‘It is Good for Us to Be Here’
A reflection on the transfiguration of Jesus
Father Eugene Hensell 0
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus appears in all three synoptic Gospels (cf. Mk 9:2-10; Mt 17:1-8; Lk 9:28-36). Almost all biblical scholars and spiritual writers agree that this intriguing story is important. They also agree that it almost defies interpretation. The famous biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen (1884-1918) was the first to suggest that this account was originally a description of an appearance of the resurrected Jesus. He suggested that the account was originally about an appearance of the Crucified One to the three disciples. This theory was very popular for many years, but it is no longer held by most commentators.
The context in which the story appears is the same for each Gospel, and it is rather easy to describe. Jesus has asked his disciples who they believe him to be. All give the same answer: the Messiah. Jesus then goes on to describe what that means by offering the first of three passion predictions stressing his suffering, death and resurrection. The disciples cannot put together the concept of the Messiah with suffering and death. It is at this point that Jesus takes Peter, James and John and leads them up a high mountain and is transfigured before them. So much for the event itself.
The real focus of the transfiguration story aims to uncover the true identity of Jesus. It is almost as if each of the three Evangelists has been gradually disclosing the true identity of Jesus step by step as they tell their stories. Then all of a sudden, right in the middle of the story, they stop talking and visually show us this amazing event wherein Jesus is dramatically transformed.
It is like an apocalyptic vision that invites us to see who this Jesus really is as well as giving us a glimpse of his future glory. However, no sooner does this transfiguration event begin than it ends. Everything quickly returns to the way it was.
Nevertheless, we are left with some serious questions. What is it that just happened? What have we just seen and heard? All three synoptic Gospels have a particular slant on these questions as well as what the story of the Transfiguration means. All even agree on the major points of the story. However, it is the details provided by each Evangelist that we must pay attention to.
Mark provides the basic story plot that Matthew and Luke follow closely. The Transfiguration is presented as a revelation directed to the disciples to further their understanding of Jesus’ identity. This issue of Jesus’ true identity is a theme that runs throughout the Gospel of Mark. With the Transfiguration, Mark’s Christology is further unfolded. Along with the transfigured Jesus, there appears Moses and Elijah in conversation with Jesus. Peter cannot figure out what this all means but he suggests building three dwellings, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah.
The disciples were terrified but perhaps they thought this was similar to the feast of Booths celebrating the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai as well as their journey in the wilderness (cf. Lv 23:34-44).
At this point in the story, a mysterious cloud overshadows all of them and a voice says, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” (This is similar to an experience Moses had in Exodus 24:15-16: “Moses went up the mountain. Then the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled upon Mount Sinai. The cloud covered it for six days, and on the seventh day he called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.”) This divine voice affirms the identity of Jesus as Son of God, Messiah, and the coming Son of Man. The disciples are mandated to “listen to him!”
Immediately after the voice ceases, the vision ends, and things return to normal. As they all were coming down from the mountain Jesus ordered the disciples not to tell anyone what they had experienced until after the resurrection. It is only then that the real meaning of the Transfiguration will be understood.
Matthew sees the Transfiguration as an apocalyptic vision directed to the disciples Peter, James and John. This apocalyptic tone, which stresses Jesus as the Son of Man, gets its details partially from Daniel 7:9 and 10:6. Matthew also emphasizes Jesus’ lordship (cf. Mt 17:4).
Furthermore, he adds the detail that Jesus’ face shone like the sun in addition to his clothing being dazzling white. Matthew’s version, similar to Mark’s, includes Moses and Elijah in conversation with Jesus. Many commentators understand Moses to symbolize the Law and Elijah to symbolize the prophets. Together, the Law and the prophets constitute the fullness of divine revelation.
In Matthew 5:17-19, Jesus proclaimed that he had come to fulfill the Law and the prophets and not in any way to do away with them. Here, at the Transfiguration, Jesus is shown to be not only the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets, but he supersedes them. Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration adds a few details at the ending. The disciples fall to the ground when they hear the voice from the cloud. Jesus calms their fear by touching them and encouraging them not to be afraid.
Luke’s version is also similar to Mark’s but incorporates a number of peculiar concerns. First of all, the Transfiguration is seen as both an experience for Jesus as well as for the disciples. Very important for Luke is the emphasis on prayer. Almost every important aspect of Jesus’ ministry is preceded by prayer in Luke’s Gospel. Therefore, Jesus takes Peter, James and John and goes up on the mountain to pray (cf. Lk 9:28). It is during prayer that Jesus’ face changes and his clothes become dazzling white. For Luke, the transfiguration of Jesus is a prayer experience. In describing what takes place in Jesus and his clothing, Luke does not use the language of transfiguration (Greek, metamorphoō). Instead, he refers to Jesus’ face and clothing as being “changed.”
Luke also includes the presence of Moses and Elijah, who are talking to Jesus. While Mark and Matthew also have Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, they do not disclose the content of that conversation. Luke, however, informs us that they were talking about Jesus’ departure (Greek, exodos), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem (cf. Lk 9:31). This, of course, is a reference to his death which is understood as a new redeeming action as the first Exodus of old was. Even though the disciples are described as being weighed down with sleep, they become wide awake when they see Moses and Elijah. Again, the mysterious cloud overshadows all of them and the divine voice affirms, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him” (9:35). Jesus supplants both Moses and Elijah.
According to Luke, Jesus is a prophet mighty in deed and word. He is the prophet like Moses spoken of in Deuteronomy 18:15. Therefore, Luke’s version of the Transfiguration both affirms Peter’s original recognition that Jesus is the Messiah and then goes on to unfold what that messiahship entails. It is an exodus that moves through suffering and death into glory.
Possibilities for Meaning
Most commentators and scholars focus the meaning of the Transfiguration story on the meeting between Jesus, Moses and Elijah. As mentioned above, Moses symbolizes the Law and Elijah symbolizes the prophets. Jesus, being located in the middle of the two, symbolizes how he fulfills the Law and the prophets, or how he even supersedes them. This then gets confirmed by the voice that emerges from the cloud indicating the identity of Jesus as God’s beloved Son. And because of this sonship, Jesus should be listened to.
Another way to think about the Transfiguration is to see it as a mystical encounter wherein the identity of Jesus is disclosed in and through this “cloud of unknowing.” At the center of the meeting are Jesus, Moses and Elijah. On the outside looking in are Peter, James and John. The challenge for all of these characters is not to figure out what the cloud means but simply to enter into it.
In other words, the meeting is the thing. From this perspective, the Transfiguration is part of Jesus’ identity, not just its result. This search for an identity cannot be reduced to a name. Remember the fruitless effort Moses underwent attempting to find out God’s name. “God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you” (Ex 3:14). Jesus’ identity is intimately connected to this cloud. The cloud is the very presence of God. The transfiguration of Jesus is an invitation to enter this mysterious cloud and experience the glory of God. This is what God’s glory looks like, a big bright cloud.
This experience answers the two questions raised earlier when the Transfiguration was described. What has just happened? What have we seen and heard? What has just happened is that the disciples have entered the area of the sacred cloud and by doing so they have encountered the fullness of Jesus by experiencing God’s glory. This is who Jesus really is. All of this is ratified by the divine voice reaffirming Jesus’ true identity.
To Preach and to Teach the Transfiguration Story
Our temptation is to think that the challenge the Transfiguration story presents is to decode the symbols and find the meaning of the characters and the cloud. This is understood to be part of the search for Jesus’ true identity. The problem with this approach is that it will never allow us to advance beyond the boundaries of the story. From this perspective, we will never discover Jesus’ true identity.
The real challenge of the Transfiguration is for us to enter the cloud. Once inside the cloud, we will discover Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and the fullness of God’s glory. And how is it that we find a way to enter that cloud? I suggest Luke’s approach might have the key. And that key is prayer.
Remember, for Luke, the entire transfiguration event was an experience of prayer. It was through prayer that Luke understood the meaning of this new exodus that Jesus was undertaking. And it was through prayer that Peter, James and John were able to overcome their fear and enter the divine cloud. Only then will we be able to say with Peter, “Master, it is good that we are here” (Lk 9:33). Once inside and in the presence of God’s glory we too will be able to hear the voice say, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
FATHER EUGENE HENSELL, OSB, is a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana, and an associate professor of Scripture at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.
Catechism Explains the Transfiguration
“Christ’s Transfiguration aims at strengthening the apostles’ faith in anticipation of his Passion: the ascent onto the ‘high mountain’ prepares for the ascent to Calvary. Christ, Head of the Church, manifests what his Body contains and radiates in the sacraments: ‘the hope of glory.’” — Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 568