Aug 6, 2022: Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord (C)

Introduction

According to explicit accounts in the three synoptic gospels (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36), the Apostles Peter, James, and John witnessed an unveiling of the divine glory of Christ, and the appearance with him of Moses and Elijah. This event has come to be called the Transfiguration on the basis of the scriptural report, “He was transfigured before them.”

According to tradition, the transfiguration occurred on Mount Tabor, but some believe it may have taken place on Mount Hermon or even on the Mount of Olives. There are no Old Testament parallels for this event, the closest being Moses’ face shining after he had visited with God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35). The Feast of the Transfiguration became widespread in the West in the 11th century and was introduced into the Roman calendar in 1457.

In 2002, Pope John Paul II selected the Transfiguration as one of the five Luminous Mysteries of the rosary.

1st Reading – Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14

As I watched:
thrones were set up
and the Ancient One took his throne.
His clothing was bright as snow,
and the hair on his head as white as wool;
his throne was flames of fire,
with wheels of burning fire.
A surging stream of fire
flowed out from where he sat;
thousands upon thousands were ministering to him,
and myriads upon myriads attended him.
The court was convened and the books were opened.

As the visions during the night continued, I saw:
One like a Son of man coming,
on the clouds of heaven;
when he reached the Ancient One
and was presented before him,
the one like a Son of man received dominion, glory, and kingship;
all peoples, nations, and languages serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed.

In today’s gospel reading, Mark tells us that Jesus “charged [his disciples] not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Today’s first reading is the passage from Daniel to which Jesus is alluding when he calls himself the Son of Man.

Daniel is describing a vision of the heavenly court, the first of four apocalyptic visions. Everything about this vision bespeaks revelation, yet it is symbolic, with all the ambiguous traits of a symbol.

As I watched: thrones were set up and the Ancient One took his throne.

The vision comprises two scenes, both of which take place in the throne room. The two major figures are the Ancient One and the one like a Son of Man.

The name given this first heavenly being is telling: “Ancient One” implies both eternity and great wisdom. Being enthroned in the heavens presumes that the Ancient One rules wisely over all that is. Clearly this is a reference to God, who has endured and will continue to endure. God is everlasting.

His clothing was bright as snow,

White clothing implies purity and luminosity. Since exquisite white linen was often worn by kings, here it might also be an indication of royal raiment.

This snow bright clothing will also occur in our gospel reading.

and the hair on his head as white as wool;

White hair is a symbol of the age and wisdom of this ruler. It reinforces the notion of eternity.

his throne was flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire. A surging stream of fire flowed out from where he sat;

The throne of the Ancient One is made of fire. Fire is a traditional symbol to describe the presence of God.

thousands upon thousands were ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads attended him.

Only the Ancient One was seated, an honor reserved for rulers. Presumably the throngs that attend him are standing around the throne, as is the practice with all royalty.

The throne itself is reminiscent of the fiery chariot in Ezekiel’s apocalyptic vision (Ezekial 1:15-21). Flames of fire suggest a divine theophany (Exodus 19:18).

The court was convened and the books were opened.

Judgment time has arrived.

The books contain all the actions of humankind (Exodus 32:32, Jeremiah 17:1, Malachi 3:16, Psalm 56:8, Revelation 20:12).

At creation, according to Near Eastern mythology, the destinies of the nations were written in books which were then sealed and kept secret. Only at the end of time would these seals be broken and the fates of all revealed (Revelation 5-9).

As the visions during the night continued,

Visions and dreams were thought to be avenues of divine revelation. The seer is on earth, but the vision itself takes place in heaven.

The Book of Daniel is an example of apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature always had the same audience and the same theme: the audience was people experiencing persecution, and the theme was an admonition to maintain hope because God is faithful. The author is assuring the persecuted people that God will judge their enemies and send someone to save them. The end time, that is, the end of their persecution, is near.

The next section of the reading describes the person who will come to save them.

