Today, August 6, the Church pauses amidst the cycle of ordinary time to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. Recounted in all the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 9:2-10; Matt 17:1-9; Luke 9:28-36), the transfiguration scene bursts forth with a richness that has captivated the Church from the beginning, as the eyewitness disciples were “filled with awe” (Matt 17:6). The scene is packed with biblical themes recalling Jewish feasts, the Exodus narrative, the Law and the Prophets, the divinity of Christ, the cross (the list could hardly be exhausted). It is of such significance that “the tradition of the Eastern Churches regards [it] as the event that is the source of the sacramental liturgy.”1 I am not concerned here to develop a comprehensive treatment of the Gospel scene. I simply want to follow the Church’s guidance and pause briefly to reflect on some of the things the transfiguration of Jesus means for the heart of the disciple.
Encountering God in the God-Man
St. Mark begins his account of the transfiguration scene in this way: “And after six days, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them” (Mark 9:2). Over the course of two millennia of Christianity, it is tempting to be numb to the story, but it’s jarring to a first-time reader of the gospel narrative. This man, Jesus, has been journeying to town and village preaching good news and healing the sick. The descriptions are nice and even appealing, but on the other hand, it isn’t anything all that new—Moses and some of the prophets also preached and healed. Now all of a sudden, this Jesus is publicly acknowledged as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16) and reveals his divine glory, while conversing with men from centuries before him no less. This should cause readers to stop dead in their tracks, but as noted, we are many of us all too numb to the story. Frank Sheed explains this well:
The reason, one may in all reverence surmise, why [Jesus] did not begin by telling either His friends or His enemies that He was God is that they were Jews, and the Jews believed in God. It is only an age deficient in apprehending God’s majesty that could be surprised that Christ Jesus should only gradually have led men to the realization of a truth which such men would find so shattering. … If Christ our Lord had begun with the announcement that He was God, and they had believed Him, they would have simply fallen flat on their faces and never got up. To men with their awareness of the majesty of God, the truth that Christ was God had to be broken very gradually or it would have broken them.2
It is worth spending due time praying with the words of the transfiguration to break the hold on our hearts that inhibits us from seeing Jesus as the true, omnipotent, majestic God that has existed for all time. Only when we can will we begin to comprehend and appreciate what it means that he took on flesh, walked this earth, and showed us the way back to the Father. It is only in and because of the humanity of Jesus that we have the chance to share in his very life, to “become partakers of the divine nature” (1 Pet 1:4). In his reflections on the transfiguration, Fr. Jean Corbon notes: “The wonderful truth that we must constantly rediscover is that the same Lord who allowed his three disciples to participate in his divinizing light, at a time when his body was still mortal, continues now, with an infinitely greater exercise of power, to divinize men in his very body, which is the Church.”3
St. Mark goes on to describe the transfiguration scene, saying, “his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). He only describes the garments of Jesus, but St. Matthew adds, “his face shone like the sun” (Matt 17:2; cf. Luke 9:29). It is clear that something indescribable happened in the presence of the disciples that day. Seemingly on the border of what language can describe, they were constrained to human words in their attempts to tell of a supernatural event. What we may infer is that some dramatic change took place in Jesus on the peak of Mt. Tabor. Or did it?
St. John Damascene (d. 749), Father and Doctor of the Church, offers a keen insight when commenting on this anomaly: that when Christ was transfigured, he was so “not by acquiring what he was not but by manifesting to his disciples what he in fact was; he opened their eyes and gave these blind men sight.”4 What the holy doctor is saying is that Jesus did not actually change here—he only revealed what was already present within him. What really changed on Mt. Tabor were the hearts of the disciples in seeing the glory of God revealed in their friend and master. St. John’s wisdom is applicable to the hearts of disciples today. Once we encounter Jesus in prayer and sacrament, and begin to realize the magnitude of who he is as true God and true man, it is our hearts that begin to change. When we let the radiating light of Jesus penetrate our stony hearts—battered, wounded, and numb as they are—we actually begin to witness a process of transformation, or transfiguration, in ourselves. Too many things of this world seek the attention of our hearts (and so often we give way to them). But when we let Jesus guide us up the mountain—a place symbolic of God encountering man—he begins to reveal himself, his true self, to us as we reveal ourselves to him. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).
Strength for the Journey Ahead: Encounter the Man
Lastly, the transfiguration strengthens the heart of the disciple, so that the disciple may be ready to follow the Lord to the cross. For it is on the journey to his passion that his transfiguration takes place. It is no coincidence that Jesus invites Peter, James, and John up the mountain with him to behold his glory. For only a few chapters later, we see this same triad of disciples with Jesus in the agony in the garden (Mark 14:33; cf. Matt 26:37). Thus, the two scenes of Jesus’ transfiguration and his passion become intrinsically linked. If one scene’s aim is to show his divinity, the other’s is to show his most vulnerable humanity. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes, “Jesus’ divinity belongs with the Cross—only when we put the two together [the transfiguration and the passion] do we recognize Jesus correctly.”5
It cannot be overlooked that Jesus intended these three disciples to witness both of these events in such an intimate and personal way. It was the strength and consolation they received from Mt. Tabor that allowed them to endure what happened on the mountain of Calvary. Jesus desires the same thing for every disciple, even today. He reveals himself with open heart to those who seek him—sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in more glorious ways—so that we may cling to him when our hearts become shattered; whether broken by others or wounded from sin. Jesus invites his disciples, then and now, not only to gaze upon his divine glory, but also to gaze upon his pierced heart. It was the same Jesus whose face “shone like the sun” that also sweat “great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). Both scenes reveal Jesus with men on his left and his right, with disciples below at his feet. Both scenes reveal his glory. One does so in majesty, the other in humility. Both scenes reveal the same God-Man, who calls all of us to meet his gaze and respond to his call to follow him.
Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 95.
Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 79-80, emphasis added.
Saint John Damascene, Second Homily on the Transfiguration (PG 96:564C).
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 305.