The Significance of the Transfiguration

Q: What was the significance of Christ’s Transfiguration, and why is it celebrated during Lent?

A: One of the stupidest homilies I ever heard was on the Transfiguration. Instead of telling the congregation what the Transfiguration meant, the priest said, “The Transfiguration was a mystical experience,” and then proceeded to enumerate a couple of dozen additional kinds of mystical experiences (not all of which were that mystical), suggesting that we need to be open to them when they happen.

Fortunately, the Church in her wisdom has written into the very structure of the Mass for the second Sunday of Lent the interpretation of this event. This makes sure that even if you have a dud for a homilist, you will hear the significance of the event when the priest prays the Preface to the Eucharistic prayer.

This is the same reason for many of the prayers of the Mass. The Church ensures that no matter how bad your catechist is, you will with your own mouth say the essential truths of the faith — the Creed, your own sinfulness (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…”), your need for forgiveness from Jesus (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”), Jesus’ power to forgive (“…but only say the word and I shall be healed”), and so forth.

The Transfiguration probably occurred during the forty days before Easter since shortly after the Transfiguration narrative (Luke 9:28-36) Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem for his crucifixion (Luke 9:51). Thus on the Mountain Moses and Elijah “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). And so on the second Sunday of Lent the Preaface to the Eucharistic prayer says:

“On your holy mountain he [Jesus] revealed himself in glory in the presence of the disciples.
He had already prepared them for his approaching death.
He wanted to teach them through the Law and the Prophets that the promised Christ had first to suffer and so come to the glory of his resurrection.”

The Law and the Prophets (the two parts of the Old Testament) are symbolized in the Transfiguration by the presence of Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the Prophets), who together “spoke about his departure” (Luke 9:31).

And so the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

554 From the day Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, the Master “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.”[Mt 16:21] Peter scorns this prediction, nor do the others understand it any better than he.[Cf. Mt 16:22-23; 17:23; Lk 9:45] In this context the mysterious episode of Jesus’ Transfiguration takes place on a high mountain,[Cf. Mt 17:1-8 and parallels; 2 Pt 1:16-18] before three witnesses chosen by himself: Peter, James and John. Jesus’ face and clothes become dazzling with light, and Moses and Elijah appear, speaking “of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem”.[Lk 9:31] A cloud covers him and a voice from heaven says: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”[Lk 9:35]

555 For a moment Jesus discloses his divine glory, confirming Peter’s confession. He also reveals that he will have to go by the way of the cross at Jerusalem in order to “enter into his glory”.[Lk 24:26]

“Moses and Elijah had seen God’s glory on the Mountain; the Law and the Prophets had announced the Messiah’s sufferings.[Cf. Lk 24:27] Christ’s Passion is the will of the Father: the Son acts as God’s servant;[Cf. Is 42:1] the cloud indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit. ‘The whole Trinity appeared: the Father in the voice; the Son in the man; the Spirit in the shining cloud.'” [St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, 45, 4, ad 2]

“You were transfigured on the mountain, and your disciples, as much as they were capable of it, beheld your glory, O Christ our God, so that when they should see you crucified they would understand that your Passion was voluntary, and proclaim to the world that you truly are the splendour of the Father.” [Byzantine Liturgy, Feast of the Transfiguration, Kontakion]

556 …The Transfiguration gives us a foretaste of Christ’s glorious coming, when he “will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body.”[Phil 3:21] But it also recalls that “it is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God”… [Acts 14:22]

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