experience in the public life of Jesus shows the glory of Jesus as does his transfiguration. Each Gospel writer in his own way, by means of brilliant light and dazzling dress, presents to his readers and to the three chosen disciples, a side of Jesus not revealed anywhere else in the many months after his time in the desert.
As most exegetes understand these Gospel presentations, the story of the transfiguration is a story which, though happening now, means to call attention to the future, and this is explained by noting various aspects of the story. First, there is the never-repeatedness of the transfiguration; this moment is the only time we meet Jesus glorified like this. There must be a reason why we are given only this one revelation about Jesus. Second, the placement of the story in all three Gospels after the announcment of imminent death for Jesus and suffering (carrying the cross) of the disciple suggests that Jesus was transfigured now, with his future crucifixion in mind. Third, the command, as seen, eg, in Mark, "tell no one what you have seen till after the resurrection" again suggests that the truest sense of the transfiguration will come clear only after one sees him resurrected from the dead. As with so much else, one will be able to put in proper perspective and understand Jesus best until after his resurrection. Fourth, the appearances of Moses and Elijah in discussion with Jesus transfigured can only mean that the death and resurrection of Jesus are foretold, even if in mysterious ways, in the history (Moses) and prophecy (Elijah) of the Old Testament. As both the Gospels and the speeches of Acts of the Apostles show, the followers of Jesus depended heavily on the words of the Old Testament to make sense of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Thus, the transfiguration story is meant to be a symbol for the memory of those who witness it. Given the horrible events soon to follow once Jesus reaches Jerusalem, there is need for memory, the memory of that moment which denies that Jesus deserved the cross, that he was foolish and powerless and a sinner. The transfiguration stands as the true measure of Jesus, the fulfillment of the Old Testament expectations and and conquerer of the evil which has crucified him. The disciple must keep in mind, in the darkest of hours, a vivid memory of the truth about Jesus; the disciple cannot allow himself to interpret the punishing death of Jesus as the final truth about him. The resurrection of Jesus is the truth about him.
Finally, one wonders if, after all, the transfiguration story is not more properly a story with emphasis on the disciple. Not only is the disciple given a view of Jesus which is the truth about him, even when he seems least likely glorious, but it is also a story about the communication from the Father to the disciples. At Jesus' baptism, the Father had recognized Jesus as 'My Son, My beloved Son". He repeats that affirmation here, but now adds 'listen to him'. This addition means to say that the disciples are to listen, particulary now, to the teachings of Jesus, which can be hard to obey, but most of all, now, to his words which prophesy his death and resurrection and the disciple's sharing in that future. Listen to him. Trust his word, that the outcome of suffering will be resurrection. The disciples, as the Gospels present them, do not understand the words of Jesus and find his observations hard, if not impossible to believe. By re-telling this event and subsequent events, the Gospel-writers hope that their readers will have deeper trust in the words of Jesus than did the Apostles, the words which assure resurrection after suffering. Jesus WILL be glorified - what is now a moment of glory will be an eternal life of glory with the resurrection from the dead; that we must remember, and that is, Jesus' words assure us, our destiny, too.
John Kilgallen, S.J.