I saw: One like a son of man coming,

What is translated here as “one like a son of man” is literally “one in human form,” or “son of weak man” (in Aramaic, bar enash).  Of itself, this denotes a limited human being. However, this figure is not really a human; he only resembles a son of man.

Daniel later indicates that this human-like one symbolizes the vindication of the “holy people of the Most High,” the suffering people (Daniel 7:27).

on the clouds of heaven;

The Son of Man is described in mythic and royal tones, beginning with the fact that he comes on the “clouds of heaven.”  Clouds are the most frequent accompaniment of a theophany, or revelation of God (Exodus 13:21, 19:9; Matthew 17:5). He has been raised up by God while also sharing the human condition.

when he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him,

He is presented before God in the manner of courtly decorum, where one would not simply approach a ruler but would be presented by an attendant.

He received dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him.

The mysterious figure is installed by God as ruler over the entire universe. The authority and dominion belonging to other nations are handed over to him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed.

Unlike other kingdoms that rise and fall, this kingdom will last forever. Note that this dominion was not attained by military conquest or political alliance, but rather was granted by God.

The “one like a son of man” may have been in heaven when he received his commission, he may even rule from some exalted place in the heavens, but his kingdom belongs to the earth.

When Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, he is alluding to this passage of Daniel. He is acknowledging that he is the expected Messiah, the one whom God has sent to save the people.

2nd Reading – 2 Peter 1:16-19

Beloved:
We did not follow cleverly devised myths
when we made known to you
the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For he received honor and glory from God the Father
when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory,
“This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven
while we were with him on the holy mountain.
Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.
You will do well to be attentive to it,
as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

Our second reading today seems to have a bit of a defensive tone. The authenticity of the gospel message preached by the author appears to have come under attack, and he counters with two arguments. One of those arguments is that Peter himself was an eyewitness to the Transfiguration.

Beloved: We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,

“The power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” refers to Christ’s return at the end of time (the parousia), which the apostles believed was imminent.

The extraordinary, even incomprehensible, character of this event has led some to denounce it as myth. One can almost hear them exclaim: That could never happen!

but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.

The author counters the denunciation by asserting that he had been an eyewitness to the power and majesty of Christ. The event of which he is speaking is the transfiguration of Jesus.

The word translated here as “majesty” is megaleiótōs, denoting a wondrous manifestation of divine glory.

For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.

Those who were with Jesus on the mountain were witnesses both to his glory and to God’s affirmation of him. Today the whole church recalls this event that Peter, James, and John witnessed. At the time the event occurred, the disciples could not understand its significance and meaning. For them, the Transfiguration was a foreshadowing of a truth they would understand only after the resurrection.

Because we, like the audience of this letter, live after the resurrection, we understand the meaning of the Transfiguration: Jesus is the Son of Man, the king over all the earth. Every nation on earth should adore him.

Moreover, if Jesus could have been so transformed during his lifetime, surely this same Lord can return in the same glory.

Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.

The second argument the author makes is an appeal to the Scriptures; specifically, the prophetic message that foretold the coming of the Messiah.

The Christians inherited these Scriptures from the Jewish community, and they held them in the same esteem as the inspired word of God.

You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, 

The prophetic words acted as beacons in the darkness, guiding the people through trial and doubt.

If the detractors will not believe the testimony of the eyewitnesses, they should at least accept the reliability of these sacred words.

until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

Two very powerful metaphors are used to describe the parousia of the Lord, both of which characterize it as the coming of light out of darkness. They are the dawning of the day, the eschatological day of fulfillment, and the rising of the morning star.

The latter image recalls the messianic prophecy spoken by the Moabite prophet Balaam: “A star shall come out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17). The Christian community placed the fulfillment of this prophecy on the lips of Jesus: “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16). The Scriptures themselves bear witness to the veracity of the gospel message.

Gospel – Luke 9:28b-36

Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep,
but becoming fully awake,
they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus,
“Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But he did not know what he was saying.
While he was still speaking,
a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
They fell silent and did not at that time
tell anyone what they had seen.

