This was a most mysterious episode in the life of Jesus, 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. This is its significance here.
What happens is the unexpected: Jesus’s face shines like the sun, and his clothes become as white as light. Thus was the face of Moses after his Sinai revelation which obliged him to put a veil across it. Two figures appears next to 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, and 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 overshadows 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 to their senses 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 this event do to the understanding of the three disciples about who Jesus really was? Like the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan with which this passage shares similarities, we may say that 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 the messianic glory in which he will be revealed. Jesus is no less a 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 through whose wounds we are healed.
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.
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