Transfiguration as Christophany

The Transfiguration is the event in which the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples experienced his true, glorious nature as a kind of preview or anticipation of his glory as the risen Lord. When the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord falls on a Sunday, its readings supersede those of the Sunday in Ordinary Time. The texts chosen for this day remind us about the awesome dignity of the one whose past, present and future we celebrate in the Eucharist. While they interrupt the series of wonderful readings from John 6, they serve as a valuable complement to the passages from Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life.

There is a longstanding debate among biblical scholars about the literary genre of the transfiguration narrative in the Gospels. Is it a factual report about an event in Jesus’ earthly life? Or is it an account of a post-resurrection appearance retrojected into Jesus’ earthly career? Or is it an apocalyptic vision about what Jesus will be like in the fullness of God’s kingdom? There are elements of all three in the Markan account. But when the most solid elements in each of these hypotheses are taken together, an even better interpretation emerges.

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The transfiguration narrative is about a Christophany, that is, it describes a manifestation or revelation of who Jesus really is. The term Christophany is a variation on the more familiar word theophany, a scene in which God reveals God’s self to humans—as, for example, in the encounter between God and Moses in Exodus 3 and 4. In the transfiguration story Jesus is revealed as a glorious figure superior to Moses and Elijah, and is identified by the heavenly voice as the Son of God. In the Markan context of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, the transfiguration gives a glimpse of Jesus’ true nature and the goal to which his journey leads. Meanwhile, the disciples are both puzzled and awestruck.

At a point in 2 Peter where we might expect an account of an appearance of the risen Jesus, we have a brief description of the transfiguration of Jesus. Peter claims to have been an eyewitness to the majesty of Jesus and to have heard the heavenly voice proclaim him Son of God (see Ps 2:7), God’s beloved (Gen 22:2), and God’s Servant (Isa 42:1).

In the background of both transfiguration accounts is the figure of the glorious Son of Man described in Daniel 7. While in the second century B.C. setting of the Book of Daniel the “one like a Son of Man” was most likely an angelic figure (probably Michael), in many Gospel texts (see Mark 8:38) the glorious Son of Man clearly refers to the risen Jesus, who will usher in the fullness of God’s kingdom.

Mark’s transfiguration account has some elements of a historical report, a resurrection appearance and an apocalyptic vision. But it is even better interpreted as a Christophany. It allows us to appreciate better the brilliance of the one in whose past, present and future we share in the Eucharist.

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