Tuesday, June 21, 2016

20 Mysteries: The Transfiguration

Matthew 17:1-9:

[1] And after six days Jesus taketh unto him Peter and James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart: [2] And he was transfigured before them. And his face did shine as the sun: and his garments became white as snow. [3] And behold there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking with him. [4] And Peter answering, said to Jesus: Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. [5] And as he was yet speaking, behold a bright cloud overshadowed them. And lo, a voice out of the cloud, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him. 
[6] And the disciples hearing, fell upon their face, and were very much afraid. [7] And Jesus came and touched them: and said to them, Arise, and fear not. [8] And they lifting up their eyes saw no one but only Jesus. [9] And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying: Tell the vision to no man, till the Son of man be risen from the dead.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and forever. Amen.

I know I haven't posted anything for a couple of weeks, and I feel like I owe you, dear reader, an apology. I recently started a new job, and to say the least it's been stressful (unfortunately). So, coming home after work, I've been highly motivated to simply vegetate until going to bed. However, today I had a pretty good day, and I've been feeling like I've been neglecting my blog, so here I am, ready to go.

Now, the Transfiguration is the fourth of the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary. For me, it is one of the most mystical events in all of Scripture. And, as you can see above, there isn't a great deal written about it. Mark and Luke recount the same event in their Gospels (Mark 9:[1]-12 Luke 9:[28]-36), and there is some variation between the three accounts, but they, altogether, tell the same story.

It is both a vision, and not a vision. Though Mark recounts the event straightforwardly, as though they went up the mountain, Jesus was transfigured, they heard a voice from heaven, and then they came down the mountain (this is a big abbreviation of his account, but it's the gist), the other Gospels indicate something more was going on here. In Matthew, Jesus actually refers to what they saw as a "vision," while in Luke, we are told that the Apostles (Peter, James and John) were very sleepy, and that they saw Jesus transfigured after they "woke up".

It is typical in general that visions take place while in an "altered state," and most visions in the Old Testament occurred as dreams, though not all did. Yet, though this is called a vision, and the Apostles had been sleepy, this vision occurred, as recounted in Luke, when they Apostles were "awake." This is interesting, because it gives this vision a unique character among Biblical visions, in that it was a vision received with clarity, unlike the typical visions we read about where things are anything but clear, and much interpretation is required to understand what is happening because so much of it is strange imagery.

So, what's the content of this vision? I would say that there are five significant points that make up this vision: Jesus is brilliant, Moses and Elijah appear and dialogue with Jesus, Peter speaks, the Father speaks, then there was only Jesus. So, how's about a closer look?

His Face Shone Like the Sun

It is this aspect of the event that gives it its name. By "transfigured," we specifically mean this, that the glory of God shone through Him, that the Divinity He kept hidden during the whole of His life, He allowed to shine forth in this singular event.

But what does this signify? Throughout ancient art, not just in Christianity, or Judaism, but religious art across the ancient world, you will find what we call "halos." It is typically drawn as a circular disk, either around someone's head, or around their entire bodies, and it is usually colored gold, or yellow, or white, to signify brilliance. We see this, for example, in ancient Buddhist art in depictions of the original Buddha, and with Bodhisatvas. It is an especially prevalent motif within Christian art.

The halo signifies holiness, or goodness, or sainthood. It is thought to be a representation of a real phenomenon, whereby an aura, or brightness sometimes can be seen around very saintly people. We might think about the transfiguration in this sense, that Jesus' holiness is shining forth. And the fact that this brilliance is as bright as the sun, as it's described, might indicate the staggering greatness of His virtue.

However, notice something very important described here. Jesus face shone like the sun. In other words, this wasn't merely an aura settling about Him, but rather it emanated from within. The implication of this is that He, Himself, is the source of the holy aura. This is in stark contrast to Jewish thought about holiness, that obedience to the Law would make you pure and righteous, but that you, yourself are not the source of the holiness. So, if an Old Testament saint received such brilliance, it would be considered a gift of his fidelity to Yahweh, not a revealing of his own greatness.

But, we see here that Jesus, Himself, is the source of this brilliance. This holiness radiates outward from within. He, Himself, is so bright that His very clothes appear to be as white as snow. That is the greatness of His holiness.

But, this brilliance has particular meaning in Jewish tradition, which goes beyond what you typically see in depictions from other ancient religions.

In the book of Judges 5:31, we see that this "shining" comes from God, for those who love Him.

In Psalm 88:38, the throne of David also shines like the sun, as a faithful witness. This should take on particular significance when we understand that Jesus sits on the throne of David.

In the Song of Solomon 6:9, Wisdom itself is said to shine like the sun. Moreover, within the Christian tradition, we also understand the Song of Solomon to be a mystical poem about the Church, who is the Bride of Christ. The perfect Bride and Bridegroom shine forth as the brilliant marriage of the ages.

Ecclesiasticus 27:12 reinforces the vision of Wisdom as brilliant as the sun.

And again, Ecclesiasticus 50:7 shows us again that righteousness, and fidelity to the Law, shines forth like the sun.

But, this event has significance later in the New Testament, as well. In the book of Revelations 1:16, and 10:1, we see that this characteristic, a face shining as the sun, is something certain angels bear as well. So, it is a spiritual character, and angels are even referred to as beings of pure light (and likewise demons as beings of darkness).

God is the source of Light (Let there be light!), and this is why we say that the transfiguration reveals Jesus' Divinity, as the light emanates from Him, from His very being; and all virtue and justice and righteousness are revealed as light.

Moses and Elijah

During the vision, Moses and Elijah appear and speak with Jesus. Now, remember, Moses had died (he was denied entry into the Promised Land for his transgression), but Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Yet, both appear here, and there doesn't seem to be any distinction in the quality of their appearance here. They're simply here, speaking with Jesus.

Now, we aren't given any detail about the content of their discussion(s) with Jesus. Thus, the importance here is simply the fact that they're speaking with Him, not what they're speaking about. In order to understand the significance of this, it's really important to understand the significance of these characters in Jewish tradition.

Remember that Moses freed the Israelites from Egypt, worked signs and miracles among them, and most importantly gave them the Law. But, Moses inscribed the Law twice! Remember? He went up the mountain, was there for a long time, inscribed the Law on tablets, came down the mountain, saw the Israelites worshipping an Egyptian calf god, got angry and broke the tablets, then had to go back up the mountain and received the Law a second time!

Moses freed the Israelites from Egyptian oppression, and once they were free, He received the Law to pass on to them. The Law, then, is supposed to be a work of freedom, in continuity with the freedom that Yahweh had already bestowed upon them. Not only were they to be free, physically and politically, from Egyptian rule, but they were also to be free from Egyptian religion, and tradition, which was steeped in sin and wickedness. And that freedom was to come by way of the Law.

Elijah was a prophet of God during the reign of Ahab. Now, remember, Ahab was wed to princess Jezebel of Phoenicia, a priestess of Baal, a Canaanite god. During Ahab's reign, the religion of Baal was brought into Israel in a big way, and Elijah spoke strongly against this, warning of catastrophe for Israel if the nation did not repent and turn back to Yahweh. He directly challenges the king (Ahab), Jezebel, her priests, and the people of Israel.

He is a prophet, and as all prophets of God do, he challenges Israel to repentance. He performed great miracles before the people, including raising the dead! But this is the essence of a prophet, to reveal our own hearts, and challenge us to reform, and return of God.

So, what you have here are the two great pillars of the Jewish Faith: the Law and the Prophets, symbolized by Moses and Elijah, respectively. And they are in dialogue with Jesus. Now remember, Jesus, during His ministry, makes it clear who He is claiming to be: not just the Messiah, but God, Himself, the Great I Am. More than that, Jesus was deliberately placing Himself at the center of the Jewish tradition.

Both Moses and Elijah spoke very harshly against the worship of false gods. Moses was furious and broke the precious gift of the Law in his anger, because the Israelites were worshipping a false god. Elijah's very name means "My God is Yahweh." The fact that these two giants of Yahweh are here seen in dialogue with Jesus ought to have impressed very strongly upon the Apostles the authenticity of Jesus' claims, about Himself, and His teachings. What He preached, about Himself, about the Kingdom, about our own actions, should then be seen in continuity with the Law and the Prophets, not in contrast with them.

And that's important to grasp, because we have a tendency to think of Jesus as doing away with the Law. This vision contradicts that thought. Indeed, if we could think about the Law and the Prophets in another way, I would suggest this: the Law guides our bodies, our actions, our behavior, while the Prophets guide our hearts. It seems that Jesus speaks more about our hearts, as we might think when we look at His sermon on the mount (which I spoke about last time), but the truth is, He does not deny the truth of the Law, but He takes the Law into the realm of the heart, and in this way, He unites the Law and the Prophets in a new way. In this way, the Law no longer simply governs our external actions, but our internal ones as well, which is really the goal of the Prophets.