The story of the transfiguration addresses a question that was very much on the minds of the post-resurrection followers of Jesus: Would God have allowed his only-begotten Son to die an ignominious death on the cross, or did the fact that Jesus died on a cross mean that he was not God’s Son after all?

In order to understand this concern, we must realize just how scandalous Jesus’ death on the cross was. Crucifixion was the most shameful way to die. It was reserved for the worst of the worst. In addition, the law put a curse on anyone who died in the manner Jesus did (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). If Jesus were really God’s Son, would God have allowed such a shameful death to occur? The story of the Transfiguration answers this question.

To set the scene: The time is about one year prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection. He has fed the five thousand, walked on water, delivered the bread of life discourse, and Peter has made his revelation at Caesarea Philippi, “you are the Christ.” Jesus has just bestowed upon Peter the name of Rock (Kephas), promised to build his church upon this Rock, and given Peter the ability to bind and loose.

Jesus took Peter, John, and James

The privileged inner circle of disciples. Peter is always listed first, showing primacy.

and went up the mountain to pray.

The identity of the mountain is not given; it is enough to know that mountains had theophanic importance. Both Moses and Elijah, who will join Jesus at the transfiguration, had encounters with God on mountains.

While he was praying

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus often spends time at prayer before an important decision: election of the twelve (6:12); Peter’s revelation (9:18); instruction on prayer (11:1), the agony in the garden (22:41).

his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.

It was during this prayer that Jesus was transfigured both from the inside (his face) and on the outside (his clothes).

Through the transfiguration, Jesus shows one of the qualities of glorified bodies: brightness. The Israelites had a somewhat similar experience in the desert, when the face of Moses, after enjoying the presence and conversation of God, shone with such luster that they could not look at him (Exodus 34:29).

Jesus also speaks of this glory represented as brightness in Matthew’s gospel: Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Matthew 13:43).

Luke does not use the word “transfigured” (metamorphothe) as Matthew and Mark do, perhaps because it had been used so much in the Pagan theology. He uses an equivalent phrase: to eidos tou prosopou heteron, literally “the fashion of his countenance was another thing from what it had been.”

Luke describes Jesus’ clothing as exastrapton, “bright like lightning,” a word used only here.

Saint Pius V taught about the origin and nature of this luminosity: “This brightness is a sort of radiance reflected by the body from the supreme happiness of the soul. It is a participation in that bliss which the soul enjoys” (Catechism, 1, 12, 13).

And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,

These two men represent the law and the prophets, respectively: the sweep of God’s unfolding plan as found in the Israelite religious tradition.

who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.

Saint Luke is the only Gospel writer to tell us what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were discussing.

Jesus’ exodus (translated elsewhere as “departure”) includes his death, resurrection, and ascension: all the important events in God’s plan of salvation. The word “exodus” is, of course, an allusion to God’s mighty intervention on Israel’s behalf when he liberated them from slavery in Egypt.

Notice how Jesus is not going to endure this exodus, he is going to accomplish it. Jesus’ death was not a tragic mistake, something he was unable to avoid. Through it, he will accomplish his Father’s will: the salvation of the human race. Humankind will be freed from slavery to sin and death.

The fact that these men were discussing these events in their glorified state demonstrates it was known beforehand by those who represented the entire religious tradition of Israel.

Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 

To “see his glory” is to see Jesus’ divinity.

The episode may have occurred at night, when the disciples would have been drowsy and/or weary. This would be consistent with the reference in Luke 9:37, “the next day,” which immediately follows the account.

Or it may be that the disciples were sinfully careless, and should have been joining Jesus in prayer, as later during Jesus’ agony in the garden. As a result, they miss the opportunity of seeing the transfiguration as it happens; they only see Jesus after he has assumed his glorified state.

As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter does not want the apparition to end. He offers to construct three tents, dwellings for the three glorified men.

But he did not know what he was saying.

