|painted by a monk of Pachacamac|
Do you know why we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6th? It is because this date is forty days before the Exaltation of the Holy Cross,, and tradition has it that the Transfiguration took place forty days before the Crucifixion. What then is the connection between the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion? Why did they bother to make the calculation in the first place?
It could be said that it has been already made by the presence of Peter, James and John on Mount Tabor and in the garden of Gethsemane. But the two scenes are very different. One is happy, the other sad. One is bright with light, the other dark and sombre. In one, Christ is bathed in the divine Glory, in the other, he is bathed in his own sweat and blood. In one, God the Father proclaims that Jesus is his Son in whom he is well pleased, in the other, he is silent, and Jesus will cry out a little later "Why have you forsaken me?" In one, Peter, James and John fall to the ground in awe, while in the other they are overcome with sleep.
Yet there is a Reality that holds both scenes together and makes each the key to understanding the other. That Reality is the Love of God which in heaven is the shining light of God's Glory, but which, when it accepts the limitations of this fallen world, becomes a presence within the world that pits itself against the powers that be, and can only lead to crucifixion.
This understanding is based on the Incarnation. Jesus is the Word made flesh. This means that the divine Word, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, took on human nature at its weakest. According to the Council of Chalcedon (451 ad):
So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.
Thus God's divine nature is truly distinct from his human nature. In heaven, Jesus as God is in the plenitude of his Glory. However, in his human nature he became " like us in all respects except for sin." As a human being, he fully became part of our sinful world, yet without committing sin himself. He accepted to suffer all the consequences of sin, all the disadvantages of being in a fallen world. At the same time, because his human actions belong to the same divine Person as his divine activity, they reflect the divine nature and will as nothing else does in the whole of creation, while remaining truly human.
In heaven, the only power is the power of God's love. It is the power by which God the Father generates the Son, pouring his whole being into the Son, the very opposite of self-centred love. The Son surrenders his whole being to the Father in loving gratitude, loving the Father with the same Love that he has received from the Father, the hypostasis of love, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, thus becomes the mutual Love between Father and Son.
By the same power of love God has created the universe, and any other universe that may exist; and God has also created us. But, in our fallen world, the power of love has been replaced by the power of force; and, in a world closed in on itself, love has become either self-centred or centred on institutions whose primary impulse is on self-preservation and expansion. The power of love still exists among us, still has its appeal, but it is no longer dominant. It wills the other to exist that it may be loved, but has no defences against the power of force that seeks to dominate and bend everything and everybody to its will.
While God's power of love is all shining in heaven being the glory of God, when it enters this world, accepting our limitations, as it did at the Incarnation, when it seeks the good of all and protests at the misuse of the power of force, when it tries to establish the kingdom of God where the will of the Father is done on earth as in heaven, then it is not long before the powers that be turn against it, and its only hope is God' Providence - not a bad hope really - and, of course, the Resurrection!!
Hence, the scene of the Transfiguration and the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane show us the same Reality at two different levels. One shows us God's love as light and glory in heaven, manifesting itself in Christ on earth. The other shows the same love as it suffers the consequences of submitting to our human limitations. Human history is transformed as the very worst scenario of sinfulness is turned into a source of salvation in the Resurrection. From now on, the very worst human situations, the most irreligious circumstances, the most sinful of all contexts, can become ways to salvation, transformed by the presence and prayers of Christ. There are no sins he hasn't borne, no pains he hasn't endured with those who suffer, no alienation from God he has not shared as he was dying on the Cross.
The Transfiguration celebrates the Cross as it appeared transformed by grace from the perspective of heaven, while the Passion shows us that what shines at the Transfiguration is nothing less than the kenotic love of God in Christ.
There are some saints, like St Francis of Assisi and St Clare, like the Orthodox St Seraphim of Sarov, who have been seen to have transfiguration experiences. Yet this is not the normal way we share in the light of Tabor. We usually experience the glory of God as it appears on earth in the smile of Mother Teresa, in the self-sacrifice of St Maria Skobtsova, Dorothy Day, in the self-forgetfulness of the saints, and whenever we love as Christ loved. While we are on earth, we see no light, sometimes only horror; but the feast of the Transfiguration tells us that such occasions and people are shot through with light, and become gateways to heaven when looked at from the perspective of heaven.
The early Church liked to symbolise the Transfiguration and the Passion by using a glorified Cross. Where they experienced darkness and pain, they knew there was light and glory. In Ravenna, there is a mosaic of the Transfiguration. It shows a glorified cross with Christ's head in the middle. It is set in a garden which represents paradise, and three sheep represent the three apostles. Thus the themes of the Transfiguration and the Exultation of the Holy Cross are fused together and become one from the perspective of heaven.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FEAST OF THE TRANSFIGURATION
Christians are still too likely to misunderstand the Transfiguration and look upon it as just one miracle among others, a kind of apologetic proof. The feast celebrating it has likewise become indistinct to them, perhaps because it is the only one not to have a place in the chronological sequence of the Lord’s feasts. It is a commemoration of an event that occurred during his mortal life, but it is celebrated after Pentecost and in the bright light of summer (August 6). Yet this event, which upsets the logic that we see as governing time, is precisely the one that best brings home to us the eschatological condition of the body of Christ; it is an apocalyptic vision at the center of the Gospel.
The Synoptic writers deliberately make this “strange sight” the high point of the ministry of Jesus. [Mark 9:2-10; Matthew 17:1-9; Luke 9:28-36] The astonishment felt and the questions roused by the preceding theophanies “Who can this be?” “Who do you say I am?” — lead to this summit, and it is from here that the journey to the final Passover in Jerusalem begins. The miracles were anticipations of the energies of the risen Christ; the transfiguration is the theophany that reveals their meaning or, better, that already brings to pass what these energies will accomplish in our mortal flesh: our divinization.