Peter Speaks

There is an odd phraseology here. The text does not indicate that Peter was spoken to, but the text says, "And Peter answering," which kind of implies that, doesn't it? I would submit to you that, by this, it is simply mean that Peter is answering the vision. He witnesses this vision, and it impacts him, it demands something of him, just the witness of it demands an answer. And that makes sense, because being a faithful Jew, what he is witnessing here, with all its historical significance, had to have challenged his faith, in its scope and meaning.

So, how does he answer the challenge? He says to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias."

Not only does he accept the implications of the vision, he recognizes the Divine character of it. He offers to make three tabernacles, or, in other translations (and it really means the same thing), tents. This is important, because when the Israelites were in the desert, they worshipped God, in the Ark of the Covenant, in a tent, or tabernacle. The tent here represents a place of worship of Yahweh. The Temple itself grew out of this tradition.

But why three? Obviously, there are three people in the vision, but the Jews only ever had one Temple (which was rebuilt twice), and the "tent of worship" was singular, because it housed the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the Shekinah of God (or presence of God). So, suggesting three tabernacles is strange.

However, if you understand that Moses and Elijah, here, represent the Law and the Prophets, then this seems to make more sense. Peter is recognizing here that God's presence, which is deserving of worship, resides not only in the Law, but also in the Prophets, and most significantly, in the Person of Jesus. He is confronted with this vision, he is challenged by it, and he responds by recognizing the presence of God, both in the different aspects of Jewish Tradition (Law and Prophets), but also in Jesus before him.

Immediately following this suggestion, even as Peter is still speaking, something awesome takes place.

The Father Speaks

As though in confirmation of the insight Peter has about this vision, we hear the Father speak. He says, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him."

In the Old Testament, the Jews are commanded to obey the Law. And again, throughout the Old Testament, God sends prophets to His people, and commands them to obey His prophets. Finally, He speaks one last time: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him.

And just as on the Mount of the Commandments, where Yahweh spoke out of a cloud to Moses, who received the Law, and just as the prophets hear God through the cloud of vision, so too do we hear the Father speak again from a cloud.

And the Apostles immediately recognize who is speaking. They are familiar with the Lore of the Patriarchs. He who speaks out of the cloud is Yahweh God, and they reacted with terror, and hid their faces, for they knew that no one who looks upon the face of God will live.

And isn't it interesting? What does Father God say about Jesus? "Hear ye him." Listen to Him! But, isn't that exactly the last thing we hear Jesus' mother say about Him also? At the wedding feast of Cana, the last thing she says that's recorded in the Gospels is "Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye." Listen to Him! Mother Mary teaches us exactly what Father God teaches us: Listen to Jesus, do what He tells you to do.

After Mother Mary tells us this, He transforms water into wine, prefiguring the Eucharist. So, the first command He gives us after we hear His mother command this (to do whatever He tells you), is to give us a sign of the Eucharistic meal. This should, then, be understood to be the central activity of our Faith: communion with Him.

But what's the first thing He commands us here, after Father God commands this (hear ye Him)? "Arise, and fear not." Listen to Him!

There Was Only Jesus

Finally, we have the conclusion of the vision. After Jesus touches them (communion), and commands them to Arise, and fear not, they look up, and see no one, but Him. Is this because the vision is over? Or is this the conclusion of the vision? Jesus touches them, so this might indicate a kind of "grounding in reality" to demonstrate the vision had ended. However, remember that Peter participated in the vision, so interaction doesn't necessarily mean this.

I suggest that this is the conclusion of the vision, the fact that in the end there was only Jesus. The implication here is that, in the Person of Jesus, we may find the Father, we may find the Law, we may find the Prophets. Jesus doesn't need the Law, because He desires to do righteousness anyway. More than that, He only ever does what is right, according to Divine Law, but not because He has to, but because He desires to do this from His own will. Jesus doesn't need the Prophets, because His heart is already rightly oriented toward the Father. And the Father already dwells within Him, because they are One, Eternal.

So, in Jesus, we may find all of these, and that is the significance here. In the end, there was only Jesus. We have our marching orders: you used to have to obey the Law, and you used to have to obey the Prophets, now I require only one thing from you: obey Him. You don't need all these other things. Right now, you just need Him. For, in Him, you are made righteous, and pure, and holy, and when you work, He works in you. So...

Hear ye Him.


  1. Nice article, Chris!
    My interpretation of the "halo" on the saints is "joy!", joy that comes from the bottom of the heart, from the love and absolute confidence in the Providence of God, no matter how tough, difficult or hopeless circumstances may be.
    Have a good night! Leo.

  2. Thank you for the insight, Leo! I really like this, because joy is very closely tied to holiness. When you live in communion with the community of Love of the Trinity, I find it highly improbable that you could be something like a "dour saint." Praise God!