In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Maria, Pope St John Paul II instituted the Luminous Mysteries, also referred to as the Mysteries of Light. The Fourth Mystery is a meditation on the Transfiguration of the Lord and the gospel reading at Mass last Sunday was about this beautiful and glorious event.
The word ‘transfiguration’ comes from the Latin roots trans – (across) and figura – (form, shape). It thus signifies a change of form or appearance. In Christian teaching, transfiguration is a pivotal moment and the setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God; the meeting place for the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point acting as the bridge between heaven and earth.
The Transfiguration marks the occasion when Jesus took some of his disciples up to a mountain, where Moses and Elijah appear and Jesus was transformed, his face and clothing becoming dazzlingly bright. The event is recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 9:2-13; Matthew 17: 1-13; Luke 9: 28-36) and is understood to have been the revelation of the eternal glory of the second person of the Trinity, which was normally veiled during Christ’s life on earth.
The event can also be interpreted as an anticipatory Resurrection appearance, and the presence of the two prophets is often taken to signify Christ’s fulfillment of the Mosaic Law and the prophecies of the Old Testament. The Transfiguration is also referenced in the Second Letter of Peter, where Peter’s presence as an eyewitness to Christ’s majesty is used to assure the readers that his message is true (1: 16-18).
A Moment of Glory
The gospels do not indicate the location of the mountain where the Transfiguration took place. Early church tradition places it on Mount Tabor, a prominent hill at the eastern end of the Jezreel valley, not far from Nazareth. However, Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea and church historian suggested that the Transfiguration should be associated with Mount Hermon near Caesarea Philippi.
Ultimately, it does not matter where the event took place. The important thing is that it testified to the coming Kingdom and the splendour of God’s son Jesus, the Messiah.
Both Matthew and Mark state that the Transfiguration occurred ‘after 6 days’ following the time of Peter’s great confession that Jesus was the Christ. The three disciples who are privileged to witness the event are Peter, James, and John, the core disciples.
Luke in his account mentions details about the event that the others do not: He notes that it happened while Jesus was praying. He mentions that Peter and his companions were “heavy with sleep and when they wakened, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” He writes that Peter made his suggestion to put up tents as Moses and Elijah were departing.
The fact that Peter did this as the others were on the point of leaving reveals a desire to prolong the experience of glory. This means that poor Peter is actually focusing on the wrong thing!
Hope in the darkest of Times
The Transfiguration is meant to point forward to the sufferings Jesus is about to experience, and to strengthen the faith of the disciples, revealing to them in a powerful way the divine hand that is at work in the events Jesus will undergo. It is intended to remove the horror of the cross from the hearts of the disciples and to prevent the humiliation of his voluntary suffering from disabling the faith of those who had witnessed the surpassing glory that lay concealed.
It also provides a firm foundation for the hope of the Church. The whole body of Christ is to understand the kind of transformation that it would receive as his gift. The members of that body are to look forward to a share in that glory which first blazed out in Christ the head.
The Transfiguration was a special event in which God allowed certain disciples to have a privileged spiritual experience that was meant to strengthen their faith for the challenges they would later endure. But it was only a temporary event. It was not meant to be permanent.
In the same way, at certain times in this life, God may give certain members of the faithful special experiences of his grace that strengthen their faith We should not expect them to continue indefinitely, nor should we be afraid or resentful when they are gone.
The human heart is restless until it rests in God. This is so precisely so because we are most human when we experience the transforming form of God in our minds and hearts. The Transfiguration is a celebration that beckons us back to our true home, to faith in God the Father, to trust in the words spoken by the Son, and to love with the Spirit that is poured into our hearts.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan