Heavenly Father, whose Son Jesus Christ was wonderfully transfigured before chosen witnesses upon the holy mountain, and spoke of the exodus he would accomplish at Jerusalem: grant us strength so to hear his voice and bear our cross that in the world to come we may behold him as he is; where he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
THE transfiguration, recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels, has provoked considerable divergence among generations of interpreters.
Some have read it as an account of the resurrection, displaced to a much earlier position in the Gospel narratives. Some have suggested that it is not to be included in any picture of the historical Jesus, and that its purpose is the purely symbolic one of pointing to his future glory. Some have taken it seriously as an event, but one that indicates other events beyond itself.
The Gospel-writers do not give a consistent description. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus took Peter, John, and James up to the mountain; but these Evangelists do not include a purpose (Matthew 17.1-9, Mark 9.2-10). Luke emphasises that Jesus had gone up the mountain to pray. Matthew and Mark speak of Jesus’s being completely transformed.
Luke distinguishes between the changing appearance of his face and the shining radiance of his clothing. Mark’s disciples call Jesus “Rabbi”; Matthew’s call him “Lord”; and Luke’s call him “Master”. Only Luke includes the subject of the conversation with Moses and Elijah: the “exodus” that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
SUPERSTOCKRevealed: Transfiguration of Jesus Christ by Giovanni Bellini, oil on wood, c.1460, 1430-1516, Venetian School, Museo Correr, VeniceIt is Luke’s version that has become the Gospel reading for the feast. His details offer a guide to the story itself, and to the importance of its position here for everything that follows.
Prayer is the governing context. Jesus was accustomed to praying alone in preparation for significant events. The public ministry that follows his baptism, and the choice of the 12 disciples, are both launched in prayer, and his arrest follows a final agonising time of prayer on the Mount of Olives (Luke 4.1-4, 6.12, 22.39-46).
On the unidentified mountain of the transfiguration, he prepares for the journey to Jerusalem that will end in his death (Luke 9.51ff). This takes place, Luke suggests, in close dialogue with the tradition of law and prophecy which reaches as far as John the Baptist. Moses and Elijah are present as advisers and points of reference in the great liberation of God’s people from their enslavement to sin.
Jesus places himself in continuity with this tradition as he enters the cloud that envelops all three figures. When the cloud lifts, it reveals only the figure of Jesus, acknowledged by a voice that names him as “my Son, my Chosen”. From that point on, divine authority rests on him, not because the law and the prophets no longer count, but because the law and the prophets are gathered up and fulfilled in what he is about to do.
Dorothy Lee is struck by the fact that the writer of the Second Letter of Peter should choose the transfiguration rather than the resurrection as the guarantee of the glory that awaits faithful believers at the end of time. This writer tells the story in a form very different from that of the Gospels, omitting Moses and Elijah altogether and concentrating on the glory of God the Father conferred on Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1.16-19).
There are elements, she says, of both the apocalyptic vision (e.g. Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14) and the epiphany. But what the transfiguration is not, is a “sneak preview” of an eschatological future. “It enters definitely into the present from its home in the future”, and, as such, it is a statement of hope. (“The Transfiguration”, Colloquium 36/2, 2004).
The other feature of the transfiguration to which Lee draws attention is its capacity to evoke a sense of beauty. For Luke, this is focused on Jesus’s face, radiant on the mountain, but also the magnetic centre of further events: set towards Jerusalem (Luke 9.29, 51), almost kissed by Judas (Luke 22.47), turned to Peter, after his triple betrayal (Luke 22.61), unrecognised by the disciples walking to Emmaus until it is associated with the breaking of bread (Luke 24.31), and a source of fear and joy to the Twelve after the resurrection (Luke 24.36-43).
The disciples’ last vision of Jesus’s face comes as he is carried up to heaven in the act of blessing them (Luke 24.50-51). Janet Morley captures the simultaneous longing to experience the beauty of God in Jesus Christ at close quarters, and sheer terror of encountering something beyond all human powers of imagination, in a prayer now adopted in Common Worship as the post-communion prayer for the Third Sunday after Trinity:
O God, whose beauty is beyond our imagining and whose power we cannot comprehend: show us your glory as far as we can grasp it, and shield us from knowing more than we can bear until we may look upon you without fear; through Jesus Christ.
(All Desires Known, SPCK, 1992)
Dr Bridget Nichols is a lecturer in Anglicanism and liturgy at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin.