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Transfiguration

TRANSFIGURATION

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 17.18; Mk 9.17; Lk 9.2836) 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 19.2024; Dt 4.1011; 1 Kgs 19.818), 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 2.511: 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 16.2123; Mk 8.3133; 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 (SeptemberOctober), 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 29.1239). 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) 2438].

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 19.1618; 24.1516; 1 Kgs 8.1011). 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 24.4448) 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 1.2930). 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 34.2935). 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 transfigurationof 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 creaturethe 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 thisthe 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 3.34; 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 Renaissancea 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 190350) 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 193337). a. kenny, "The Transfiguration and Agony in the Garden," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 19 (1957) 444452. c. e. carlston, "Transfiguration and Resurrection," Journal of Biblical Literature 80 (1961) 233240. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 248789. p. miquel, "Le Mystère de la transfiguration," Questions liturgiques et paroissiales 42 (1961) 194223, exceptional biblio., tr. and abr. Theology Digest 11 (1963) 159164. 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]

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