The Transfiguration of Christ

Today in both the Traditional and Novus Ordo calendars is the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.  Here is the reading from Chapter 17 of the Gospel of St. Matthew (Traditional), as copied from the marvelous Divinum Officium website:

At that time, Jesus took Peter, James and his brother John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves, and was transfigured before them. And His face shone as the sun, and His garments became white as snow. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking together with Him. Then Peter addressed Jesus, saying, Lord, it is good for us to be here. If You will, let us set up three tents here, one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elias. As he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased; hear Him. And on hearing it the disciples fell on their faces and were exceedingly afraid. And Jesus came near and touched them, and said to them, Arise, and do not be afraid. But lifting up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus cautioned them, saying, Tell the vision to no one, till the Son of Man has risen from the dead. Mt 17:1-9

I have always found this account, essentially the same in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, to be both puzzling and slightly amusing in its depiction of Peter’s reaction to the vision.  First, the puzzle: How did Peter (and, presumably, James and John also) know that the two men were who appeared with Jesus were Moses and Elijah (or Elias, in the TLM translation)?  Both had been dead for centuries, and we can be fairly certain they were not wearing name tags.  Was this knowledge simply placed in the Apostles’ consciousness by Divine action?  That’s the best option I can think of, since none of the Scriptural accounts tell us what happened.  Second, the humor: Peter’s offer to build booths (or tents, or tabernacles, again depending on the translation) for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, resembles nothing so much as the babbling of an extraordinarily frightened man.  Luke even seems to make reference to this, noting that Peter spoke “not knowing what he said.”  The common homiletic suggestion that Peter was trying to “preserve the moment” assumes, in my view, a most unrealistic degree of calm acceptance of the miracle on Peter’s part.  Keep in mind that Peter was a manual laborer, accustomed to such tasks as repairing his fishing boat and sewing torn nets.  Confronted with the astounding vision of the transfigured Christ and his two unusual visitors, it seems natural that he would fall back on something he knew-in this case, suggesting the building of a temporary shelter, as a sort of defense mechanism against the overwhelming sensory and emotional power of the miraculous vision.  We see in this story and elsewhere in the Gospels plenty of evidence that Peter was, despite his clear position as the leader of the Apostles, just an ordinary man, a sinner like the rest of us, and here, or so it seems to me, his instinctive response totally missed the point of the whole event.  My reaction probably would have been even worse.  In any case, I tend to imagine Jesus doing a divine eye-roll at the apostle’s tent-building suggestion, even though he must have known in advance that it would occur.  So much for the humor.

The most memorable homily I’ve yet heard on the Transfiguration concentrated on the Father’s command, (This is my Son…listen to him!), a sound and salutary point.  We were reminded, among other things, that the intended audience of the Father’s voice was not only Peter, James and John, but all of us who live and have lived through the millennia since the time our Lord walked this Earth. We believe, after all, that Sacred Scripture is the living Word of God, through which the Triune God speaks to us every time we read or hear it, and it greatly behooves us to pay attention!

But as always with the Scriptures, there are layers of meaning here, and there is only so much that even the most effective preacher can say in ten minutes or so; thus, we are always called to enter more deeply into the Word than is possible during the short time allotted for the Liturgy of the Word and the homily.  In this instance, let’s take a look at how St. Thomas Aquinas discussed the Transfiguration in the Summa Theologica.  Among many other points, the Angelic Doctor suggests that the Lord’s glorified appearance was a foretaste of that which we all hope to attain, the resurrection of our own bodies in eternal glory and the “beatific vision” of Christ:

“Therefore it was fitting that He should show His disciples the glory of His clarity (which is to be transfigured), to which He will configure those who are His; according to Philippians 3:21: “(Who) will reform the body of our lowness configured [Douay: ‘made like’] to the body of His glory.” Hence Bede says on Mark 8:39: “By His loving foresight He allowed them to taste for a short time the contemplation of eternal joy, so that they might bear persecution bravely.” Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III.45.1 (Emphasis added.)

In addition, St. Thomas draws an allegorical (or is it anagogical?) comparison with the Lord’s Baptism, in showing how both events, which he calls the “first regeneration” and the “second regeneration”, reveal the Holy Trinity:

“Just as in the Baptism, where the mystery of the first regeneration was proclaimed, the operation of the whole Trinity was made manifest, because the Son Incarnate was there, the Holy Ghost appeared under the form of a dove, and the Father made Himself known in the voice; so also in the transfiguration, which is the mystery of the second regeneration, the whole Trinity appears–the Father in the voice, the Son in the man, the Holy Ghost in the bright cloud; for just as in baptism He confers innocence, signified by the simplicity of the dove, so in the resurrection will He give His elect the clarity of glory and refreshment from all sorts of evil, which are signified by the bright cloud. Summa Theologica, III.45.4. (Emphasis added.)

Thus, aided by the exegesis of St. Thomas, the story of the Transfiguration points our hearts to the purpose of our journey–to reach the eternal home where:

“And there shall be no curse any more; but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall serve him. And they shall see his face: and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more: and they shall not need the light of the lamp, nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall enlighten them, and they shall reign for ever and ever.” Rev. 22:3-5. (Douay-Rheims) Source

God’s blessings to all.

Laudamus Te, Jesus Christus!

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