Luke tells us of Peter’s misperception, but not exactly what the misperception was. Perhaps it was naivete on Peter’s part in thinking that a glorified saint in heaven would have any interest in occupying a humble tent on earth.

Some commentators suggest that his misunderstanding was having judged Jesus as an equal with Moses and Elijah. If so, this would be corrected by the theophanic experience that follows, which has profound christological significance.

While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.

They are all taken into a cloud, a symbol of the hidden presence of God.

In Exodus 40:34-35, God took possession of the tabernacle and temple in the form of a cloud, and Moses was not able to enter. In 2 Chronicles 5:14, when the divine cloud filled the temple, the priests could not stand to minister. No wonder the disciples were frightened!

Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; 

A voice from the cloud proclaims Jesus’ divine identity in words reminiscent of Isaiah (42:1) and Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:22).

Jesus is vastly superior to Moses and Elijah — he is the Son of the living God. The crucifixion does not negate this fact.

listen to him.”

The voice not only authenticates Jesus’ identity but also enjoins the disciples to listen to his words, regardless of how challenging or perplexing they may be. Everything God wishes to say to mankind he has said through Christ, now that the fullness of time has come.

After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. 

The cloud and the glorified visitors vanish; only Jesus remains.

By his transfiguration, Jesus strengthens his disciples’ faith, revealing a trace of the glory his body will have after the Resurrection. He wants them to realize that his passion will not be the end but rather the route he will take to reach his glorification.

“For a person to go straight along the road, he must have some knowledge of the end — just as an archer will not shoot an arrow straight unless he first sees the target […]. This is particularly necessary if the road is hard and brought, the going heavy, and the end delightful” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 3, 45, 1).

They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.

Peter, James, and John reported this experience to no one at the time because they did not understand it themselves.

After the resurrection, they will understand that this experience helped prepare them for the crucifixion; the Church proclaims this story during Lent because it helps prepare us for the crucifixion, too.

Connections and Themes

In the midst of Ordinary Time, we are invited to join Peter, James, and John as they behold the transfiguration of Christ. The white light that shone from Christ was but a mere suggestion of the divine splendor that is beyond human comprehension.

Transfiguration.  The transfiguration of Christ was not a simple metamorphosis. Christ was not changed from a terrestrial human being to a celestial divine one. Rather his transfiguration was a moment in time when the divine glory he had always possessed broke through the humanity and shone with a brilliance that was blinding. Nothing could prepare the apostles for this experience, and there was no way to describe it except with cosmic imagery. The brightest light flashed forth from his countenance, like the birth of a new star.  His hair, his garments, everything about him shone like the sun. Moses and Elijah stood as witnesses to his glory, and the voice of God confirmed his divinity. It is no wonder the apostles fell prostrate.

Eyewitnesses.  Who would believe such an explosion of power and might would have taken place? We sing of this glory time and again in the psalms. We proclaim that nothing can stand before the splendor of the LORD; even mountains melt like wax. Yet when it really appears, we can hardly believe it ourselves. The readings outline three moments when this glory was revealed:

  • The first is Daniel’s vision of the throne room in heaven. In that scene, it is the Ancient One who shines forth with indescribable radiance.
  • The second is the scene of the transfiguration itself.
  • The third is hidden in the testimony of the author of the letter of Peter. The pseudonymous author of the letter was probably a second-generation Christian who may or may not have shared in the actual vision of the transfigured Lord, but who was a witness to faith in his divine glory.

The splendor of God is manifested in each generation of believers.

We possess the prophetic message.  We are the ones who today possess the prophetic message; we are the present-day eyewitnesses of Christ’s majesty. We too have moments when we might behold his glory and hear the voice proclaiming his identity, but we need eyes of faith and ears that are open. We really never know when God will choose to reveal a glimpse of divine glory. The disciples probably thought Jesus was merely taking them up a mountain to pray, as he had done on other occasions. Like them, all we can do is follow Jesus and open ourselves to whatever God has in store for us.