The Transfiguration of Jesus

Second Sunday of Lent. Gn 12:1-4a; Ps 33:4-5,18-20,22; 2 Tm 1:8b-10; Mt 17:1-9

The Transfiguration of Jesus reported in today's Gospel might seem so extraordinary and yet remote that it is hard to see what relevance it has to our lives. As a miracle it served to strengthen the faith of the apostles, Peter, James and John, when they had recovered from their fear. However, extraordinary visions and a voice from heaven two thousand years ago might seem a long way from the concerns of our lives today. Nevertheless, the Transfiguration is of the greatest relevance for us, to our very hope of happiness. For, if we interpret these events carefully, we can glimpse the glory that God wills us to have by faith in His beloved Son. As a consequence we should be encouraged as we make our way on pilgrimage through the darkness of this world to the Kingdom of Heaven.

First, it is important to appreciate what is being transfigured. Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. As the divine Son of God, he has the eternal glory of God. Therefore, what happened on the mountain cannot have changed his divinity, which cannot change. What happened on the mountain is that his humanity, his human nature, was transfigured. The glory of his human soul was permitted, for a brief moment, to pour out into his body. Aquinas describes this as a transient passion, as when air is suddenly lit up by the sun. Now the details are sparse but all of them are significant. The Gospel begins by saying that, “His face shone like the sun.” This vision of Jesus' face shining was prefigured in the Old Testament Book of Exodus, when the face of Moses shone after talking with God on Mount Sinai; it is also prophesized in Psalm 34, “Look to the Lord, and be radiant.” What makes a face shine like this is the vision of God, face-to-face, just as an object placed in a bright light itself becomes bright. And this is the first thing that the Transfiguration teaches us about the supernatural life to which St. Paul refers in today's Second Reading. In the life of heaven, we shall see God face-to-face, and then our faces will shine, not just for a moment but for all eternity. As St. John says in his first letter (1 John 3:2), “When he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

The second detail the Gospel tells us is that “his clothes became white as light.” These few words have immense implications. If Christ's clothing was also glorified this implies that material things associated with the saints are also glorified in heaven. Indeed, the Latin phrase for the ‘communion of saints’ (communio sanctorum) can also be translated as the ‘communion of holy things’, implying that heaven is not a kind of giant empty room where saints engage in silent inward contemplation. After the Resurrection, Scripture promises a new heaven and a new earth, a kingdom and a country, descriptions which imply holy and imperishable material things. Even if many of the saints lived in tents in this life, we look forward to a city, a city “whose builder and maker is God.” (Heb 11:10). Christ's clothing being visibly glorified also teaches us something else, that material things can even be holy, and perhaps also unholy, in this life, even if we do not perceive this directly with our bodily eyes. This validates a number of traditional Catholic practices. For example, it confirms the idea of venerating relics of saints, even their clothing, since such items themselves are holy through being associated with a soul in glory. It also confirms a strong, Catholic instinct that our possessions and especially our homes should be made holy in various ways, such as by means of blessings and holy images.

The third detail the Gospel reports is that, as well as Jesus' face and clothes shining, Moses and Elijah appeared, conversing with him. Now of course Moses and Elijah had been dead for many centuries, so today's Gospel obviously confirms the immortality of their souls, which also tells us that our souls survive death. It also confirms something else: Moses is still Moses, and Elijah is still Elijah. Souls retain their individuality after death, and they have a companionship with one another united around their faith in Jesus Christ. Although the souls of Moses and Elijah, at this time in the Gospel, are still waiting to enter heaven, they are nevertheless assured of heaven when Christ opens the gate by his Passion, death and Resurrection. And their companionship assures us of something else: heaven is a society where we shall not lack for friends. Heaven is not a lonely place, and nor is purgatory; it is only lonely in hell.

So the Transfiguration of Jesus is not something without relevance to our lives. In just a few lines it reveals a great deal about our own future, or at least the future that God wants us to have as children of God in the kingdom prepared for us. We shall see God face-to-face, our bodies will be glorified, we shall have holy possessions and enjoy the supernatural society of the Church in glory. And in the trials of Lent that should be some comfort.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, St. Louis, 17th February 2008

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