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Aug 5, 2020

What Makes the Transfiguration Central to the Faith

Dr. Andrew Swafford

The Transfiguration—perhaps like the Ascension—is a mystery of faith that often receives too little of our attention and meditation. But in truth, it is a mystery at the very center of our faith. When St. John Paul II gave us the Luminous Mysteries, he considered the Transfiguration the mystery of light par excellence (see Rosarium Virginis, 21).

Why does this mystery strike at the heart of the Christian faith? 

Because it shows forth the full divine glorification of humanity.

God’s plan has never been merely about redemption and forgiveness of sins; God desires not only to forgive, but to heal and transform our fallen nature—to make us radiate through and through with his divinity.

What happens to Jesus is exactly the template for what the Holy Spirit wants to do in each of us.

In this respect, the Transfiguration of Jesus is a foreshadowing of our own resurrection—the divine glorification not just of our souls, but of our bodies as well (see CCC 556).

And not coincidentally, the Transfiguration occurs right on the heels of Christ’s first Passion prediction—teaching us that the suffering of the Cross culminates in triumphant glory and victory (see Matthew 16:21 and 17:1-5). 

What do Moses and Elijah have to do with divine glory?

Often, the presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration is explained in terms of their representing the Law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah), as the Old Testament bearing witness to Jesus. Surely, this is part of what is going on; but there seems to be more. 

Intriguingly, both of these Old Testament characters experienced theophanies—manifest encounters with God’s holy presence.

In Exodus 33, Moses famously requests to see the very glory of God (see Exodus 33:18); and eventually God’s glory manifests itself to him, even revealing divine attributes:

“And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy and faithfulness.’”

Exodus 34:5-6

However, the Lord tells Moses before this amazing encounter that he cannot see all of God’s glory—he can only see the Lord’s “back,” not his “face” (see Exodus 33:20, 23).

Elijah, after defeating the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, sets out for Horeb—that is, is Mt. Sinai, the very place where Moses had the above encounter with the Lord (see 1 Kings 19:8).

Here, the Lord appears to Elijah—not in wind, earthquake, or fire, but in a still small voice (1 Kings 19:11).

In both episodes with Moses and Elijah, we have the curious expression “the Lord passed by/passed before” (see 1 Kings 19:11; Exodus 33:19, 22; 34:6). The Hebrew and the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) use the same expression in all these passages—abar in Hebrew, erchomai in Greek.

Interestingly, in Mark’s account of Jesus walking on the water, he notes that Jesus meant “to pass by” (Mark 6:48). On its face, this is a strange statement (after all, where’s he going?). Mark uses a form of erchomai, the very Greek word used to render the above theophanies where the Lord “passed by” Moses and Elijah.

Is Mark suggesting here by this curious expression that in and through Jesus, we have the manifest presence of the Lord, another divine theophany? Yes, indeed—for Mark, combines this narrative with Jesus’ use of “It is I” which in Greek is ego eimi and hearkens back to the divine name of YHWH (Mark 6:50; see Exodus 3:14, especially in the Septuagint; see also John 8:58-59).

Coming back to the Transfiguration, what is the significance of Moses and Elijah being present before the glorified and transfigured Jesus?

Because in Jesus, Moses and Elijah now behold what they could not see in their earthly lives—the revelation of the very face of God (see CCC 2583).

Why the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles)?

Peter, James, and John witness this unique event with Jesus (see Matthew 17:1); and Peter famously announces that he will make three tents—one for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Strange as this comment might seem at first glance, the allusion is to the Feast of Booths (or Feast of Tabernacles, see Leviticus 23:39-43). This was a fall feast that had multiple layers of meaning: first, it marked the joy of the completion of the summer harvest; second, the booths or tents Israelites built recalled God’s provision for his people in the wilderness—how he sustained them in their time of trial after the Exodus on their way to the Promised Land. And finally and perhaps most importantly, since this feast was associated with God’s care for his people in the wilderness wandering, it also came to be associated with the joy of arriving in the Promised Land—and thence, the joy of heaven, to which the Promised Land pointed.

In beholding the glorified humanity of Jesus, Peter recognizes he has entered (in some sense) what this feast pointed to—heaven itself, and he wants to stay. That’s why he clumsily alludes to the feast that pointed to this heavenly glory, the Feast of Tabernacles.

By the time of Jesus, the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated in the Temple precincts with a special lighting ceremony, as well as a distinctive water ritual. It is, therefore, not an accident that in the very context of this feast—the Feast of Tabernacles—Jesus announces in the midst of the Temple that he is the “light of the world” (John 8:12, see also John 7:1) and the source of “living water” (John 7:37-39). 

The Transformative Power of Christianity

Jesus’ risen and glorified body is the fulfillment of the Temple and its liturgical feasts. The risen Jesus is the new Temple (see John 2:19-21 and Matthew 12:6). And especially in and through the Eucharist, we enter this New and living Temple—here we enter the new creation and heaven itself.

Thus, it is quite fitting that the Catechism connects very explicitly the reception of the Eucharist to the transfiguration of our bodies:

“our participation in the Eucharist already gives us a foretaste of Christ’s transfiguration of our bodies.

CCC 1000, emphasis added

So, why is the Transfiguration so crucial to the Christian faith? Because the Christian faith does not end with the Cross. It does not even end with Christ’s resurrection. Mary goes before us in her Assumption, receiving the glorification of both her soul and body, as a participation in the work of her son.

But this, too, is not just for our Blessed Mother. What happened to the Head will happen to the entire Body of Christ. What we contemplate in the Transfiguration is a sign of God’s plan for each and every one us, to redeem and glorify each of us in soul and body. In the Eucharist, we participate in this heavenly reality, even now.

Have we come to grips with the truly supernatural and transformative character of Christianity? Or, have we settled for a reductionistic version?

May we embrace the fullness of what Our Lord has given to us with joy and gratitude!

You May Also Like:

The Transfiguration of the Lord [Encountering the Word Video]

The Radiant Glory of the Transfiguration

The Transfiguration and the Beginning of the New Exodus

Pocket Guide to the Rosary [Book]

DrAndrew Swafford is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension, presenter of the Bible study Romans: The Gospel of Salvation (and author of the companion book), also by Ascension, and presenter of Hebrews: The New and Eternal Covenant Bible study. Andrew is author of Nature and GraceJohn Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter: @andrew_swafford.

Featured image from Ted on flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]

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  • Wow! This is a wonderful explanation of the mystery of the Transfiguration! As with anything Jesus said or did, we will never plumb its depths, but this really helped me further understand the “booths” comment (I knew it was more than just a reference to the feast and not wanting to leave, I just didn’t know what). Never did I make the connection to our own eventual glorification, and I loved the connection to the theophanies of Moses and Elijah. Thanks so much for this article!

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