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The Mystery of the Transfiguration

You’ve probably noticed that Gospel readings begin, “In illo tempore… in that time.” Well… what time is that?

It is helpful to interrogate texts with classic questions from ancient rhetoric: “Quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando?” You can probably recognize what I am about without me telling you. Aristotle formulated them, Cicero rendered them in hexameter (quoted above), St. Thomas Aquinas adopted them (STh Ia IIae, q. 7, a. 3 co.), even the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) enshrined them in can. 21 to be used by confessors to discern the nature and circumstances of sins. Rudyard Kipling put them into verse in his Just So Stories:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

I keep yammering about context. This week, context brings a lot to bear on the Gospel reading, which for this 2nd Sunday of Lent in the Vetus Ordo is Matthew’s account of the Lord’s Transfiguration.

Who’s on first? Our Lord with Peter, the leader among the disciples, along with James and John,  the two “sons of thunder,” the Zebedee brothers. We are not done with the “who” yet, but we’ll get there. What’s on second? Matthew’s account of the Lord’s Transfiguration. Where? On a mountain. By what means or how? It’s a mystery but it has to do with the Lord having two perfect natures, human and divine, in one Person. Why? At several reasons have been given for this great mystery. How? I said it was a mystery. When? This is really a good one.

Retracing our steps to “who,” Our Lord picked his three key apostles, the first among the Twelve and the two brothers, to go up the mountain, just as Moses had gone up Mount Sinai in Exodus 24 on the seventh day with Aaron, the first high priest, and his sons, two brothers, Abihu and Nadab. Also “appearing,” in a sense, is the presence of God in the “glory cloud,” or Hebrew shekinah, from which the voice of the Father is heard (17:5). As the Lord is transfigured, the apostles see Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, conversing with Him (17:3). Their presence demonstrated the continuity between the Old Covenant and the New.

Moses finally made it to the Promised Land. Moses saw the Promised Land from Mount Nebo, but could not enter because of his lack of faith (Deut 34). After many centuries, Moses finally comes to the Promised Land in the presence of the New Moses, whose own Person is the Promised Land, the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God.

Where was this? On a mountain. The location of the Transfiguration was probably Mount Hermon in northern Galilee very near to Caesarea Philippi, where the Lord had camped for a week before, where Peter had made his profession and Christ had changed his name and promised him the “keys.” Important things take place on mountains through salvation history, such as the implementation by God of covenants. The Garden of Genesis, Eden, was a mountain. Noah’s Ark rested on a mountain. Abraham took sacrificial Isaac up a mountain. Moses took the seventy elders up the mountain for their banquet of bread and wine at the feet, so to speak, of the Father at the threshold of Heaven (Ex 24:1-8). At 7336 feet Mount Hermon is quite an arduous climb, but it is right there. Caesarea Philippi is on its southwestern base. Some situate the Transfiguration at Mount Tabor in lower Galilee, only 575 feet, a strange-looking isolated bubble of a hill on the plain some 90 km from Caesarea Philippi. Also, Mount Tabor, in those days, had a fortress on top of it.

What happened on this mountain, which ever it was? The figures and the glory cloud appear, the voice is heard and Christ’s “face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (17:2). You will recall that when the shekinah would descend on the Tent of Meeting and Moses would enter to converse with God, he absorbed something of the glory light of God so that his face radiated when he exited (Ex 34). It’s serious business being in the presence of Mystery. Elijah wrapped his cloak around his head lest he die (1 Kings 19:13). In the Transfiguration, Christ’s face and garments shone not with reflected or absorbed light but with His own light. The glory cloud arrived after. In His Transfiguration, Our Lord revealed some little bit of his divine splendor shining in and through our common humanity.

Why did the Lord do this? Encounters with God transformed both Moses and Elijah, filling them with new purpose and resolve. Indeed, this is regularly invoked as the reason for Christ revealing something of His splendor to the chief among the Apostles, namely, to strengthen their faith and hope and to encourage them when the ordeal of His Passion would strike them. Consider, in that light, that Peter still denied the Lord three times. Peter and James avoided Calvary and only John stood with Mary and the others. The rest of the Apostles… let’s just say that the first collective act of the first conference of bishops was to abandon the Lord.

