The feast of the transfiguration that we celebrate today marks the second visible manifestation to humankind of God (theophany) as recorded in the gospels. The first manifestation was at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordon and with the descent of the Holy Spirit, a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The gospel today records the journey of Jesus with His disciples Peter, James, and John up to the mountain and as Jesus’ face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as the lights, a voice from the cloud was heard saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” The second theophany that we celebrate today serves an important purpose in the journey of the disciples and of the early Church. In fact, all three synoptic gospels tell the story of the transfiguration of Jesus (Matt. 17:1-13; Mark 9:3-13; Luke 9:28-36) – frequently a sign of the importance of an event from Jesus’ life for the early Christian community.
The context in which our gospel is taken from today gives us some direction as to its significance. The transfiguration of Jesus as recorded by Matthew occurs six days after a very profound conversation Jesus has with His disciples. This conversation starts off with what seems like an innocent question but turns out to be a profession of faith. The question to the disciples begins with ‘Who do people say I am?’ and then moves on to ‘Who do you say I am?’. Simon Peter goes on to make the profession of faith as he proclaims, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). It is here that Jesus now talks about His death to His disciples and once again, Simon Peter at the center of it all is rebuked by Jesus for being an obstacle to God’s manifestation of His love and glory that will take place on the cross. It’s after these two key moments that the transfiguration takes place.
A cursory reading of the event of the transfiguration could quite easily raise questions like ‘why did Jesus choose only Peter, James and John?’ or ‘what image did Jesus portray during the moment of the transfiguration?’ or even ‘what is the purpose of Moses and Elijah appearing?’ Though this event could easily raise many more questions just like how St Thomas Aquinas did in his Summa Theologiae by devoting an entire section on the transfiguration, the purpose of the transfiguration of Christ was clear that His disciples who had just professed their faith in Jesus and who perhaps did not fully understand why he had to die, could in a way gain a greater understanding of who Jesus was and behold Him in His glory. Though they had professed faith in Jesus, the disciples might have only known Him in His human body (humanity) but now had a greater realization of the divinity of Christ, though they could not fully comprehend it. That gave them the reassurance they needed after hearing the shocking news of Jesus’ imminent death. We can safely assume that the disciples never forgot what happened that day on the mountain and no doubt this was intended.
If the purpose of the transfiguration of Christ was meant to strengthen the faith of the disciples and later also of the early Church, this feast also must have the same effect on us. On that high mountain, Jesus revealed before the eyes of Peter, James, and John of who He really is and since then, their lives were not the same again. For each one of us, our “mount of transfiguration” is in the Eucharist. As Vatican II had reminded us that “the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life”, it is here that we encounter God in the most profound way. Just as Jesus did not want His disciples to build the tents on the mountain and then leading them down the mountain, the Eucharist itself is our encounter with God and it is meant to strengthen our faith so that the lives we lead away from this “mountain” may reflect the profound experience of God we have had.
Often our focus is on the theophany event and we forget that the coming down from the mountain is just as significant. The God-experience must transfigure us into being more Christ like when we go out into our “own world” – the world of our daily lives. Herein lies the challenge: how can I be more Christ-like to one another? The transfiguration is not just an event of the past to be celebrated; rather an event of the past to be celebrated so that the effects of the celebration transfigures us in the here and now. Let our Eucharist today be one of submitting ourselves to God so that He may transform and transfigure us more and more into the image and likeness of Christ His Son. Our lives must truly resemble this reality because it is for this that we have been chosen, called and now sent – sent as transformed and transfigured persons to renew the face of the earth.
- – Feast of the Transfiguration (6 Aug 2017)