The Transfiguration Reveals Truth “According to His Own Design”

Second Sunday in Lent, The Transfiguration of Christ: Genesis 12:1-4a, 2 Timothy 1:8b-10, Matthew 17:1-9.

Today we hear of the Lord’s glorious Transfiguration, set up wonderfully by yesterday’s readings on covenants (see The Difficult New Covenant of Love). There are many signs that point to the New Covenant, including the Annunciation, the Lord’s Baptism, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and of course the Resurrection. But the Transfiguration stands out as a pivotal moment that invokes the old covenants in the form of Moses and Elijah while the Father presents His blessed Son as a gift with the command to “listen to him.” We encounter all of the elements of the covenant as a pact with God where his gift and our commitment to Him are both present.

The first reading from Genesis relates the Abrahamic Covenant where God asks for great faithfulness in return for his blessing. He commands: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.” We might call this blind faith, actually. Abraham must leave everything — his father’s inheritance, all of his relatives and friends — to go to parts unknown (to be revealed later!). Of course, after the test of faith where he was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, maybe he was getting used to these demands of faithfulness. Whatever the case, we hear that “Abram went as the LORD directed him.” It’s a short sentence but displays the absolute trust that Abram places in God. (Hence the very appropriate Responsorial Psalm 33, Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.)

Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan (Ábrahám kiköltözése), 1850, József Molnár | Wikimedia Commons, artwork housed in Szépművészeti Múzeum – Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, Hungary.

The Abrahamic Covenant sets the stage for all of God’s covenants: we are asked to act in faith based on what we do not know or see. We can’t do this unless we trust God completely.

In the second reading, St. Paul underscores this aspect of our relationship with God as he urges his flock to “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” We might think we lack that strength ourselves, but no matter, the strength actually comes from God, another point of trust. This trust is made possible thanks to Abraham and the entire tradition to the point of Christ. Paul writes, “He saved us and called us to a holy life,” noting that God’s covenants have saved the nation time and again and that in return they have been called to a holy life. Lest his readers think they earned their holiness, much less their salvation, he corrects them: “not according to our works but according to his own design.”

And here we have a great and humbling admission: “according to his own design.” As humans, relinquishing power over our destiny, trajectory, or career (to use modern terms) is something we have a hard time accepting. Especially in “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” USA. It’s part of our national fabric to be a “self-made man.” Yet how far from our faith could we possibly get when we think this way? Was Abraham a self-made man? Moses? Elijah? Christ?? Of course not. These greatest of figures in history were not only made by God, but directed, commanded, steered, and loved by Him. Their greatness lay in their acceptance of his dominion and willingness to trust, have faith, and do his will.

We have to actively work to change our unconscious bias for being self-made, for controlling our own destiny. Thank God that we have thousands of years of his promises kept, miracles done, and covenants upheld. These must give us great comfort; they display that he does indeed have “his own design” and it works best if we don’t try to know it but rather simply trust it.

The greatest of You-deserve-our-trust signs is Jesus Christ Himself. Today’s account of the Transfiguration of Christ in the gospel of St. Matthew is almost understated about the pure majesty and import of the New Covenant’s revelation. Matthew gets right to the point: Jesus and his chosen three go up the mountain, “And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” 

The Transfiguration of the Lord (mosaic, Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor, Israel), 1924, Umberto Noni | Wikimedia Commons. The caption is Latin for “And he was transfigured before them.”

There was one other encounter with God that changed a man’s appearance: Moses on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. These two mountain encounters with God are worth comparing. Matthew’s report that Jesus’s face shone like the sun is important to contrast to the interplay of light on the faces at Mt. Sinai. The glorious face needed to be hidden from Moses; The Lord tells him “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live…. you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (Ex 33:20, 23). When he comes down from the mountain, “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Ex 34:29b), and even this reflected glory makes the Israelites afraid. Moses has to wear a veil over his face when he talks to them so that they can overcome their fear and awe. Yet Jesus does not reflect God’s light, he emanates it. He is such a perfect, non-conflicting union of the human and the divine that the divine light that would kill humans merges perfectly with him; more: he, in fact, is the source of illumination.

