August 6 marks the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, a feast celebrated on this day for only the past six hundred or so years but still an important Biblical event that should indeed be remembered by all Christians, no matter their mode of worship. This event is described in three of the four Gospels in the New Testament, revealing Christ for Who He truly is, to paraphrase Thomas: Our Lord and Our God.
A couple of years ago in our Sunday School at Lake Murray Community Church, our teacher, Bill (who has since left Lake Murray to return to the Catholic Church), passed around copies of The Transfiguration by Raphael, seen in the above image. We were slowly proceeding through the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, verse by verse, chewing on God's Word, savouring it, sucking the marrow out of it. At this time we were discussing the event of the Transfiguration and what was also happening while Christ and his chosen three were on the mountain as depicted in Raphael's painting: below the supernatural transfiguration of Christ is a scene of chaos in which the remaining disciples are unable to release a young boy from the demons possessing him. Using artwork to help us more fully understand the Scriptures was a new method for me, but then we can learn a great deal about the Bible and literature in general from the keen insight of artists.
Christian Art, in the Middle Ages and even far into the Renaissance, became "the poor man's Bible" in a way. The vast majority of the population was illiterate, so the artwork hanging in their churches told them the stories behind Biblical events like the Transfiguration as well as stories of the Saints. For example, parishioners who couldn't read would recognize a painting of Saint Sebastian by the arrow plunged into his side. So while they listened to sermons in church, their eyes would wander to the art in the church, linking the images to the Biblical and Saint stories they had learned. Art told the stories without words, a gift of beauty as well as education to an illiterate populace. And Raphael's "Transfiguration" is such a one as it relates two Biblical events occurring simultaneously: the heavenly vision of a transfigured Christ and the earthly battle against demonic possession, a battle only won when Christ Himself stepped in to assist His Disciples.
The Saint of the Day e-mails from AmericanCatholic.org describe the Transfiguration thus:
All three Synoptic Gospels tell the story of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36). With remarkable agreement, all three place the event shortly after Peter’s confession of faith that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and death. Peter’s eagerness to erect tents or booths on the spot suggests it occurred during the Jewish weeklong, fall Feast of Booths.The Collect for The Feast of the Transfiguration from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
Certainly Peter, James and John had a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity strong enough to strike fear into their hearts. Such an experience defies description. And certainly Jesus warned them that his glory and his suffering were to be inextricably connected—a theme John highlights throughout his Gospel.
Tradition names Mt. Tabor as the site of the revelation. A church first raised there in the fourth century was dedicated on August 6. A feast in honor of the Transfiguration was celebrated in the Eastern Church from about that time. Western observance began in some localities about the eighth century.
On July 22, 1456, Crusaders defeated the Turks at Belgrade. News of the victory reached Rome on August 6, and Pope Callistus III placed the feast on the Roman calendar the following year.
One of the Transfiguration accounts is read on the second Sunday of Lent each year, proclaiming Christ’s divinity to catechumens and baptized alike. The Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent, by contrast, is the story of the temptation in the desert—affirmation of Jesus’ humanity. The two distinct but inseparable natures of the Lord were a subject of much theological argument at the beginning of the Church’s history; it remains hard for believers to grasp.
“At his Transfiguration Christ showed his disciples the splendor of his beauty, to which he will shape and color those who are his: ‘He will reform our lowness configured to the body of his glory’” (Philippians 3:21) (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae).
O God, who on the mount didst reveal to chosen witnesses thine only-begotten Son wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistering; Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may be permitted to behold the King in his beauty, who with thee, O Father, and thee, O Holy Ghost, liveth and reigneth, one God, world without end. Amen.So the Transfiguration shows us the divine side of Jesus, revealing His Power and Glory, while the chaos of humanity below cries out for His help -- a picture not just painted by Raphael hundreds of years ago but a picture of daily life for us as well. We have to look for those moments of Divine Revelation in our own lives on a daily basis. They are there, if only we choke back our fear and open our eyes to see them.