THE transfiguration of Moses on Mount Sinai occurred when he was given the Law. It anticipated the descent of God’s glory to dwell in the tabernacle and Temple (Exodus 40.34-38), and, ultimately, in the whole created order. As Thomas Joseph White explains, “God’s presence among the people by virtue of the covenant is ultimately ordered toward their personal transfiguration both in soul and body. . . The mercy of God will transform the entire cosmos through the medium of the covenant with Israel” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Exodus).
The transfiguration of Jesus, on another holy mountain, both echoes and exceeds this earlier revelation of God’s glory. St John of Damascus observes that Christ’s light radiates from within, “proceeding from the inherent brightness of the divine glory”. In Christ, the God who “is light” (1 John 1.5) and “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6.16) has now taken flesh. It is this light that shines forth from Jesus’s face and garments.
Like that of Moses, the transfiguration of Christ anticipates a wider revelation of God’s glory. Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus about the “departure” (exodos) “which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem”. The glory of Jesus’s exodus will exceed that of Moses; for the deliverance it will bring is not only from Pharaoh, but from the power of sin and death.
As Moses and Elijah are leaving Jesus, Peter makes the suggestion that three dwellings should be built for them — perhaps from an understandable desire to tarry in the vision glorious, and not to descend to walk the way of the cross. As Peter is speaking, a cloud overshadows them all, and from it a voice declares: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.” As Tim Gray observes, “Jesus embodies the Torah. The best way to know and understand the will of the Father is to look at and listen to His Son” (The Luminous Mysteries: Biblical reflections on the life of Christ).
Through Jesus’s paschal victory, and the pouring of the Holy Spirit on his disciples, the glory that shone through him on the mountain is also shed on every believer. Commenting on our epistle, St Augustine writes that Jesus’s death has torn the veil between God and humanity; so we can now see the “glory of the Lord” with “unveiled faces”, and comprehend the true meaning of the old covenant: “St Paul does not say, ‘The law or the Old Testament will be taken away.’ It is not the case, therefore, that by the grace of the Lord that which was covered has been abolished as useless; rather the covering has been removed which concealed useful truth.”
Paul tells us that — besides beholding the divine glory — we are now “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit”. Precisely because we are temples of the Holy Spirit, and members of the body of Christ, God’s radiance enters into our very being.
In a homily on this passage, St John Chrysostom explains that “the Spirit is God, and we are raised to the level of the apostles, because we shall all behold him together with uncovered faces. As soon as we are baptised, the soul beams even more brightly than the sun because it is cleansed by the Spirit, and we not only behold God’s glory, we receive from it a kind of splendour.”
The lectionary gives us these passages in Shrovetide: the days before Lent when Christians traditionally confessed their sins, and discerned with their confessors what would be fruitful Lenten penances. As Christians, we do not seek a glory that comes from our own achievements or exertions. Because the “glory” and “splendour” bestowed on us are sheer gift, the penances of Lent should address the destructive habits and attitudes that prevent our receiving that gift to the full.
As Frances Young and David Ford explain, Paul’s message in this epistle is about “the transformation of subjectivity which is needed to participate in knowing God, involving active receptivity and mutuality, in a freedom (described in 3.17-18) which is inseparable from the initiative of God” (Meaning and Truth in 2 Corinthians).
The disciplines of Lent are designed not to make us worthy of our salvation, but to make us more receptive to the light and life of God bestowed on us in Jesus Christ.