And Jesus was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light…
Behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”
The Transfiguration of Jesus is one of those moments in the Gospels when the veil between Heaven and Earth all but vanishes and we are given a glimpse of realities that transcend the limits of our language, intellects, and even our imaginations. Found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-9, and Luke 9:28b-36), this is one of those events that Scripture scholars and theologians struggle to explain. Even the traditional name we’ve given to this moment of revelation—“Transfiguration”—is nearly impossible to translate into a simple, concise definition. But the Transfiguration isn’t a puzzle to be solved. While we do well to ask if this was originally retold as a vision of the Risen Lord, what its connection is to the Jewish feasts that occur each autumn, or what it says about how the Early Church understood the relationship between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith (cf. 1 Peter 5:1; 2 Peter 1:16-19), I think we have to be careful of over-intellectualizing this experience, because we risk losing sight of the promise that is at the heart of the Apostles’ vision of the Transfigured Lord.
The Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) was first celebrated in and around Syria in the fifth century. The celebration made its way west and was being celebrated in Europe by the tenth century and spread quickly from there. Finally, in 1457, Pope Callistus III added the celebration to the Universal Calendar to commemorate the victory of the Hungarian army (which included the “soldier saint,” John of Capistrano) against the invading Turks at the Siege of Belgrade. Although this makes it a fairly late addition to the Church’s calendar, this day at the beginning of August is an important part of the Season of Ordinary Time.
In his three-volume Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI observes that, “The Transfiguration is a prayer event; it displays visibly what happens when Jesus talks with his Father: the profound interpenetration of his being with God, which then becomes pure light. In his oneness with the Father, Jesus is himself 'light from light.' The reality that he is in the deepest core of his being… that reality becomes perceptible to the senses at this moment: Jesus’ being in the light of God, his own being-light as Son” (Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 310). With his formal theological language, Benedict is telling us that the Transfiguration reveals to us who Jesus is, within the depths of his being: Jesus is the Son of the Father, who shares the Father’s glory. The promise contained in this mystery and embodied in this feast, a celebration of the glorious and transforming power of God, is that we too can experience God’s transforming power in our own lives.
I recently read a reflection on the Transfiguration which moved me deeply. In it the author, Fr. Terrence Klein, wrote:
The future has a way of rewriting the past. The young man who had to attend his college of second choice doesn’t even recall his first selection, not when he meets the girl of his dreams on campus. A grief transfigures to gladness, yet the past didn’t change. A parent laments the toll, that a child with special needs exacts, until those very needs prove their worth, becoming a source of blessing for all who know the adult. History regularly rewrites itself. To use our odd word, it “transfigures” in significance, and it will do so until its close.
This is what the Apostles experienced on that mountain. Their stories, their experiences of Jesus were rewritten by the vision of who Jesus truly was and is. This is the promise of the Transfiguration for us, as well. Through coming to know Jesus and by committing ourselves to an ever-deepening relationship with him, we and our stories are transformed by the light of God’s love and peace. The darkness of our sorrows, struggles, losses, and weakness is cast away and we are given the grace to see the deeper truths that lay within those moments and seasons—most especially the truth that God remains with us, at work in each and every facet of our lives. Thinking of this transformative power, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote:
In Jesus, the world of ordinary prosaic time is not destroyed, but it is broken up and reconnected. It works no longer just in straight lines but in layers and spirals of meaning. We being to understand how our lives, like those of Moses and Elijah, may have meaning we can’t know of in this present moment: the real depth and significance of what we say or do now won’t appear until more of the light of Christ has been seen… Christ’s light alone will make the final pattern coherent, for each one of us and for all human history… When Jesus is transfigured, it is as if there is a brief glimpse of the end of all things—the world aflame with God’s light. - from The Dwelling of the Light: Praying With Icons
This day of celebration also reminds us, however, that we need to go "up the mountain," to set aside time and space to seek out and listen to the Word of God. Pope Francis said it in this way: "We all need to go apart, to ascend the mountain in a space of silence, to find ourselves and better perceive the voice of the Lord. This we do in prayer." "But," he continues, "we cannot stay there! Encounter with God in prayer inspires us anew to ‘descend the mountain’ and return to the plain where we meet many brothers and sisters weighed down by fatigue, sickness, injustice, ignorance, poverty both material and spiritual. To these, we are called to bear the fruit of that experience with God, by sharing the grace we have received." - from the Angelus Address of March 16, 2014
The Transfiguration is a celebration of who Jesus is and of the transformed life we are invited to live. In this feast, we offer thanks for God's continuing revelation and we are also reminded of the need to set aside times for prayer and reading the Scriptures so that we can attune our ears to God’s voice. Finally, we are reminded that those graces and blessings we receive in these “mountaintop encounters” are to be shared with those around us, especially those who need to know the transforming love of God, revealed in Christ.