It is convenient to divide the church calendar roughly in two. For six months of the year, roughly December through May, the calendar invites us into the story of Jesus. It begins with Advent, proceeds through the Nativity, Epiphany, and Passion of Jesus, culminating in the Ascension. Pentecost acts as a pivot point, as the gift of the Holy Spirit inaugurates the second six months, from June through November, which tell the story of the church in its so-called “ordinary” time (more on in an upcoming session).
But in the middle of that segment, on August 6, an important event from before Jesus’ crucifixion drops into the story the church is telling. Perhaps because of its strange wonder, the Feast of the Transfiguration doesn’t get as much attention as the other events in Jesus’ life. For the Transfiguration of the Lord presents to his disciples, then and now, a glimpse of something wonderful and strange, a “parting of the veil” that reveals what is really real. The Catholic bishop Robert Barron has suggested that the Transfiguration is the most overt evocation of mysticism in the Bible. The Church Father John Chrysostom agreed: Jesus “disclosed,” he said, “a glimpse of the Godhead. He manifested to [the disciples] the God who was dwelling among them.”1
But the Transfiguration is more than a revelation of spiritual glory. It also represents a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, one that shows that Jesus understood and lived the close relationship between glory and suffering. From the Transfiguration on, Jesus’ teaching ministry focused more on the Twelve, preparing them with the truth for his coming suffering and death. He gave them a glimpse of his glory, “the joy set before him,” and it certainly made a lasting impression on John and Peter.
And the way of suffering and glory intertwined is part of what we gain from celebrating the feast. It invites us to ascend the mountain with those disciples, to tremble with them at the awesome reality of God’s glory in Jesus, and to hear the words of comfort (“do not be afraid”) and promise (“This is My Son”). It also invites us to be transformed ourselves by his glory, so that we become more and more like him. In other words, we celebrate the Transfiguration not only for the picture it paints of our glorified Lord, but for what it shows us about how we can be changed.
I. History and Celebration of the Feast
The Biblical Accounts. All three Synoptic Gospels describe the Transfiguration. Some commenters and theologians see in John 1:14—“We have seen his glory”—another allusion to the event.2 Peter, too, remembers the experience. “ It’s one of a couple pivotal moments in Jesus’ ministry where all three Persons of the Trinity are present to those observing. And for that reason, we should pay attention. In what follows we’ll look at the accounts of the Transfiguration in the Gospels, consider its significance for the three witnesses, and ask what it might mean for us who read about it and celebrate the feast now.
To make sense of the event, we must consider it in its context as the third event in “a tripartite dramatic sequence,” as Khaled Anatolios says. I will focus on Matthew’s account, noting where the other Evangelists include other information. The first two scenes in the drama occur in close succession about a week before Jesus takes the three up the mountain. The band of disciples were going to Caesarea Philippi, a Roman town lay at the foot of Mount Hermon, in what is today known as the Golan Heights. Jesus seems to be appraising his ministry, as it were. On the way, he asks the disciples how he is perceived. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” He is considered a prophet, they say, perhaps even John or Elijah returned. He then makes the question personal: “But who do you say that I am?” To this question, Peter replies with a clear, weighty confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”3 That declaration, Jesus says, is not only divine revelation of his identity, but also the foundation of the task to come.
The second scene occurs as Jesus teaches the crowds. Matthew notes the turning point that has occurred in Jesus’ teaching ministry: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things…, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (16:21). Peter at least finds this surprising. Rather than embracing his divinity and receiving the crown some of the crowds already wanted to give him, Messiah would suffer and die in Jerusalem? His words are both a prayer and a wish: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Matthew and Mark record his incredulous response (Matthew 16:22; Mark 8:32). Then Jesus goes further, saying the famous words about denying oneself, taking up the cross, and following him, giving up apparent life for true life in Jesus. Jesus’ rebuke is sharp, because the path of comfort represents a real temptation for Jesus (as the Gethsemane scene will make clear). Jesus ends the conversation by promising that some of the disciples would not die before seeing the kingdom of God.”
All the accounts basically agree on what follows, but I will focus on Matthew’s account. About a week after Peter’s declaration at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus stakes Peter, James, and John to a mountain. There he is changed, “transfigured.” Jesus’ appearance becomes bright. His clothes also change to a radiant whiteness. Moses and Elijah appear and talk with him. The disciples are afraid. Peter offers to make three shelters or tents for them. Then a cloud appears and a voice from the cloud declares Jesus’ Sonship and commands that they listen to him. Then everything is suddenly as it was, with Jesus alone. They come down to the mountain to find a crowd arguing with the other disciples about healing.
The accounts differ in a few ways, none of which seems terrible significant. Matthew and Mark are more specific in their reckoning of time (“six days later”), while Luke adopts a more general expression (“about eight days”). Matthew and Luke use one word for “transfigure,” the Greek word from which we get “metamorphosis,” and Luke used a word that means “to transform.” The difference is subtle but meaningful. Matthew describes the disciples’ falling to the ground and hiding their faces in fear. He also says that Jesus touched them to get their attention.
All these elements are present in the best-known artistic representation of the Transfiguration, and one of the most well-known paintings in the world, The Transfiguration by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio), completed before his death in 1520.
The Church’s Celebration. The history of the feast’s timing is somewhat convoluted. Although the Church celebrated the Transfiguration feast as early as the 4th century, it was likely celebrated before or during Lent, which would be nearer to its timing in the life of Jesus. That tradition has continued in some Protestant denominations, who follow the Revised Common Lectionary and place it on the Sunday before Lent begins. Others place it on the second Sunday of Lent. After the Protestant Reformation, though some churches reintroduced key celebrations, the Transfiguration was either omitted or minimized. The Anglican Communion’s Book of Common Prayer omitted the feast from the first few editions (from 1549 on), but now includes it on August 6. Fr. Thomas Hopko says that the August 6 date likely came about “for some historical reason.”4 One possible reason is the lifting of the Siege of Belgrade in 1458. Pope Callixtus III received the news on August 6 and elevated the Transfiguration to major status in commemoration of the Christians’ victory.
Fr. Lev Gillet (who wrote as “A Monk of the Eastern Church”) suggests instead that the celebration replaced a pagan harvest celebration. This explanation fits with one of the most common traditions associated with Transfiguration: the blessing and eating of fruit. The Eastern Slavs call Transfiguration (celebrated on August 19) the “Apple Feast of the Savior.”
While it has a practical or material explanation, the notion of a harvest blessing, a blessing of “first fruits,” also just fits with the Transfiguration of the Lord. Jesus is, after all, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20, also v. 23). And we are also firstfruits, “brought … forth by the word of truth” (Jas. 1:18), chosen by God “as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thes. 2:13). As Hopko observes, fruit serves as a “sign of the final transfiguration of all things in Christ. It signifies the ultimate flowering and fruitfulness of all creation in the paradise of God’s unending Kingdom of Life where all will he transformed by the glory of the Lord.”5
II. The Meaning of the Transfiguration
“Thou knowest neither Death nor the Life that dwells in Death! Both befriend thee. I am dead, and would see thee dead, for I live and love thee. … Wouldst thou yet live on in disgrace eternal? Ceast thou canst not; wilt thou not be restored and be?”6
To understand the meaning of the Transfiguration, we need to begin with the word itself. The word translated “transfigured” is only used by Matthew and Mark in their account of the Transfiguration. It’s the Greek word from which we get “metamorphosis,” and it literally means “to change shape” or “to go beyond one’s shape.” We use the word to describe a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, or a tadpole becoming a frog. It is moving beyond an immature form or shape to a mature one.
In the drama of redemption, Jesus’ transfiguration is not a move from immaturity to maturity, the moment at which Jesus “becomes” the Savior Messiah. He is the same Incarnate God who was born in the manger, who was baptized in the Jordan, who calmed the storm. His transfiguration is a key scene in the drama of Jesus’ life, one that reveals the Divine Community, the Trinity, at work in the redemption of humanity. It is one of two events in Jesus’ life (his baptism is the other) where all three Persons of the Trinity are explicitly present: the Spirit’s light transfigures the Son, who is approved and commended by the Father. Moreover, this occurs more for the disciples’ benefit than for any benefit to Jesus. The event confirms for them Jesus’ most recent teaching about his identity, the nature of his vocation, and his invitation to those who would follow him.
The week before the Transfiguration, Jesus had said that “some standing here…will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Mt. 16:28). The Son of Man is a messianic title, taken from Dan. 7. The Son of Man there is “given dominion and glory and a kingdom” (Dan. 7:14). The Transfiguration has been seen as a confirmation of Jesus as this Son of Man. Luke says the disciples were “heavy with sleep,” and they wake to see Jesus glorified, even his clothes made radiant by heavenly light. They also hear, likely for the first time, the Father’s affirmation of his Son.7 The appearance of a cloud and the voice of the Father offer further confirmation (and strengthen the connection to Dan. 7). The experience makes an impression on the disciples, even if they do not seem to understand its immediate significance. Many years later, John began his Gospel by saying, “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Despite Peter’s nervous offer to build tents for Jesus and his interlocutors, the experience came to orient his future faith and ministry. He used similar language to John’s in his second epistle: “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice” (2 Peter 1:16-18).
Their experience of the light and the voice of the Father also confirmed Jesus’ earlier teaching in Jesus’ vocation, glory and suffering are linked. They hear Jesus talk with Moses and Elijah about “his departure [death], which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:31). Jesus had said the previous week that his ministry would be transformed, moving beyond teaching and healing and proclaiming the kingdom to the darker realm of suffering and death. “The Son of Man must suffer…, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Lk. 9:22). Jesus’ glory will come through the suffering of the Cross. All three Synoptic Gospels emphasize the connection by taking Jesus and the disciples from the glory on the mountain to the faithlessness of the people below. Khaled Anatolios sees in this a “message that Jesus’ glory precedes and encompasses the suffering that he will undergo in confrontation with human sin, and that he is still the Lord of glory in the midst of his sufferings.”8 The Transfiguration hymn (kontakion) used in the Eastern church makes that connection between suffering and glory explicit:
On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God,
and Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
so that when they would behold You crucified,
they would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
and would proclaim to the world,
that You are truly the Radiance of the Father!
The Transfiguration further explains and confirms what Jesus explains about what our following him means. His way, he said, meant self-denial and carrying a cross. And we dare not sanitize this cross or demean it by suggesting it is simply any burden we must carry. For Jesus’ disciples, carrying a cross meant only one thing: a condemned criminal bearing the instrument of his own death through the city, facing the ridicule of the crowd. This explains Peter’s horrified reaction to Jesus’ prophecy about his own death.
So the Evangelists’ use of the event and language of Transfiguration is essential for our understanding of Jesus. But these are not the only uses of this word in the New Testament. In Romans 12:2, Paul warns against conformity to the world, encouraging his reader to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Again, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, he writes that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another (Gk: ‘from glory to glory’).” In both cases, Paul uses the same word the Evangelists use of Jesus to describe the kind of change possible in Jesus’ disciples. He describes a metamorphosis that comes about through encounter with the glorified Christ.
Ultimately, that is the invitation of the Transfiguration: that we behold the transfigured Christ, and that we see ourselves transfigured by him in the same way that he was glorified: through faithful suffering. Peter wants to stay in the presence of that glory—“It is good for us to be here,” he says—but we are not “permitted to withdraw from the hard labors of the plain and establish [ourselves] now in a peace which belongs only to a future life.”9 Instead, by “presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:2), imitating him first in his willingness to die, we become united to him.
In the fantasy Lilith, George MacDonald illustrates this process the redemption of Adam’s mythical first wife, the Lilith of the title.10 Despite her sin against God, against Adam, against her own daughter, death presents the opportunity for rebirth in God. Adam explains to Lilith that only through relinquishment and death in God’s “house of death” can she know real life. He knows it firsthand: “[I am] more alive than you know, or are able to understand. I was scarce alive when first you knew me. Now I have slept, and am awake; I am dead, and live indeed!”
We face the same wonderful and terrible choice, and celebrating the Transfiguration may give us strength to choose the way of life through death. It shows us Jesus’ great beauty, both in his humanity (the suffering ahead) and divinity (radiant with heaven’s light. It makes plain that his way of redeeming us will require his suffering and death, but will be followed by now-revealed glory. It presents him as the Son of Man, the icon of full humanity, who is nevertheless present among his disciples, then and now. And it shows us his ultimate authority, the beloved Son “in whom all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). Those four things, according to Dallas Willard, help us “to see Jesus, to hold him before the mind with as much fullness and clarity as possible.” This, he says, is “the key…to loving God.”11
III. Suggestions for Practice
- “As he was praying…” Prayer is the place of transfiguration. If you do not already keep a prayer rule, consider adopting one. A rule of prayer is simply a plan for daily prayer. Several apps, including Lectio365, provide a good place to begin.
- George MacDonald’s two works of adult fantasy, Lilith and Phantastes, provide powerful redemptive narratives. If these don’t strike your fancy, consider reading or listening to another novel that shows the path of redemption through suffering. Classics: Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo; Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Modern: Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin; Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger; Complete Stories, by Flannery O’Connor.
- Consider two or more artists’ representations of the Transfiguration. Make note of what they include and exclude. The Transfiguration by Raphael; The Transfiguration by Peter Paul Rubens; The Transfiguration by Lorenzo Lotto; and the icon of the Transfiguration by Theophanes the Greek.
The Transfiguration by Raphael
Transfiguration by Peter Paul Rubens
The Transfiguration by Lorenzo Lotto
The Icon of the Tranfiguration by Theophanes the Greek
- Reflect on the following quote from A.M. Ramsey: “[The Transfiguration is] a mirror in which the Christian mystery is seen in its unity. Here we perceive that that living and the dead are one in Christ, that the old covenant and the new are inseparable, that the cross and the glory are of one, that the age to come is already here, that our human nature has a destiny of glory, that in Christ the final word is uttered and in Him alone the Father is well pleased. Here the diverse elements in the theology of the New Testament meet.”12