This event, singular in that it is the only time during His mortal life when Jesus permitted His divine glory to shine through His humanity, is placed in the same sequence by the three Evangelists (Mt 17.1–8; Mk 9.1–7; Lk 9.28–36) who recorded it. The event, transmitted through the Gospels, holds a significant place in Christian theology, worship, and iconography.
Gospel Account. The Transfiguration took place about a week (six days in Mt 17.1; Mk 9.1; eight days in Lk 9.28) after the promise of the primacy to Peter. In parallel passages of the first three Evangelists, we are told that "Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John," the three disciples closest to Our Lord, who were later to be the witnesses of the contrasting agony in the garden, to "a high mountain off by themselves." Luke, whose Gospel is often referred to as the gospel of prayer, adds that Jesus "went up the mountain to pray."
Place. The high mountain is not identified in the texts, although a tradition dating back to the fourth century places the Transfiguration on Mt. tabor, where there is now a beautiful basilica commemorating this event. Some scholars prefer Mt. Hermon as the location; in its favor is the description of the mountain as "high." As God had appeared to Moses and to Elijah on a mountain (Ex 19.20–24; Dt 4.10–11; 1 Kgs 19.8–18), so now God in the flesh ascends a mountain to be met by these two representatives of the Old Testament, Moses the lawgiver, and Elijah the Prophet.
Manner. During the time of His prayer (Lk 9.29), Jesus "was transfigured before them," that is, the glory of His divinity of which He "had emptied himself" (Phil2.7) shone through His countenance and His garments. The Evangelists are careful to use terms in the Greek that point out the nature of this transformation. It came from within and was due to an internal "metamorphosis." This was soon to pass away, for the permanent transfiguration and glorification could come only through His sufferings, the very topic of conversation between Jesus and the two heavenly visitors (Lk 9.31). This is stressed by St. Paul in Phil 2.5–11: Jesus was obedient unto death, and for this reason God has exalted Him. The Evangelists also seem to point out a connection between Christ's sufferings and His glorification, for the Transfiguration is placed in the context of the first prediction of the Passion and death and Resurrection (Mt 16.21–23; Mk 8.31–33; Lk 9.22).
Peter's Words. As it was Peter who was the central figure in the context (the promise of the primacy and in the prediction of the sufferings of Christ), so now it is he who speaks for himself and for the others. His comment is ambiguous, for it may mean that it is "good" for the Apostles to be there, or it could mean that it is "good" for Christ that the three are there, for they could set up three tents or booths, one for Christ, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. This reference to tents or booths has helped to give a probable date to this event in the life of Christ. It was during the Feast of booths (tabernacles), celebrated from the 15th to the 22d day of the seventh month (September–October), that the Israelites built booths or tents in their vineyards or other fields in memory of the time when their ancestors lived in tents in the desert (Nm 29.12–39). Peter's comment, then, may have had its origin in the proximity of this feast. A further corroboration is to be found in the radiance that came forth from Christ, as well as in the brightness of the cloud that came over them. For during this feast the Temple was ablaze with lights [The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 21 (1959) 24–38].
God's Words. The climax of the Transfiguration is the voice of God the Father as it was heard at the time of the baptism of the lord, so now it is heard: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear him." God's presence is symbolized by the bright cloud, a standard part of an Old Testament theophany (Ex 19.16–18; 24.15–16; 1 Kgs 8.10–11). While God's Chosen People is called His son (Ex 4.22), Christ is God's beloved Son, the Only-Begotten One, united to Him in a special and unique way. Because this Son fulfills the divine will, He is pleasing to the Father. He is God's word (Jn 1.1), sent to give the word of God to men; men, therefore, have an obligation to listen to Him.
The reaction of the three Apostles is fear, the ordinary reaction so often recorded in the Bible when the Divinity presents itself in one form or another. It is only after Jesus comes to them and reassures them that they are able to overcome this emotion. To prevent a premature acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah by people who had hopes of a politically minded one, should this extraordinary event become known, Jesus cautions his Apostles to tell no one about it.
Theological Aspects. The context gives the scene of the Transfiguration its significance in the life of Christ and its fruitful implications in the life of the Christian.
Mystery Revealed Jesus here appears as the Lord, realizing the Scriptures (cf. Lk 24.44–48) and their prophecies about the Messiah, the Servant of Yahweh (see suffering servant, song of the), and the son of man. The glory overwhelms the Disciples with the tremendous awe-fear of the religious experience of man before the divine presence (cf. Lk 1.29–30). The experience provokes the suggestion of Peter, who expresses his joy before the glory of the one whom he has confessed to be the Messiah. At last God is going to dwell with His own people as the Prophets foretold He would in Messianic times. The glory here, however, is not that of the Last Day; rather, it illuminates only the face of Jesus and His vestments as it has already illumined the visage of Moses (Ex 34.29–35). It is the glory of Christ (Lk 9.32) who is the well-beloved Son, as the voice from the cloud proclaims Him. At the same time, this voice ratifies the revelation that Jesus has made to His Disciples and that is the topic of His conversation with Moses and Elijah. His death, the final Exodus of which Jerusalem is to be the point of departure (Lk 9.31), is the necessary passage to the new and eternal Alliance, the Alliance where all who hear the word made Flesh and believe in Him will see the glory of God [cf. Jn 1.14; see glory (in the bible)].
Signification for Christ and the Church. The Transfiguration confirms the confession of Peter at caesarea philippi (Mt 16.16) and consecrates the revelation about Jesus, the Son of Man suffering and glorious, whose death-Resurrection fulfills the Scriptures. It reveals the Person of Jesus, the well-beloved Son who possesses the same glory as God the Father. It proclaims Jesus and His word as the New Law, while anticipating and prefiguring the paschal event that, by the pathway of the Cross, will introduce the Christ into the full development of His glory and the dignity of His sonship. This experience is also designed to sustain the Disciples during their own agony and participation in the mystery of the Cross.
In the salvation history of humanity, the Transfiguration is a prophetic sign, an apocalyptic event, that points to the future transfiguration of all Christians in Christ. Its mystery is also the mystery of the Christian's transfiguration—of the increasing hold of the Holy Spirit upon men, incarnate spirits, and through men, upon the entire universe. By the sacramental encounter with the Person of the Risen Lord, the Christian participates in the mystery of the death-Resurrection of the firstborn of every creature—the mystery prefigured by the Transfiguration. A Christian is a person called in the present to be always and ever increasingly transfigured by the action of the Spirit (2 Cor 3.18) in love-living expectation of the total transfiguration, the glorious universal resurrection at the Lord's Second Coming. In what may be called the sacrament of man's second regeneration, just as Baptism was his first (cf. Summa theologiae 3a, 45.4), the transfiguration of the Church, i.e., man's transfiguration, will complete the pleroma, bringing to Christ "a little fulfillment." "Father, I will that where I am, they also whom thou hast given me may be with me: in order that they may behold my glory" (Jn 17.24).
This total glory of final transfiguration will not, however, come magically. The Christian who recognizes the deep signification of the transfiguration does not deny the final judgment, the dies irae. He knows well that before ultimate glory, transfiguration with Christ, there must be configuration with Him. Indeed, living in the world is a forceful reminder of this—the place of suffering and the cross, and of Satan. However, the Christian hopes, fully confident that the work of the Holy Spirit will end in the triumphant glory of ultimate transfiguration.
For now, the Christian's life is hidden with Christ in God, but when Christ shall appear on the Last Day, then the Christian also shall appear with Him in glory, and God shall be all in all, and the Christian's whole being will be a praise of glory (see Col 3.3–4; 1 Cor 15.28; Eph 1.12).
Feast and Iconography. The importance of the Transfiguration is shown by the high rank given to its feast (first class) in the liturgy of the Church. The feast has been celebrated in the East since the fourth or fifth century, and locally in the West since at least the eighth century. It was extended to the universal Church by Pope Callistus III in 1457 in commemoration of the Christians' victory over the Turks at Belgrade on July 22, 1456. News of this victory reached Rome on August 6, the traditional date of the Feast of the Transfiguration. Apparently this was the date of the consecration of a chapel in the fourth century on Mt. Tabor in honor of the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration has been frequently represented in Christian art, beginning in the fourth century when, in the Christological disputes, the orthodox found this an excellent way to stress the divinity of Christ. However, the oldest preserved work of art showing this scene is the mosaic in the apse of the church at Mt. Sinai from the sixth century. Almost as old as this is the mosaic in the Church of St. Apollinaris in Classe at Ravenna. There Christ is represented only by a jeweled cross in a nimbus, with inscriptions. [see ravenna (art of).] The Transfiguration was a favorite subject in the art of the Renaissance—a relief on the bronze doors of the baptistry in Florence by Lorenzo Ghiberti, a fresco in the convent of St. Mark at Florence by Fra Angelico, and the wellknown oil painting in the Vatican Museum by Raphael.