The transfiguration is the historical and literary center of the Gospel by reason of its mysterious realism: the humanity of Jesus is the vital place where men become God. Christ is truly a man! But to be a man does not mean “being in a body”, as all the unrepentant dualisms imagine; according to biblical revelation, it means “being a body”, an organic and coherent whole. Because men are their bodies, they are also, like their God, related to other persons, the cosmos, time, and him who is communion in its fullest possible form.
Moreover, ever since the Word took flesh he has a “human” relationship, with all its dimensions, to the Father and to all other men: the fire of his light sets the entire bush aflame; the whole of his humanity is “anointed” with it; “in him, in bodily form, lives divinity in all its fullness” (Colossians 2:9), and to this Paul adds, “and in him you too find your own fulfillment” (Colossians 2:10).
What was it, then, that took place in this unexpected event? Why did the Incomprehensible One allow his “elusive beauty” to be glimpsed for a moment in the body of the Word? Two certainties can serve us as guides.
First, the change, or, to transliterate the Greek word, the “metamorphosis”, was not a change in Jesus. The Gospel text and the unanimous interpretation of the Fathers are clear: Christ “was transfigured, not by acquiring what he was not but by manifesting to his disciples what he in fact was; he opened their eyes and gave these blind men sight.” [Saint John Damascene, Second Homily on the Transfiguration (PG 96:564C)] The change is on the side of the disciples.
The second certainty confirms this point: the purpose of the transfiguration, like everything else in the economy that is revealed in the Bible, is the salvation of man. As in the burning bush, so here the Word “allows” the light of his divinity “to be seen” in his body, in order to communicate not knowledge but life and salvation; he reveals himself by giving himself, and he gives himself in order to transform us into himself.
But if it be permissible to take off the sandals of curiosity and inquisitive gnosis and draw near to the mystery, we may ask: Why did Jesus choose this particular moment, these two witnesses, and these three apostles? What was he, the Son — so passionately in love with the Father and so passionately concerned for us — experiencing in his heart? A few days before Peter had already been given an interior enlightenment and had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God. Jesus had then begun to lift the veil from the not far distant ending of his life: he had to suffer, be put to death, and be raised from the dead. It is between this first prediction and the second that he undertakes to ascend the mountain.
The reason for the transfiguration can be glimpsed, therefore, in what the evangelists do not say: having finished the instruction preparatory to his own Pasch, Jesus is determined to advance to its accomplishment. With the whole of his being, the whole of his “body”, he is committed to the loving will of the Father; he accepts that will without reservation. From now on, everything, up to and including the final struggle at which the same three disciples will be invited to be present, will be an expression of his unconditional “Yes” to the Father’s love.
We must certainly enter into this mystery of committed love if we are to understand that the transfiguration is not an impossible unveiling of the light of the Word to the eyes of the apostles, but rather a moment of intensity in which the entire being of Jesus is utterly united with the compassion of the Father. During these decisive days of his life he becomes transparent to the light of the love of the One who gives himself to men for their salvation. If, then, Jesus is transfigured, the reason is that the Father causes his own joy to flame out in him. The radiance of the light in the suffering body of Jesus is, as it were, the thrill experienced by the Father in response to the total self-giving of his only Son. This explains the voice that pierces through the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).
We can also understand the profound feelings of Moses and Elijah, for these two men who had sensed the closeness of the divine glory that was impatient to save man are now contemplating it in the body of the Son of Man. “I have indeed seen the misery of my people…. I have heard them crying for help…. I am well aware of their sufferings, and I have come down to rescue them” (Exodus 3:7-8); “Answer me, Yahweh, answer me…. I am full of jealous zeal for Yahweh Sabaoth, because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant” (1 Kings 18:37; 19:10).
All this is expressed now not by divine words or human words but by the Word himself in his humanity. No longer is there only promise and expectation, for the event has occurred; there is now present “the reality … the body of Christ” (Colossians 2:17). Moses and Elijah can leave the cave on Sinai without hiding their faces, for they have contemplated the source of light in the body of the Word.
The three disciples, for their part, are flooded for a few moments by that which it will be granted to them to receive, understand, and experience from Pentecost on, namely, the divinizing light that emanates from the body of Christ, the multiform energies of the Spirit who gives life. The thing that overwhelms them here is that “this man” is not only “God with men” but God-man; nothing can pass from God to man or from man to God except through his body.
Peter will bear witness in his Letters, as John does in all his writings, to the second of the two certainties I mentioned earlier: that participation in the life of the Father that pours out from the body of Christ is measured by the faith of the human recipient. The new element in the transfiguration consists in this light of faith that has given their bodily eyes the power to see. Thanks to this light, they “touch the Word of life” when they draw near to the body of Jesus.
Henceforth there is no longer any distance between matter and divinity, for in the body of Christ our flesh is in communion (without confusion or separation) with the Prince of life. The transfiguration of the Word gives a glimpse of the fullness of what the Word inaugurated in his Incarnation and manifested after his baptism by his miracles: namely, the truth that the body of the Lord Jesus is the sacrament that gives the life of God to men.
When our humanity consents without reserve to be united to the humanity of Jesus, it will share the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4); it will be divinized. Since the whole meaning of the economy of salvation is concentrated here, it is understandable that the liturgy should be the fulfillment of the economy. The divinization of men will come through sharing in the body of Christ.