Transfiguration mosaic - St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai - late sixteenth century
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -- because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid. And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!" Suddenly, when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with themselves.
Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant. And they asked Him, saying, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" Then He answered and told them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him."
- Mark 9:2-13
Yesterday, we read that when Jesus had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when he comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels." And He said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power."
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves . . . Jesus has allowed six days to go by after Peter's confession that He is the Christ. It's six days lapsed since He's told them that He is going to suffer and be killed, and told Peter to "Get behind Me, Satan!" after Peter's protest that He should not. It's six days passed since He said that all those who follow Him must be prepared to take up their cross, and not to hang onto the lives they think they know and want, and follow Him. We are awaiting the seventh, the fulfillment of all they've had to think about that has been given them.
. . . and He was transfigured before them. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. To be transfigured is to be changed, transformed. The root word in Greek is metamorpho, the source of the English word metamorphosis. Roughly speaking, meta is change, morpho is shape or form. This powerful transformation or transfiguration takes place first of all as a stunning, brilliant light shining out from his clothing. In icons of the Eastern Church, this white is painted with a blue tinge to it, showing it is not an "earthly" light, but something beyond it. The light tells us what this transfiguration is all about, its origin, its nature, something "no launderer on earth" could bring about. It declares the presence of the Spirit.
And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -- because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid. Moses and Elijah represent the Prophets and the Law, the pillars of Jewish spiritual heritage. Jesus confers with them as the culmination of all of it. This high mountain experience is the fullness of the Old in the revelation of the New. Peter's somewhat disjointed statement reflects the notions of the Feast of Tabernacles, which was the feast of the Coming Kingdom. At that time the people commemorated the days of wandering in the wilderness by building tabernacles (tents or booths), also in honor of the time God moved with the people in the tabernacle.
And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!" Suddenly, when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with themselves. This is a theophany, a revelation of God, in the fullness of the Trinity. The overshadowing cloud, with all the dazzling brightness of Christ's clothes from which shines light over the mountain, gives us the presence of the Spirit just as the cloud led led the Israelites in the wilderness -- as my study bible puts it, "the visible sign of God being extraordinarily present." The voice of the Father declaring Jesus the Son, combined with the light of the Spirit gives us all the Trinity, just as all three were present at Jesus' baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist. Just as suddenly as this revelation occurs, they all return to the "worldly" -- they are alone on the mountain with Jesus.
Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant. They've just seen Jesus transfigured in the reality of the Kingdom of heaven, the presence of God the Trinity. He has already spoken to them of "rising again," but the understanding of what is to happen in His Passion and Resurrection will take a long time to sink in, to nurture, to understand. Here He reveals again to them what they are to keep secret, a mystery, to themselves.
And they asked Him, saying, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" Then He answered and told them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him." The appearance of Moses and Elijah on the mountain top expresses more than the Law and the Prophets; it's also an indication of all beings alive and dead, and those who are to come. Moses as the the great Prophet of the Old Testament represents all those who have died, but Elijah is the one who did not die a natural death, but was taken to heaven in a "chariot of fire." He tells us of those who live and are to come. Together, Moses and Elijah, who speak with Christ and are recognized by the disciples, teach us about the communion of saints, of all those -- past, present, and future -- who live in Christ. In this way, the disciples can understand the prophecy of Malachi as indicating one who comes "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (as Luke's Gospel puts it) before the Messiah, John the Baptist.
Today, August 6th, the Feast of the Transfiguration in celebrated universally in the Church, East and West. Transfiguration is a strong pivotal point for Jesus' ministry and His revelation of Himself to His disciples. Perhaps like no other moment, Transfiguration is central to our understanding of who Jesus is, the great question the Gospel seeks to answer. Is He just a man? Is He only God? These questions, and so many others related to Jesus' identity, would take up the history of the Church for all of its early centuries and universal councils. But we can keep this image for ourselves as a great answer, the answer affirmed in the Councils: He's both God and man. Jesus' transfiguration isn't just a "statement" or revelation about Jesus. It becomes a teaching about us, and about human nature, about our capacities and what we're created to manifest. In the famous words attributed to St. Athanasius: "God became man so that man could become (a) god." In other words, Jesus' transfigured nature tells us that human nature is also capable of sharing in grace, in taking on attributes and qualities of God. St. Paul will write about the "fruits of the spirit," aspects of the manifestation of grace in us human beings. The apostles will share the gifts of Christ, and the power of Christ. The Epistles speak to us, as well, of all the gifts of the Spirit that make up the parts of the Church. The Transfiguration, in addition, elevates the disciples' minds after being told of Jesus' impending suffering and death. How is this possible for the Messiah? And what of the prophecies about the return of the Elijah before the Messiah comes? The Transfiguration is a pivotal event, a revelation for the benefit of the disciples, to illumine events that are to come, and so that they can accept and understand them better. In this way, it also teaches us about Christ, affirming His divinity, even as we know He will be killed. We have to remember the great problem of the death of the Messiah, which is still essential to many religious disputes in our world today. How can God be killed by human beings? As St. Paul puts it, it's a "stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." It remains a stumbling block and foolishness to many in our world today, but this central event and revelation of the Transfiguration gives us who are faithful to Christ an understanding of both the spiritual and the worldly in our faith, our nature as human beings, and Christ's nature as Messiah, both divine and human. He is the Suffering Servant as predicted in Isaiah, just as John the Baptist is returned in the spirit and power of Elijah. But most of all the Transfiguration is the centerpiece for our understanding of ourselves as followers of Christ, both as human beings who each bear our own crosses, who perhaps will suffer or sacrifice for love, and those who may transcend and be transfigured as well in the work of the Spirit in us and with us. Let us not forget the things that our faith opens us up to, the mysteries it reveals, and the things to which we know we can aspire! This is central to who we are as Christians, central to how we handle the struggles in our lives, central to the strength of faith, and to the help that is present -- from Christ and all those in the communion of saints, which includes our brothers and sisters who pray for us as well. Where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there also. Let us remember the great gifts and fruits we, too, are capable of manifesting through His grace and help, and look toward our own "transfiguration" -- so central to our faith throughout the centuries. This is an icon, an image, of our hope: the Transfiguration defines our capacity to transcend and to fulfill what God declares we are. Let us not forget in the struggle for the strength of faith.