See Also: ascension of jesus christ; parousia; passion of christ; resurrection of christ.
Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summe theologiae 3a, 45. Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 1903—50) Tables générales 2:2626. j. m. vostÉ, De baptismo, tentatione et Transfiguratione Jesu Christi, v.2 of Studia Theologiae biblicae: Novi Testamenti, 3 v. (Rome 1933–37). a. kenny, "The Transfiguration and Agony in the Garden," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 19 (1957) 444–452. c. e. carlston, "Transfiguration and Resurrection," Journal of Biblical Literature 80 (1961) 233–240. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 2487–89. p. miquel, "Le Mystère de la transfiguration," Questions liturgiques et paroissiales 42 (1961) 194–223, exceptional biblio., tr. and abr. Theology Digest 11 (1963) 159–164. x. lÉon-dufour, ed., Vocabulaire de théologie biblique (Paris 1962) 1071. p. teilhard de chardin, The Divine Milieu (New York 1960). f. x. durrwell, In the Redeeming Christ, tr. r. sheed (New York 1963). r. otto, The Idea of the Holy, tr. j. w. harvey (New York 1958).
[g. h. guyot/
[j. l. cypriano]
The metamorphic power ascribed to certain mediums to assume facial or bodily characteristics of deceased people for their representation. The phenomenon was described in detail in the account of William J. Erwood in The National Spiritualist, at a séance in 1931 with a Mrs. Bullock, a Chicago medium. In the light, which showed every movement of the medium, he claimed to have seen more than fifty faces in an hour and a half.
"It was as though the medium's face were of plastic material being rapidly molded from one form to another by some master worker in plastics. Oriental faces, Indians, calm, dignified, serious, spiritual, in short, almost every type of face was depicted during the most unusual séance. One of the most striking was the impersonation of a paralysed girl whom I had known in the States. The medium's entire body, as well as face, was twisted out of all semblance of its normal state, to depict the condition of this victim of paralysis."
H. Dennis Bradley, in his book The Wisdom of the Gods (1925), described an experience with the medium Mrs. Scales:
"Gradually the whole of the expression of the medium's face changed completely. It was a transformation. Whilst the outline remained, the eyes and the expression became beautiful … At first is was only with very great difficulty that the first few words were articulated. It was as if they were produced with considerable effort. Within a little while, however, the power strengthened considerably, and the spirit of my sister was able to assume complete control. It was my sister. It was her spirit, using the organism of another physical body, and speaking to me in her own voice."
Joseph Maxwell vouched for the following case of transfigu-ration in sleep, narrated by one of his colleagues in the magis-tracy:
"On January 1, 1903, my father began to feel the first attacks of the painful disease from which he died after six months of terrible suffering … I watched him as he slept, and was not long in noticing that his physiognomy gradually assumed an aspect which was not his own. I finally observed that his face bore a striking resemblance to that of my mother. It was as though the mask of her face was placed over his own. My father had no eyebrows for a long time, and I noticed above his closed eyes the very marked black eyebrows which my mother had retained to the last. The eyelids, the nose, the mouth, were those of my mother…. My father wore his moustache and a pointed, but rather short beard. This beard and moustache, which I saw, helped, contrary to what might have been expected, in forming the features of my mother. The appearance lasted for ten or twelve minutes; then it gradually disappeared, and my father resumed his habitual physiognomy. Five minutes later he awoke, and I immediately asked him if he had not been dreaming, especially about his wife. He answered in the negative."
The phenomenon was witnessed by a woman servant who came into the room while it lasted. She was told: "Jeanne, look at Monsieur sleeping!" She cried out, "Oh, how he resembles poor Madame. It is striking, it is quite extraordinary!"
In the experiences of Allan Kardec, founder of French Spiritism, there was an extraordinary case of a young girl of fifteen whose metamorphic power extended to the duplication of the stature, mass, and weight of deceased persons, especially of her brother. Kardec recorded that another metamorphic meduim, a Ms. Krooke, saw one evening her own face changed. She observed a thick black beard and by it her son-in-law recognized his dead father. A little later, her face changed into that of an old woman with white hair. She preserved her consciousness in the meantime, yet felt through her entire body a prick-ling like that of a galvanic battery. No such miracles are recorded in modern experience.
Transfiguration is most often reported as occurring in séances in conjunction with materializations. It involves grave risks for the medium, but no records of any harm have been reported. There is an observation based on several accounts including an experiment at the British College of Psychic Science, a Spiritualist organization, with the medium Ada Besinnet in 1921. A light was flashed on a face that was illuminated by a spirit lamp. The medium was leaning over the table and illuminated her own face with light held in her hand. The light quickly vanished, as did the white drapery which draped over her head. When awakened, she was in trance and complained of great pain in the pit of her stomach; for three days she was shaken with muscular contractions.
There are some past experiences on record of the disappearance of the medium during materialization. In such cases, Spiritualist argue, the entire bodily substance of the medium is believed to have been withdrawn for the purpose of building up phantom bodies. Such occurrences are also known as transfigu-rations. More rational approaches to the séance have ascribed more mundane causes to such occurrences.
Henry S. Olcott and John Newbrough experienced transfigurations with the medium Elizabeth J. Compton. While phantoms were parading in front of the sitters before the cabinet, she vanished from the chair into which she was tied in such a way that the least effort to face herself would have given her away. Not only had her body vanished, but the fastenings, threads, wax-ends, seals, and nails as well. Yet something must have been left in the chair, for Olcott was strictly forbidden to touch the chair when he was allowed to go into the cabinet.
Where was the medium? According to Olcott and Newbrough, she was transfigured into the phantom bodies. Many of the phantoms were recognized as departed relatives and divulged intimate knowledge of the lives of their relations. If they were seized, and they were sometimes, they resolved into Compton and always rendered her ill.
In 1890 Alexander N. Aksakof had a similar experience with the medium Elizabeth d'Esperance, at a séance in Gothenburg. While the phantom "Yolande" was outside the cabinet, he slipped his arm through the curtains and felt for the medium's chair. He found it empty; at the same time his hand was flung aside. At the very moment "Yolande" returned into the cabinet, the séance came to an abrupt end and the medium was discovered on her chair in her red dress ("Yolande" was in white).
Through automatic writing, Aksakof, who did not tell of his part in the sudden disturbance, was told by "Walter," d'Esperance's control, that if the contribution of the circle was insufficient there might not be enough left of the medium to be visible; the clairvoyant may still see the body, but in reality there might not be much more in her place than her organs of sense. In such cases, a simple touch may do the medium serious injury.
When Aksakof asked what would happen if in such a case he should pull the band of cloth which encircled the medium's waist, whether it would not cut her body in two, the answer was yes. D'Esperance summed up her only sensations in this sentence: "I felt as I were empty inside."
The existence of transfigurations is questionable at best, and like many of the physical phenomena with which it was associated, reports of its occurrence have become quite rare. Most psychical researchers regard it with skepticism, suggesting that its primary occurrences in séances were fraudulently produced. Reported cases have been rare and it is unsatisfactory to attempt to assess them long after the event.
Aksakof, Alexander. A Case of Partial Dematerialization of the Body of a Medium. Boston, 1898.
Holms, A. Campbell. The Facts of Psychic Science. 1925. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1969.
The notion of transfiguration gained centrality in Christian religion because it marks both the appearance of Christ's divine form in his human body and the time when God names him as the Messiah. On the road to Jerusalem, Christ left the apostles Peter, James, and John to pray (Matthew 17: 1–8; Mark 9: 2–8; Luke 9: 28–36). As he did so, his body underwent metamorphosis in which his ‘face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light’ (Luke 9: 29). For the first time in the gospels, God spoke to the apostles, recognizing his son (Matthew 17: 1–8). Christ appeared in conversation with Elijah and Moses, two figures before whom God had revealed himself in the Old Testament, confirming his divinity. Christ told the apostles not to speak of this event until after he had risen from the dead; they offered little description of the event, although the narrative significance in the gospels is implicit: the event strengthened the apostles for the coming passion, and prepares the reader for Christ's resurrection.
Because the passage describes the simultaneous presence of humanity and divinity in one body, it was the subject of extensive exegesis for early Christians. Church Fathers returned to the event as an explanation of the difference of flesh and spirit, and an illustration of the humanity of God. The feast of the transfiguration was commemorated within the Church, and Mt. Tabor became a colony of religious orders and a site of pilgrimage. As an occasion of transcending the physical body it gained metaphorical significance in daily religious practice in Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant religion. The metaphorical use of transfiguration extends from the Christic narrative to explain the revelation of religious truth. Catholic theologians describe the partaking of Christ's body as an occasion of individual transfiguration, and speak metaphorically of the transfiguration of the Church to mark its spiritual invigoration. Transfiguration gains the quality of a prophetic reading, and extends to the entire Church, as, in taking the sacrament, the Christian prepares for the final revelation of the second coming.
The concept of religious transfiguration gained different significance as a revelation of religious truth in Catholicism, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant churches. In the Byzantine church, images of the transfiguration were among the most common that were used to decorate reliquaries, vessels that contained body parts that joined the spiritual and physical worlds; their popularity suggests the strong link drawn between the transfiguration and the elevation from the body in the Last Judgment. The long tradition of images of the transfiguration that existed in the Greek Orthodox church was paralleled in the West; from the fourteenth century, Italian artists returned to the transfiguration as a dramatic revelation of the glory of Christ. This tradition culminates in Raphael Sanzio's Transfiguration. The dramatic construction of the transfiguration in Raphael's fresco returns both to the duality of the Christian god and the confirmation of his divinity through his transcendence of physical form; depicting the concept of transfiguration indeed posed the significant pictorial challenge of illustrating transcendence of the body. Raphael depicted Christ flanked by the Old Testament figures of the prophet and lawgiver, bathed in divine light. Raphael's conflation of Christ's curing an epileptic child with the metamorphosis of his own body juxtaposes an uncontrolled body with transcendence of physical form. The scene was returned to so often because it illustrates a central concept of Christianity: the physical juncture of Christ's humanity and divinity, the human manifestation of God's presence in the world.
The concept of transfiguration gained new significance as a revelation of religious truth to the individual in the reformed churches. The reformer Martin Luther appropriated the concept of transfiguration to emphasize the power of the written word, rather than transfiguration of the worldly body, and linked the concept to the power of individual prayer and inner reflection, to join man and God without mediation. But if transfiguration became the end of an interior journey of self-exploration among Protestant groups, the metaphorical significance of the transfiguration often remained embedded in the transcendence of the bodily form. Protestant theologians often use the metaphor of transfiguration of the individual to draw attention to the embodied state of a man who receives grace; transfiguration becomes a conceit for describing a physical relation to the written word. If the transfiguration of the individual was linked by Catholics to partaking of Christ's flesh or as a spiritual invigoration of the Church, Protestant orders describe a physical preparation as a precondition to transfiguration through reading of the Scriptures. Pietism and Puritanism emphasize disciplining the body in preparation to reading the Scriptures.
The religious concept of transfiguration has broad significance as it illustrates the relation of the physical world to the revelation of divine truth.
Daniel A. Brownstein
Brown, F. B. (1983). Transfiguration: poetic metaphor and the legacies of religious belief. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Carlston, C. F. Transfiguration and resurrection. Journal of Biblical Literature, 80, 233–40.
McGuckin, J. A. (1986). The Transfiguration of Christ in scriptures and tradition. Lewiston, New York.
See also Christianity and the body.
trans·fig·u·ra·tion / transˌfigyəˈrāshən/ • n. a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state: in this light the junk undergoes a transfiguration; it shines. ∎ (the Transfiguration) Christ's appearance in radiant glory to three of his disciples (Matthew 17:2, Mark 9:2–3, Luke 9:28-36). ∎ the church festival commemorating this, held on August 6.