The Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6th tends to be overlooked: stuck in the middle of summer, not a holy day of obligation, with a Gospel reading generally co-opted by the Second Sunday of Lent. But that’s no reason to overlook it, because transfiguration is not just a one-time event in Jesus’s life. Transfiguration is the Christian’s constant challenge and posture.
The Transfiguration enables the inner three of the Apostles – Peter, James, and John – to be steeled in their faith, despite what is coming in Jesus’s life. Having one’s eyes on the prize helps at least a little to understand the way there.
That path won’t be easy. Very probably, it won’t even be the path we desire.
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As soon as Jesus is transfigured, He immediately announces that He must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Peter, who on Sunday wants to build tents for Jesus and the two prophets, rebukes the Lord for His downer message. Peter has his own ideas about how Christ might redeem the world.
But Jesus rebukes him back. He speaks of the necessity of suffering – that one cannot reach Easter but through Good Friday. Jesus tells him bluntly that his measure is human, not divine.
Peter isn’t the only one in the Gospel offering alternative plans for salvation. The Devil, too, challenged God’s plan during his temptation of Our Lord in the wilderness. He wanted Jesus to force His Father’s hand. Maybe we’re willing to accept God’s ends, but we want to pick the means.
The same is true of the Israel of Jesus’s day. They expected a very particular kind of Messiah: one who would come with power and glory, casting out the Romans and exalting Israel. Jesus wouldn’t be that kind of king; the concept of “king” or “Messiah” He offers does not fit Israel’s bill or expectations. And, so, He was rejected. Once again, we see the temptation to fit God’s plans into our designs.
Jesus reveals Who He is to Peter, James, and John privately, on the mountain. That event grates the modern mentality. We might expect Jesus to do the late-night TV circuit, appearing with Moses on Jimmy Fallon or taking a ride in chariots of fire with Elijah for Stephen Colbert. Wouldn’t we expect the world to be convinced of Jesus’s claims if He was just a little flashier about them?
Well, Peter was an eyewitness to the Transfiguration. And then he denied Christ, not once, but three times.
It’s not God’s way to force Himself into our lives. There must be room for faith – for the decision to choose God. He wants us to choose Him on His terms, on the basis of the whole truth about Who He is.
That’s why, in Luke’s Gospel for the Feast, the Evangelist concludes that they “did not at that time tell anybody what they had seen.” In Mark’s Gospel, it’s Jesus who commands them to keep silence: He “charged them to tell no one what they had seen until the Son of Man should have risen from the dead.”
In Mark, Jesus is always telling the disciples to keep quiet and say nothing – again, not what our modern world would expect. This “Messianic Secret” lasts in Mark until 16:15, when Jesus tells them not just to talk but to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel.” The Messianic Secret is over at last because now, after Good Friday and after the Resurrection, you disciples finally understand what kind of Messiah He is. Finally, you will preach Jesus on His terms – the Suffering Servant – not your expectations.
The Transfiguration is more, however, than Christ’s self-revelation to His disciples. (As if that weren’t enough!) The Transfiguration points us exactly to what Easter is about. While the path to the Resurrection is arduous and agonizing because of sin, Transfiguration is the very conquest of sin. In the full liturgical calendar, Easter leads to the Transfiguration, which leads to the Assumption, which leads to the end of the world. In other words, Easter begins is the process of transfiguration that ends on the Last Day.
But our bodily transfiguration must first begin with a transfiguration from the old man: from the man of sin, who would follow his own path rather than the Father’s. One of the best means of transfiguration, then, is through sacramental Reconciliation.
Transfiguration means accepting bodily suffering as part of the wages of sin that we earned. This is not a masochistic, act; rather, it’s challenge to our “humanist” understand of suffering as senseless and beneath our “dignity.” We expect luxury and comfort for ourselves. And, yet, that isn’t God’s plan for Himself. Why should it be His plan for us?
We need to expand our understanding of “Transfiguration.” Yes, the Transfiguration was a Christological miracle, intended to show three select Apostles whom Jesus really was. But the Transfiguration also reveals God’s plan for us. The transformation of Christ’s Body on Mt. Tabor points to its permanent Transfiguration in the Resurrection. This begins a process of transfiguration affecting every one of the members of the Body of Christ, beginning with Our Lady in the Assumption and ending with each and every one of us on the Last Day.
What Peter, James, and John saw on Mount Tabor was not a momentary encouragement to buck them up against what they would see on the Mount of Calvary. What they really saw was eternity, a “new heaven and a new earth,” with new men transfigured as sons in the Son.
And that’s why transfiguration, far from being a one-off privilege of Jesus’s 2,000-some years ago, is a permanent orientation of Christian life. St. Paul reminds the Romans that we “await the redemption of our bodies” with the final judgment on the world. All created things wait patiently to be transfigured. Without denying God’s primacy and initiative in that transformation, we men and women have an active role to play in bringing about that transfiguration, as the stewards of Creation.
[Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons]