Thursday, August 19

Examining the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ

Perhaps one of the more overlooked - yet very significant - events of the life of Christ is the Transfiguration of Jesus. What is a transfiguration? The dictionary describes it as "the supernatural and glorified change in appearance of Jesus on the mountain." They hit the nail on the head. A "transfiguration" is a change in shape or appearance. Frankly, I love hearing this account. Probably because of people involved - Jesus, Moses, Elijah, St. Peter, St James, and St. John. Now, where does this event take place? None of the gospels specifically mention which mountain, but since the 3rd Century Christians pointed out Mount Tabor, that is the traditional site, although some, such as R.T. Frances, have noted that Mount Hermon is the closest to Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus was in the previous chapter of Matthew. (Picture Credit to: Raphael, ©1520; article revised on 06-08-14)

So what's the general idea? Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up in a mountain. They see Moses, who's been dead for about 1,400 years, (Deuteronomy 34:5) and Elijah, who was taken to Heaven a few hundred years before. (2nd Kings 2:11) They come and talk with Jesus about his upcoming death, and God comes down in a cloud saying, "This is my Son." In other words, he threw off all speculations about who Jesus was. When God Almighty speaks, it is good to listen. So let's take a look at these Biblical accounts, see what they tell us about this spectacular event. St. Thomas Aquinas, an Italian priest, had considered The Transfiguration to be the "Greatest Miracle," in that it happened to Christ himself.

Let's take a look at Matthew 17:1-9. Verses 2-5 say, "There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. St. Peter said to Jesus, 'Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters - one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.' While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!'" Verses 6-7 go on to say, "When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them.'Get up.' he said. 'Don't be afraid.' When they looked up, they saw no one but Jesus." Jesus proceeded to instruct the three disciples not to mention this to anyone "until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." So they listened, but did not understand until later.

Mark gives his account, which was told to him by St. Peter, in Mark 9:2-8. The account is mostly the same, though verse three gives another vivid description: "His clothes became a dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them." Luke also speaks of the Transfiguration. Luke 9:28-36 gives the same account, though with certain details. "As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him."

John may also have alluded to The Transfiguration, though it may be a general idea of Christ. John 1:14, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." That may be an obscure reference, but it is true that John saw the glory of Jesus - he was a witness of the Transfiguration.

Though he conveyed it to John Mark, who wrote Mark, Peter later wrote about the event. 2nd Peter 1:16-18 says, "For we did nor follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in Power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain."

Other early Christian literature refers to this miraculous event as well. According to the Acts of John 90 (written AD 150-200), "At another time he took me [John] and James and Peter to the mountain, where he used to pray, and we beheld such a light on him that is not possible for a man who uses mortal speech to describe what it was like." The apocryphal Acts of Peter (AD 150-200) also mentions the Transfiguration, this time from the perspective of St. Peter, as we saw in 2nd Peter. According to chapter 20, "Our Lord wished to let me see his majesty on the holy mountain; but when I with the sons of Zebedee saw his brightness I fell at his feet as dead, closed my eyes, and heard a voice in a manner which I cannot describe. I imagined I had been deprived of my eyesight by his splendor. I recovered a little and said to myself, 'Perhaps the Lord has brought me here to deprive me of my eyesight.' And I said, 'If such is your will, O Lord, I shall not resist.' And he took me and lifted me up. And when I arose I saw him again in a form which I could not comprehend." In an ancient Gnostic document, the Treatise on the Resurrection (AD 170-200) we read, "if you remember reading in the Gospel that Elijah appeared and Moses with him, do not think that the resurrection is an illusion. It is no illusion, but it is truth!"

Finally, we may turn our attention to a lengthy but curious passage in the Apocalypse of Peter 15-17 (AD 100-150), "And my Lord Jesus Christ, our King, said to me, 'Let us go to the holy mountain.' And his disciples went with him, praying. And behold there were two men there, and we could not look upon their faces, for a light came from them, shining more than the sun and their raiment also was shining and cannot be described and nothing is sufficient to be compared to them in this world. And the sweetness of them... that no mouth is able to utter the beauty of their appearance, for their aspect was astonishing and wonderful. And the other, great, I say, shines in his aspect above crystal. Like the flower of roses is the appearance of the color of his head and the aspect of the color of his aspect and of his body... and on their foreheads was a crown of nard woven from fair flowers. As the rainbow in the water, so was their hair. And such was the comeliness of their countenance, adorned with all manner of ornament" (15).

Chapter 16-17a continues, "And when we suddenly saw them, we marvelled. And I drew near to God, Jesus Christ, and said to him, 'O my Lord, who are these?' And he said to me, "They are Moses and Elijah.' And I said to him, 'Where then are Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the rest of the righteous fathers?' And he showed us a great garden, open, full of fair trees and blessed fruits and of the odor of perfumes. The fragrance was pleasant and reached us. And of that tree... I saw many fruits. And my Lord and God Jesus Christ said to me, 'Have you seen the companies of the fathers? As is their rest, such also is the honor and the glory of those who are persecuted for my righteousness' sake.' And I rejoiced and believed and understood that which is written in the book of my Lord Jesus Christ. And I said to him, 'O my Lord, do you wish that I make here three tabernacles, one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah?' And he said to me in wrath, 'Satan makes war against you, and has veiled your understanding; and the good things of this world prevail against you. Your eyes therefore must be opened and your ears unstopped that you may see a tabernacle, not made with human hands, which my heavenly Father has made for me and for the elect.' And we beheld it and were full of gladness. And behold, suddenly there came a voice from heaven, saying, 'This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased: [he has kept] my commandments.'"

So, hearing these accounts, we can gather that it must have been extraordinary to witness. It has been speculated that the senses of the disciples were also transfigured (changed) to see his glory. While it does not change the event, it is interesting. It is also interesting to note that Jesus is put above Elijah and Moses, two major figures in Judaism. Moses represents the Law, while Elijah represents the Prophets - Jesus was the one who fulfilled what was written about him in "...the Law of Moses, [and] the Prophets..." (Luke 24:44). Regardless of what deeper meaning this event has, if you take anything away from it, may it be this: God himself proclaims Jesus as his Son. The Transfiguration is the event that shows the glory of Jesus, that shows him in his glorified body. This special event shared with the inner ring of the three disciples was a confirmation to them that Jesus was indeed, the Messiah that was prophesied to come.

Sts. Peter, James and John were witnesses to this spectacular event - and it is so often overlooked. It need not be. Jesus was also proclaimed as the Son of God in Psalm 2:7, Proverbs 30:4, Luke 1:32, and Matthew 3:17, the first two instances from prophets, the next from the angel Gabriel, and in Matthew by God himself at the Baptism of Jesus, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." While the miracles of walking on water, disappearing from a crowd, raising the dead, healing, multiplying food, changing weather, and many others happen to others, the Transfiguration miracle happens to Jesus - and it proves without a doubt to his followers that that he truly is the Son of God. 

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