The Transfiguration – Luke 9
28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
For Pastors, scholars, or laymen, grasping hold of this Holy Day of the Transformation/Transfiguration is an immense task. It is fraught with meaning that lies far beyond us – it IS a glimpse into Heaven. We know that the Apocalypse of St. John is a much misunderstood book – one which caused John no end of searching for words – and a book which has literally bedeviled countless numbers as to what it is all about. Peter, James and John were permitted to view what Jesus was trying to teach in its fulfillment, and the three of them missed the whole meaning of the event . . . until later.
I am not going to pretend that I can divine either the Transformation or Revelation. All I hope to do today is perhaps lend some understanding to both, that we might see Jesus and His Incarnation into our flesh a bit more clearly.
To summarize the text – Jesus takes the “Big Three” to the mountain-top. Peter – who would himself be transformed and become immense in the history of the Gospel and Scripture; James – soon to become the very Bishop of Jerusalem. And John – of his most blessed Gospel, Epistles, and Revelation. Is it Mt. Tabor? The Scripture does not say, we can only assume. There, Jesus prays, and the three Apostles promptly fall asleep (Garden of Gethsemane, anyone?). Suddenly they awaken, and see Jesus in His full glory as God Almighty – with Moses and Elijah. As an aside, do the saints know what happens here on earth, and hear our prayers? Interesting question! Anyway . . .
The Apostles are, in modern terminology – gob-smacked! They have no clue to make of what they are observing! Peter spouts off some idiocy about making three tabernacles for worship. Would we be too very much different – being confronted with the full Divine Nature of Christ?
Consider why He comes in the Holy Eucharist – in a form we can absorb and understand. If Jesus appeared at the Altar in His full glory as God Almighty, half of us might just have heart attacks on the spot! The other half might complain – “God in all His glory? Will He be done and gone in an hour – we have a bruncheon planned for 11:30am.”
Sadly, those are the terms in which we think. We, with all we claim to know about Jesus, are not much quicker on the draw that were the Apostles, are we?
Before I am excoriated by one scholar I know, I should get on to matters concrete. He is the scholar, I am just the old preacher – everything in life is a sermon illustration and all to us old preachers. But our sermons are supposed to “reveal the real” – are they not? Having said that . . .
The Latins like to go to their source – their language, as it were, and the primary word of the day is as follows:
Transfiguration – the Latin roots trans – (“across”)and figura (“form, shape”). It thus signifies a change of form or appearance.
True enough, as it were. But as an English translation is not sufficient to convey the full meaning of Scripture, neither is Latin. In the Greek, the original language of Scripture, we grasp (or try to) a fuller meaning of the event:
Mεταμορφόω – metamorphosis . . .
μεταμορφόω, μεταμόρφω: passive, present μεταμορφοῦμαι; 1 aorist μετεμορφώθη; to change into another form (cf. μετά, III. 2), to transfigure, transform: μετεμορφώθη, of Christ, his appearance was changed (A. V. he was transfigured), i. e. was resplendent with a divine brightness; Christians: τήν αὐτήνεἰκόνα μεταμορφούμεθα, we are transformed into the same image (of consummate excellence that shines in Christ), reproduce the same image, 2 Corinthians 3:18; on the simple accusative after verbs of motion, change, division, cf. Bos, Ellips. (edited by Schaefer), pp. 679ff; Matthiae, § 409; (Jelf, § 636 obs. 2; cf. Buttmann, 190 (164); 396 (339); Winer‘s Grammar, § 32, 5); used of the change of moral character for the better, Romans 12:2; with which compare Seneca, epistles 6 at the beginning,intelligo non emending me tantum, sed transfigurari. ((Diodorus 4, 81; Plutarch de adulat. et amic. 7; others); Philo, vit. Moys. i. § 10 under the end; leg. ad Gaium § 13; Athen. 8, p. 334 c.; Aelian v. h. 1, 1; Lucian, as. 11.) (Synonym: cf.μετασχηματίζω.)
Let the scholars debate – I prefer to go with the original Greek – it seems to put more of “the mystery” in “The Mystery.” It most certainly fits the moment, and especially, the words of Jesus at the end of the Gospel:
“And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.”
That because they knew that much – no one would believe them. Jesus knew that, and He also knew that it would take His crucifixion and Resurrection to make things clear to them.
The Catholic Catechism gets, I believe, the entire gist of the matter:
Christ’s Transfiguration aims at strengthening the apostles’ faith in anticipation of his Passion: the ascent onto the ‘high mountain’ prepares for the ascent to Calvary.
Christ, Head of the Church, manifests what his Body contains and radiates in the sacraments: ‘the hope of glory’.
I particularly like the second of the two – “manifests what his Body contains and radiates in the sacraments: ‘the hope of glory.” As the old rock tune put it – “There’s something happenin’ here.” Indeed there is!
The appearance of Moses and Elijah? Jimmy Akin put it well:
Moses and Elijah represent the two principal components of the Old Testament: the Law and the Prophets. Moses was the giver of the Law, and Elijah was considered the greatest of the prophets. The fact that these two figures “spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem” illustrates that the Law and the Prophets point forward to the Messiah and his sufferings. This foreshadows Jesus’ own explanation, on the road to Emmaus, of the Scriptures pointing to himself (Lk. 24:27, 32).
The entire purpose? A few verses after our text, we are told:
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.
Calvary. The Cross. His death. For the forgiveness of sins. While we may not understand the Mystery of His Transfiguration, we know the why – for us and our sins, as was every other thing Jesus did. It was the other side of the coin of His Incarnation. God and Man – God becoming man, for man.
There are words written by St. Paul, that I hold to be companions to our Gospel today – I Cor. 13:12:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
We may not be able – any of us – to divine the Transfiguration beyond to say “He showed His full glory as God Himself” . . . but we know why.
Go thy way, thy sins are forgiven thee.