The Transfiguration: Christ’s glory shining in the darkness of this world
Aug 6, 2019
In the wake of three horrific mass shootings, this is a week in which the darkness of the world can seem overwhelming. There are many direct victims of these acts of violence, but there are countless others who find themselves grief-stricken, angry and worn-down with anxiety about what our society can do to prevent future attacks.
In the midst of all of this darkness, Catholics today (Aug. 6) celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. To put the matter bluntly, why are we celebrating it? What is so significant about this feast day?
In order to answer this question, it might help to explore three related questions: What is Jesus doing in the Transfiguration? Why is He doing it? And what does this mean for us? Incidentally, these three questions can help us to unlock the meaning and importance of just about any Gospel passage.
What is Jesus doing in the Transfiguration? The basic answer is that He is giving a kind of “sneak preview” to the glory of the Resurrection. As this Gospel passage begins, we see that Jesus went up “a high mountain” — a mountain that has been identified as Mt. Tabor — with three of His chosen disciples: Peter, James and John. We have already seen Jesus distinguish these three disciples from the rest at the raising of Jairus’ daughter in chapter 5 of Mark’s Gospel, and we will see Jesus keep them closer to Him than the other disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. Even within His chosen band of twelve Apostles, Jesus seems to be fostering a special bond with these three men.
After ascending the mountain, Jesus “was transfigured before them” (note: this article follow’s Mark’s account of the Transfiguration). Here we read that, “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could clean them.” The drama of this language does a couple of things:
• First, it makes absolutely clear that something supernatural is happening. Jesus’ clothes aren’t just “really, really white;” they are so white that no earthly power could make them so white.
• Second, in the context of today’s readings, the drama of this moment should help us see a connection to the dramatic description of Daniel’s vision in Daniel 7, in which the Ancient One is seated on His throne, and is described as having “clothing bright as snow” and “hair … white as wool.” We also see in this passage the glory of the Son of Man, which is a title Jesus uses to describe Himself in the Gospels, a title so powerful that it provokes an accusation of blasphemy on the part of the unbelieving high priest during Jesus’ trial before His crucifixion.
And if the event of Jesus’ Transfiguration itself wasn’t convincing enough, what happens next only adds to the drama of the moment. Moses and Elijah appear, representing the Law and the Prophets — the two pillars of the Israelite tradition — giving witness to what Jesus has just revealed: that He is the fulfillment of all that they lived for. And then there is the most important witness of all: the coming of a cloud, which tradition tells us is a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the voice of the Father speaking the last and most important word on the subject: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
In the Transfiguration, Jesus invites His disciples to find out Who He really is. He shows them His glory, the glory He always has as the Son of God, and the glory His human nature will take on in a special way when He will rise from the dead on Easter Sunday. But for these chosen three disciples, the Transfiguration is not only a sneak preview into Jesus’ resurrected glory, but also into the glory promised to them if they follow Jesus faithfully.
So in the Transfiguration, Jesus invites His disciples to find out Who He really is. He shows them His glory, the glory He always has as the Son of God, and the glory His human nature will take on in a special way when He will rise from the dead on Easter Sunday. But for these chosen three disciples, the Transfiguration is not only a sneak preview into Jesus’ resurrected glory, but also into the glory promised to them if they follow Jesus faithfully.
And here we begin to see the “why” of what Jesus is doing. Remember that Jesus has been keeping a low profile throughout the Gospel of Mark — again and again telling others to keep His miracles a secret. Also, just before the Transfiguration, Jesus had predicted His own death and Resurrection. It seems clear that the horror of the prediction of Jesus’ death overshadowed the Resurrection in the minds of the apostles. The Transfiguration is the moment when Jesus sets things right: death and defeat will not have the final word; Jesus reveals the new life, the victory and the glory that await those who persevere through the experience of the Cross.
So Jesus is encouraging these chosen disciples, strengthening them for the journey ahead and giving them something to aspire to. It’s hard to “keep your eyes on the prize” if you don’t know what the prize is. Here, Jesus shows them. Of course, they don’t get it all right away. Peter speaks for the group when he says, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here,” but as they go back down the mountain with Jesus, they are still, “questioning what rising from the dead” means. But what they do know is what a much older Peter tells us in today’s second reading, in a letter written long after the fulfillment of Jesus’ death and Resurrection: that they had been “eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
Now, what does all of this mean for us? It means that we, too, are called to be “eyewitnesses of (Jesus’) majesty.” We need to see in Jesus the glory of the Son of God and the Son of Man. We need to see the glory of the Resurrection, even when we know the Cross is coming our way … and, we can even say, especially when we know the Cross is coming our way. We need to have faith that Jesus is risen from the dead and that He reigns in glory, and we need to believe that He wants all of us to share in that glory.
Seeing the glory of Jesus can be difficult for us for a couple of reasons. One of them is that most of us experience a lot of low times, a lot of dry times, in our spiritual lives. Things can often seem to be kind of bland. We get used to a routine, we go through the “blahs,” or spiritual things just don’t seem that interesting to us. When this happens, we need to calmly ask God to snap us out of it. And we need to do our best to pay attention to what God is doing in our lives. We should not expect God to reveal Himself to us in dramatic ways all the time, but He probably will punctuate our lives with little moments of clarity, when we see His glory, even if just for a moment. But we need to pay close attention if we don’t want to miss these moments, and when we experience them, we need to cling to them for the times when God seems to have faded into the background of our lives.
It can be difficult to see God’s glory in the midst of all of the troubles in the world around us. Especially during times like these, when we are faced with mass shootings, wars, abortion, the persecution of Christians, drug addiction, crime, and so much more, we need to stand as lookouts, waiting for moments when God will reveal Himself to us.
At all times, we have the definitive revelation of God to His people in Sacred Scripture, in which we read and hear about the magnificent things God has already done for us, especially in His Son Jesus Christ. It is the message of Jesus and of His glory that blazes with an everlasting light, the message to which St. Peter says we “will do well to be attentive … as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.”
Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.