What is the significance of his clothes? He purifies these garments made by human hands, turning them white. This is a sign that, in Him, humans can be purified and divinized as well.

Matthew tells us next, “behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.” Moses is the ultimate representative of the law, and Elijah is the ultimate representative of the prophets. Christ is the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets. Here he stands talking with the greatest of those who represent the law and the prophets, and Peter, for one, is thrilled. Here are two of the greatest Jewish religious figures and heroes, conversing with his own teacher, who glows with some sort of mysterious providence that they’ve never seen before. He asks Jesus if he should build tents for each of them. This is easy to misinterpret, but remember that Moses (and all of Israel before the Temple of Solomon was built) made a tent for God to dwell with them. Peter’s tents are a Biblically-sound suggestion for these celestial beings to remain with them, as if a new era has started where the new heavenly Jewish superheroes will help the nation reach new heights.

But he’s clearly missed the point, and God the Father interrupts him mid-request. Note how differently God appears here on Mt. Tabor compared to Mt. Sinai. On Mt. Sinai:

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder (Ex 19:16-19).

The Giving of the Law, 1936, unknown artist | Creative Commons.

Thunder, lightning, a thick cloud, smoke, fire, violent shaking and trumpet blasts. Truly frightening phenomena. Add to this God’s command to Moses: “warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish.” The Lord is hidden from view, darkness and opacity characterize His appearance, and even Moses must only converse with his back, not his face.

Contrast this with today’s reading: “While [Peter] was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice…” What an interesting description of light that St. Matthew gives us. The cloud is bright, not dark, akin to the glow we see on the face of Christ. And how can we explain that a source of brightness casts a shadow, since shadows are only cast when a greater source of light is behind them? The divine cloud is surely the brightest thing in the sky.

For one point of reference, I am reminded of St. John of the Cross and his contemplations in The Dark Night of the Soul: “The more simply and purely the divine light strikes the soul, the more it darkens and empties and annihilates it in its particular apprehensions and affections concerning both earthly and heavenly things” (Book 2, 8.2(2)). This seems to be precisely what is happening — the shadow cast over them is the darkness that strikes the soul by the purifying and incomprehensible divine light. Indeed, “they fell prostrate and were very much afraid,” despite the fact that they are in the light and there are no terrible phenomena like we see on Mt. Sinai. Their minds are also cleared of the “particular apprehensions and affections concerning both earthly and heavenly things” as described by St. John of the Cross — there is no more discussion of tents.

God delivers the New Covenant: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” His gift: his Son. His command: listen to Him. Christ is both sides of the covenant, the gift and our requirement. This seemingly simple covenant, taking up so few words compared to those in the Old Testament, is unapproachably dense in its profundity. How can we comprehend the gift of God Himself, joined to humanity in our New Covenant? This unlikely and undeserved gift simply requires us to “listen to him.” Like an overly-dense star ready to become a supernova, Christ is poised for the Resurrection, when the love of the Trinity will be poured out on humanity. But the Resurrection will only come after his example of self-giving love is shared with us in the form of the Cross. Listening to him will, in fact, require a radical shift in our lives, a willingness to accept the way of the cross.

Transfiguration of Jesus (icon), 1408, Theophanes the Greek | Wikimedia Commons. Artwork from Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral in Pereslavl-Zalessky.

But the truth of the Transfiguration is most beautifully portrayed in Jesus’s words: “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’ And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.” Despite the difficulties we will encounter truly listening to him and taking up our crosses, Jesus the man, the friend, the teacher, is there for us in person, giving us his generous love. He touches them with tenderness, encouraging them not to be afraid of the reaction of their souls to the divinity they are in contact with. When they raise their eyes like docile sheep, they see only the Good Shepherd, who is also the sacrificial lamb.

The first test of this New Covenant will be given to Peter, James and John when he charges them: “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” They must listen to him as God commanded, although every fiber of their being must have been straining to share the Good News, electrons excited out of their shells with the potential of the divine energy waiting to erupt into the world. But only when the Resurrection is accomplished will the world be ready to comprehend that God Himself walked among us, that he was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.

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