The Feast of the Transfiguration comes around every year on 6th August but we usually miss it because it most frequently falls on a weekday and is not a Holyday of Obligation. This year, however, this lovely feast lands on a Sunday and so we are able to give it a bit more consideration than usual. It is good that we do this because the Transfiguration is a very important feast yet all too often one which is forgotten.
In the life of Jesus, the Transfiguration is one of the two occasions, called theophanies, where God the Father makes himself known. The other theophany is the Baptism of the Lord. Actually, the words of the Father spoken at both events is very similar, ‘This is my beloved Son, he enjoys my favour.’ Added here on the occasion of the Transfiguration are the words ‘Listen to him.’
We can imagine that the Apostles Peter, James and John were quite bewildered at seeing Jesus bathed in light conversing with Moses and Elijah. This explains the intervention of Peter who suggests putting up three tents one for each of them, he clearly was quite confused by the whole business.
Then after it is over Jesus commands them not to tell anyone about it since I suppose he understood very well just how confusing it all would be. It is only in the light of the resurrection that the Apostles reflecting on this extraordinary incident must have realised its true significance.
One possible motive commonly expressed by authors trying to explain the meaning of the Transfiguration is that it was intended to strengthen the Apostles as they faced the not far away events of Christ’s scourging and death. Some writers have expressed the thought that its purpose was to give the Apostles a glimpse of Christ’s glory so that they would realise that his suffering and death were preliminaries to something much greater.
I’m not so sure about this explanation; especially as this revelation is only given to a very small inner group of Apostles. Surely all of the Apostles and even the wider group of disciples would have needed strengthening, so why weren’t they all present? And this explanation holds even less water once we recall that those present were forbidden to speak about it to their confreres.
The Transfiguration was clearly a moment of deep communion between Christ and the Father and the presence of the two patriarchs, Moses and Elijah, is surely meant to express the continuity between what Christ was about to accomplish and all the events of the Old Testament. The definitive intervention by God in the world through the sending of his only Son is therefore understood to be in direct continuity with all the other interventions by God in past history such as Noah’s Ark, the sacrifice of Isaac, the giving of the Ten Commandments and many others.
It is surely also significant that Moses was present at the Transfiguration since we know that although he had led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and through forty years traveling in the desert he is not permitted to enter the Promised Land, dying as he does on Mount Nebo before the end of the journey. Here though Moses now makes his entrance into the Promised Land standing alongside Jesus, the one true Saviour of the World. He arrives at the very moment of the fulfilment of all God’s promises; the most significant and opportune time of all.
Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, was also predicted to return again. He did not actually die but had left the world on a heavenly chariot and in the Book of Malachi it is prophesied that Elijah will return before the Last Day as the harbinger or herald of the Messiah. Well, here on the Mount of the Transfiguration he clearly fulfils this important prophesy.
My suggestion is that the events of the Transfiguration could not have been made known to a wider group because of the clamour and distraction that would have resulted. Imagine if it became generally known that Moses and Elijah had returned. The arrival of these two patriarchs of Israel would have caused such a commotion among the people that the message of Jesus would have become obscured and his work of salvation most likely jeopardised.
No, I think that it was fitting that only the inner circle of Apostles were chosen to witness this extraordinary event; despite their confusion they were ones who could be trusted to say nothing until the appropriate time.
According to me and many others the Transfiguration is clearly meant to demonstrate Jesus’ role as the connecting point between heaven and earth. He is the unique one who in his person can unite both of these realities, the heavenly and the earthly. It is his great work of salvation, which is about to be carried out on the Cross of Calvary, that will mark the breakthrough and provide the means by which God and man can be united.
Here on the Holy Mountain the Apostles are given a glimpse of the true majesty and glory of Jesus. It is revealed to them once and for all that he is no mere mortal, nor even a man raised up to a special position. Here in his Transfiguration Jesus is revealed as the only true Son of God who is completely at one with his Father.
The Transfiguration is generally recognised as among the most significant moments in Christ’s life. It is on a par with his Baptism, his Death, his Resurrection and his Ascension. It is only a pity that it is not celebrated with as much deference and solemnity as those other great feasts.
It is interesting that Pope John Paul II when he established a new set of Mysteries of the Rosary called the Luminous Mysteries made sure that he included the Transfiguration. The five meditations of those new mysteries are titled: the Baptism of Jesus, the Wedding at Cana, Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom, the Transfiguration and the Institution of the Eucharist.
Certainly, this feast gives us a great deal of fruit for meditation. In thinking about it we can consider a lot of different theological points. Firstly, we can think about God’s glory and how he wants to share it with us. We can then go on to contemplate the many interventions God made in the world as represented by the presence of Moses and Elijah. We can reflect on the role of the Apostles and the confusion they often experienced; but how they ultimately understood and proclaimed the entire message of Jesus.
We can also realise that there is a time for being silent and a time for proclaiming God’s message. We can think too about the words of the Father approving Christ and his work as well as his instruction to us to listen to the words of Jesus.
This is indeed perhaps the most important lesson of all for us, that we should listen to Jesus because he alone has the words of eternal life. He alone can bring us salvation. He alone can provide us with true and lasting peace.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket