The transfiguration of Christ is a very interesting and important story, so important that it appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels and in the second letter of Saint Peter (2 Peter 1:16-18).
Here is how St Luke describes the event:
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep but kept awake, and they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”-not knowing what he said. As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
This event is shrouded in mystery and filled with symbolism. Since I’ve been obsessed with Old Testament stories since I was a child, and have studied the Old Testament extensively, I look for parallels in the OT between almost every event in the New Testament. There are more than a few, and almost all of them have to do with one of the participants on this event, Moses.
Dual natures of Christ
It’s not just parallels to the Old Testament that makes this event interesting, it’s also the fact that Jesus allows His closest apostles to see Him in all His glory. To see the His divine nature as He truly is.
Remember that Jesus is in a hypostatic Union, this is a union of His human and divine natures in one person, and one hypostasis as defined by the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451.
His divine nature is always present, and cannot be seperated from His human nature. The idea that had one nature, Monophysitism, was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon. Also there was idea that Christ had a dual nature but that they were not united in a single hypostasis or in one persons, this was the heresy of Nestorianism, and it was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431. All that is to say that the divine nature was always present, from the moment of the Incarnation, but God did not reveal it until the chosen time.
These three apostles had, up until this point, only seen the human nature of Christ, but now to strengthen their faith in Him, God revealed His divine nature in its full glory. (For more on this, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 466-469 Link here)
Let’s take a look at these 10 verses in more detail.
- The usual suspects
Whenever we read about Jesus’ inner circle it’s always Peter, James and John. These three are the closest to Christ, and will eventually be the leaders of the early Church, with Peter as the leader (first Pope), James as the bishop of Jerusalem, and his brother John as the bishop of Ephesus and writer of the fourth Gospel. These three are also the ones that Jesus will take with Him to pray in Gethsemane.
- Up the mountain
In Exodus 24 Moses went up Mt Sinai to meet God, but like everything in the New covenant is greater than the old, the apostles don’t go up to meet God; they go up with God.
The transfiguration takes place just after Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ, this was done in faith, but now they are going up the mountain and they will see with their eyes the glory of God.
- Shining face of God
In Matthews account it says, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” Matthew 17:2
This language sounds very similar to the account of Moses’ face in exodus, and this was on purpose. Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience and they would’ve immediately picked up on the similarities in the two accounts.
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tables of the covenant in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. And when Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.
When Moses met God on Mt Sinai his “face shone”, if his face was a reflection of the glory of God, the I can only imagine what Jesus’ face would’ve looked like.
- Moses and Elijah
Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus and they talk about His “exodus”. This is a reference to the coming passion.
But why Moses and Elijah? Why not any other Old Testament duo? Why not Adam and Eve or Abraham and Sarah? As Catholics we believe that the saints of God are not dead, they are more alive than ever in heaven (or in the limbo of the fathers, as it would’ve been here, because heaven wasn’t opened until after the death and resurrection of Christ), and because of this, anyone of the righteous dead of Israel could’ve had this supernatural conversation with Jesus.
But God sent Moses and Elijah for a reason, and the reason is because they represent the Law and the Prophets. Moses is the law giver, and Elijah is one of the greatest prophets of Israel, this meeting shows that Jesus is greater than both the law and the prophesies concerning Him. “The law and the prophets” is also a phrase used by Jesus in Matthew 5:17 as an expression for the entirety of the Old Testament. In meeting with the personal representatives of the law and the prophets, Jesus is saying to his apostles (and us) that he is what everything has been leading up to.
- Peter the builder
It seems that Peter wants to switch professions with Jesus, he suddenly takes up an interest in carpentry.
But seriously, what Peter is saying here is that he is so enraptured by this supernatural experience that he wants to build shelters so they can stay there longer. These “booths,” or tents, that Peter wants to build is reminiscent of the shelters that Jews would build to celebrate the feast of booths, or sukkot as its called today.
- The Cloud
There are many instances in the Old Testament of God’s glory being physically manifested as a cloud; Exodus 13:21, Exodus 40:35, and Ezekiel 10:4 to name a few.
When Moses went up Mt Sinai, he entered the cloud that had settled there;
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the sons of Israel. And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
The cloud represents the physical manifestation of the supernatural glory of God.
- The voice of God
In the above passage, God speaks to Moses out of the cloud. God also calls out to Peter, James and John after the cloud settles on the mountain. The words spoken by God are very similar to the ones that He spoke at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, with the addition of “listen to Him.”
In Peter’s preaching on Pentecost, he mentions a prophesy by Moses, “Moses said, ‘ The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you.” (Acts 3:22), Jesus was/is the prophet spoken of by Moses.
Being told to listen to Jesus, by the Father, would’ve been a very surreal moment for sure. After seeing all that went on here, I’m pretty sure they’re going to be listening. But it’s about more than just the apostles present there, these words are speaking to us 2000 years later.
We have, as Bishop Barron says, domesticated Jesus. We have made Him into this nice guy who feeds the hungry and says nice things to people, but Jesus is more than a good teacher or even just a prophet. Jesus is the Son of the living God, the Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity!
We have to not just see the human face of Jesus, we must also see the divine nature, it’s this divine nature that make Jesus so unique. There have been prophets, and teachers, and miricle workers, but there is only one person who is both fully man and fully God.
We also see the part of Jesus that is hidden from human perceptions, just as His real presence is hidden behind the appearance of bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist. Jesus’ divine nature was always there, the disciples just could not perceive it with human senses, and so too is Jesus present in the Holy Eucharist, even if we can only see and taste bread, He is still present.
This is the lesson to be learned from the transfiguration; we don’t worship the teachings of Jesus, we worship Him. As great as His words and teachings are, it is the fact, made clear at this moment, that He has a divine nature that sets Him apart from all others on earth.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father.