Another reason given for the Lord’s choice to be Transfigured before these three was to help them to abandon worldly ambitions and earthly glory, pale in the presence of the luminous Christ, and lay aside any notions of the Lord as a political Messiah, a liberator from Romans and restorer of the David Kingdom. On the other hand, in Matthew 20, to come, John and James were part of that bid of their mother to obtain special status for them, and the other ten “were indignant at the two brothers” (20:24). In the same chapter in Luke’s account, the Lord places a child before them to explain true greatness (9:46-48, and Mark 9). But think about how much worse they might have been had they not gone up the mountain.

Yet another purpose I’ve read for this encounter on the Mount of the Transfiguration has to do with a consultation, as it were, between the Lord and His Heavenly Father to understand more thoroughly in His human understanding the plan for His Passion, death and resurrection.

Still another reason comes from Fathers of the Church, such as St. John Damascene (and Damascus is quite close to Mount Hermon) in a sermon on the Transfiguration about the ultimate vocation of all mankind, theosis, our “divinization,” our eternal transformation as images of God. Various of the Fathers handed down phrases such as that of St. Gregory of Nyssa, namely, that the Eternal Word became incarnate so that by becoming as we are, we might become as He is.

Also, it is a strong Scriptural support for the dogma of the Trinity. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

555 For a moment Jesus discloses his divine glory, confirming Peter’s confession. He also reveals that he will have to go by the way of the cross at Jerusalem in order to ‘enter into his glory.’ Moses and Elijah had seen God’s glory on the Mountain; the Law and the Prophets had announced the Messiah’s sufferings. Christ’s Passion is the will of the Father: the Son acts as God’s servant; the cloud indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit. ‘The whole Trinity appeared: the Father in the voice; the Son in the man; the Spirit in the shining cloud.’

Note well that the CCC connects the Transfiguration with Peter’s Confession.

We could dwell on multiple motives for the Transfiguration, but it is time to move along to the next question: When?

Matthew 17 begins six days after the events of the previous chapter, which means Peter’s confession, and Christ predicting His Passion and subsequent glory. So, six days after Peter’s confession Christ takes the three up nearby Mount Hermon. In Luke’s account, after Moses and Elijah are there and before the glory cloud comes, impetuous Peter exclaims “‘Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said” (9:33).

Pope Benedict XVI, in his Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, informs us that Scripture scholars have situated these events in the calendar of Jewish feasts, in particular the weeklong celebration of Sukkoth, the autumn Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. The accounts in all three Synoptic Gospels line up with this. Christ’s life events closely align with the Jewish feasts. The Transfiguration would have occurred on the last or Hoshanah Rabbah, “Great Praise Day” of Sukkoth, thus underscoring its meaning. Jewish feasts looked in two directions, back to what they commemorate (the time that the people lived in “booths” in the wilderness) and forward to what they foreshadowed (the return to the Temple of the Presence of God in the glory cloud).

By the way, on the “Great Day” there was a water and wine pouring ceremony in the Temple. It was during this hushed moment the year before that the Lord stood up and cried aloud, “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink” (John 7). In reference to their hope for the return of the Shekinah, enormous candelabra many meters high, were set aflame in the Temple, so bright that the whole city was illuminated. As the lights were extinguished with the closing of Sukkoth, Christ proclaimed “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).

I have to stop. There’s too much.

Let’s part ways with this, another point of the Transfiguration, for our lives.

The word in Greek for “transfiguration” is metamorphoo (μεταμορφόω), think “metamorphosis,” which has both an exterior and interior implication. Just as in our active liturgical participation, the two aspects influence each other, each rendering the other more vital. The exterior manifests the interior but the interior orients and drives the exterior. Taking up again that theme of theosis from above, our transformational contact with the Lord in Mystery, like that which transformed Moses’ face, like that which touched Peter’s heart, should become ever more manifest to others in the way that we live, behave, relate. To put it another way, using the images of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, if you don’t honestly sense in yourself, see in your life, outside signs of the indwelling Gifts, then you may not be in the state of grace. Examination of conscience and confession is overdue.

Moreover, the most powerful moments of transformations in Scripture seem to involve going up a mountain. We need mountains, in the sense of a place to go apart, as the Lord did when He sought a place to pray, when He needed a place to transform His Apostles. We need mountains in the sense of constant challenge, lest our lives be static, as in the case of some Catholics who haven’t looked at a catechism or holy book for decades since their last religion class or CCD, like many who never undertake a real climb. We need the high place of mortifications and trials, because that is where the Cross is grounded, that is the place of self-emptying. To be full of God’s gifts, and to share in his transforming glory, we must make room and empty ourselves.

Sounds like Lent.

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