Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; His face shone like the sun and His clothes became white as light. Mt. 17: 1-2.
The transfiguration of Jesus took place, evidently, not long before Jesus would go up to Jerusalem for the last time and undergo his passion. What happened on that mountain was clearly intended to fortify the faith of his apostles, Peter, James and John, and by their testimony it would strengthen the other apostles and disciples, including ourselves 20 centuries later. The faith of the apostles would be severely tested by what would happen to their divine master on Good Friday, and Jesus clearly wanted to strengthen their faith in his divinity which would be briefly overshadowed by what happened to him in his humanity. And so, just this once does he allow his divine glory to shine through his humanity, and one can imagine how important this memory was during the trial of their faith when Jesus would suffer and die.
Of course, the effectiveness of the testimony of these three pillars of the church on our faith in Jesus’ divinity depends on our belief that their word communicates factual truth. In the second reading today, St. Peter assures us of the factualness of their testimony when he says: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” He assures us, then¸ that their “prophetic message … is altogether reliable; including this testimony of what Jesus did for them on the holy mountain.
How sad it is that faith and religious practice is so much in decline today, and thus the Christian faith no longer constitutes for all too many nominal Christians the central point of reference in their life. How does one explain this great loss of faith in the 20th and 21st centuries, the tedium, the exhaustion, and the bother so many people experience in fulfilling even their basic duties as believers? Why are most young people not attracted to the Church or even to Christ? And we might go further and ask ourselves why there seems to be such dejection and lack of joy even among many who consider themselves true believers in Christ?
Perhaps a deeper reflection on the miracle of the Transfiguration can help us to answer these questions, and gain a deeper appreciation of the meaning of the Transfiguration for our own lives.
So let us begin with the first question: who was it really who was transfigured? The obvious answer is that it was Jesus of Nazareth who was transfigured, the son of Mary. But He is also the son of God. Otherwise, the Transfiguration would be rather meaningless. If the apostles were familiar with the prophet Daniel, then they would recognize the connection between the Transfiguration and Daniel’s vision of the Ancient One, God, who took his throne and whose “clothing was bright as snow,
and the hair on his head as white as wool.” Daniel’s vision is of the Father, but the glory of the Father is the same glory possessed by the Son, that is, the Son of Man mentioned in that same prophecy. The Holy Spirit will enable the church to identify the glory of the Son of Man on the Mountain with the glory of the Father seated on his throne. Daniel did not perceive the mystery of the Trinity, but the apostles soon would. Without this belief in the divinity of Christ and his oneness with the Father, the event of the Transfiguration would have little meaning for faith.
However, there is a second “transfiguration” that takes place on this mountain. It is perhaps far less obvious, but it is extremely important for understanding the ultimate significance of this event for the life of the Church and her members. The other transfiguration was the great change that took place in the apostles, then and later. They were changed men when they came down from that mountain. Jesus Himself was not changed in his very being by the Transfiguration. He was merely changed momentarily in his appearance. But the apostles, on the other hand, were changed in the very depths of their being. What Peter had confessed at Philippi was now extraordinarily confirmed in their hearts by this miracle. So, in this sense, they were the ones who were ultimately transfigured by the Transfiguration of Jesus.
Indeed, the Apostles were changed, transfigured in terms of the stability of their faith. Until that moment they had known and seen Jesus only in his the external appearance, even if they believed that he was what Peter confessed, the Son of the living God. They only saw with their eyes a mere man, no matter how holy He was. Certainly they believed in him. But now they had seen His glory, as John later testifies, “and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” And this “seeing” established their belief much more profoundly in their souls. They had come to see Jesus far more deeply, that is, in the glory that is His as the Only-begotten. This vision was itself a revelation, a pure gift from God. They now come in faith to see Jesus at a far deeper level, in the inner mystery of the glory that He shares with the Father, the Ancient One of Daniel.
The greatest effect of this deeper faith in Jesus is a greater love. Up to this moment, they have certainly loved him, but not yet with their whole heart, for that depth of love is possible for God alone. Now they could love Jesus in this way, with an all-consuming love that would eventually make them ready not just to abandon their boats and nets to follow him, but ready to follow him unconditionally, and eventually even to their own cross for his sake. This deeper faith, more deeply rooted, is what will soon inspire a new all-consuming love that would change not simply a part of their lives, their occupation, but the whole of their existence. From this moment forward everything would revolve around this beloved, even their failures which would cause them to seek his forgiveness and no one else’s.
So what does all this have to do with us? What does the Transfiguration mean for us? How are we today 2000 years later to be transfigured like the apostles? For things to change also for us, as for those three disciples on Tabor, something similar must happen in our lives
First of all, we somehow must come to that mountain; we must see the transfigured Jesus as the one who alone can change our love – then all of a sudden there will be only one to whom we can give our whole heart, our whole life. We can become new men and women, but only if we are first transfigured by Jesus. We need to have our hearts purified, transfigured by grace, so that we too can see glory of the transfigured Jesus, and love him with all our heart. Listen to Deut 30:6 “The LORD, your God, will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, that you may love the LORD, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, and so may live.”
And finally, the transfiguration of the apostles certainly did not end with their changed life on earth. The ultimate transfiguration still lay ahead, for them and for us. One day, the Lord of Glory will raise us up, not simply to some earthly mountain, but to heaven itself. And he who was transfigured on that mountain will then transfigure our lowly bodies by communicating his own glory to us in the flesh. His transfiguration was a pledge and foreshadowing of our own. That is an essential truth of our Christian faith and hope, and if we lose that part, it will be no surprise that we lose both faith and hope, and finally our love.