February 19, 2011
This is a most mysterious episode in the life of Jesus, and shared with just three of his closest friends, Peter, James and John.
Jesus takes these three disciples up a “high mountain”, traditionally Mount Tabor in Galilee. Symbolically however the ‘mountain’ is the place where one encounters God in all his majesty, as at Sinai, or the ‘sermon on the mount’. This is its significance here.
What happens is the unexpected: Jesus’s face “shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light”. Like the face of Moses after his Sinai revelation which obliged him to veil his face. Two figures appear with Jesus, symbols of the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah, who converse with him about what was going to befall him in Jerusalem.
The disciples are too stunned for words. Peter babbles on and on about “making three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” All at once a “bright cloud overshadowed them” - again, a symbol of God’s overwhelming presence - and a voice from the cloud calls: “This is my Son, my Beloved. Listen to him.” The disciples are so overcome with awe, they faint ! When they come round later, all they see is Jesus alone, who tells them not to be afraid.
A host of questions assails us: did this event really take place? What did it mean? What did it do to the understanding of the three disciples about who Jesus really was?
Like the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, we may say this is a passage whose importance lies more in its meaning than in its actuality.
The position of the Transfiguration story – after the confession of Peter and the prediction of the passion – makes it a reaffirmation of the messiahship of Jesus, and of the messianic glory in which he will be revealed. Jesus is no less messiah, even when his glory is hidden and disfigured in the passion. The words from the Cloud are the very words of Yahweh through the prophet, the Second Isaiah, presenting his Suffering Servant, the one whose wounds will heal us.
The story of the Transfiguration tells us graphically that in the Bible, what is described is not half as important as why it is described. Factual history is secondary. What is primary is the symbols of faith, namely, how the disciples - and the Church later - understood Jesus as saviour through his suffering, death and rising.