Wednesday, August 6, 2008
The Transfiguration of Christ
(Raphael's "Transfiguration," copied from Wikipedia)
The church celebrates the Transfiguration of Christ on August 6. The above painting was studied as part of our One Anothers Sunday School class a couple of years ago as we discussed the Gospel of Matthew over a three-year period. What is so amazing about this painting is that it relates two Gospel stories that may indeed have taken place simultaneously: Christ being transfigured, His Glory shining, with Moses on one side and Elijah on the other, and the three disciples, Peter, John, and James prostrate and quivering in fear at their feet.
Then below this scene we see the attempts by the other disciples to heal a demon-possessed boy (Matthew 17:14-21), the story that immediately follows the Transfiguration in Matthew's Gospel. They aren't getting anywhere with this poor boy, and the Scriptures state (starting in v. 14): "And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him [Jesus] and, kneeling before him, said, 'Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.'"
Jesus' reply has always baffled me somewhat. He rebukes the "faithless and twisted generation," asking "... how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?" Then Christ "rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly." The Gospel continues: "Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, 'Why could we not cast it out?' He said to them, 'Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, "Move from here to there," and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.'"
I guess I can understand Jesus' frustration. Just a little while before casting out the demon that his disciples were unable to, He tasted His glory again on the Mount: "And he was transformed before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him" (Matt. 17: 2-3). Then the first thing He has to face after speaking with Moses and Elijah, after His glory shone through His human body for the only time of His 33 years of physical life on the earth, after hearing the voice of His beloved Father praising Him: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him" (Matt. 17:5), after He had revealed to them that John the Baptist was the "Elijah that had already come" (17:12), was the lack of faith of His other nine disciples who were unable to heal a young boy from demonic possession. No wonder He was a bit miffed -- His utter frustration with the slow-to-get-it disciples finally got to Him. Jesus' reaction here makes me feel a bit better when my own frustration takes over at times.
But the Transfiguration is of the utmost importance today. Christ's glory, His true identity as the Son of the Living God, His magnificence, His purity, were revealed to His closest followers who "fell on their faces and were terrified" (17:6) as Raphael portrays so convincingly in the above painting. Peter, James, and John, all of whom would have the most important parts to play in the Apostolic Age of the Church, were specially chosen by Jesus to be witnesses of His transfiguration. Years later, St. Peter wrote in his second epistle, "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty .... for we were with him on the holy mountain" (2 Pet. 1:16, 18b).
From the Catholic Encyclopedia Online:
The Transfiguration of Christ is the culminating point of His public life, as His Baptism is its starting point, and His Ascension its end. Moreover, this glorious event has been related in detail by St. Matthew (17:1-6), St. Mark (9:1-8), and St. Luke (9:28-36), while St. Peter (2 Peter 1:16-18) and St. John (1:14), two of the privileged witnesses, make allusion to it.
About a week after His sojourn in Cæsarea Philippi, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them to a high mountain apart, where He was transfigured before their ravished eyes. St. Matthew and St. Mark express this phenomenon by the word "metemorphothe," which the Vulgate renders "transfiguratus est." The Synoptics explain the true meaning of the word by adding "his face did shine as the sun: and his garments became white as snow," according to the Vulgate, or "as light," according to the Greek text.
This dazzling brightness which emanated from His whole Body was produced by an interior shining of His Divinity. False Judaism had rejected the Messiah, and now true Judaism, represented by Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, recognized and adored Him, while for the second time God the Father proclaimed Him His only-begotten and well-loved Son. By this glorious manifestation the Divine Master, who had just foretold His Passion to the Apostles (Matthew 16:21), and who spoke with Moses and Elijah of the trials which awaited Him at Jerusalem, strengthened the faith of his three friends and prepared them for the terrible struggle of which they were to be witnesses in Gethsemani, by giving them a foretaste of the glory and heavenly delights to which we attain by suffering.
Already in Apostolic times the mount of the Transfiguration had become the "holy mount" (2 Peter 1:18). It seems to have been known by the faithful of the country, and tradition identified it with Mount Tabor. Origen said (A.D. 231-54) "Tabor is the mountain of Galilee on which Christ was transfigured." In the next century St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Jerome likewise declare it categorically.
I like best the Transfiguration prayer in The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime which is based on the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
O God, who on holy Tabor revealed to the chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured white and glistening: Mercifully grant that I and all your church, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in His beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I conclude with Psalm 106:48: "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting; and let all the people say, 'Amen!' Alleluia!"