What Is "Transfiguration Sunday?"
“Transfiguration Sunday” is the feast that celebrates Jesus' radical change of appearance while in the presence of Peter, James, and John, on a high mountain (Mt 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 9:28-36).
The Gospel of Matthew records that "he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light." At this moment Moses and Elijah appeared, and they were talking with Jesus. Peter, misunderstanding the meaning of this manifestation, offered to "make three booths" for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. A bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice from the cloud stated, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." The disciples fell on their faces in awe, but Jesus encouraged them to arise and "have no fear." They saw only Jesus. This event is alluded to in 2 Pt 1:16-18, which records that "we were eyewitnesses of his majesty" and "we were with him on the holy mountain." The Transfiguration revealed Christ's glory prior to the crucifixion, and it anticipated his resurrection and ascension. It may have given strength and comfort to his disciples in the difficult times that followed. It also prefigures the glorification of human nature in Christ.
Celebration of the Transfiguration began in the Eastern Church in the late fourth century. The feast is celebrated on Aug. 6. This was the date of the dedication of the first church built on Mount Tabor, which is traditionally considered to be the "high mountain" of the Transfiguration. Others locate the Transfiguration on Mount Hermon or the Mount of Olives. Celebration of the feast was not common in the western church until the ninth century. It was declared a universal feast of the western church by Pope Callistus III in 1457. The feast was first included in the English Prayer Book as a black letter day in the 1561 revision of the calendar of the church year. It was included as a red letter day with proper collect and readings in the American Prayer Book of 1892. Its inclusion reflects the efforts of William Reed Huntington, who wrote the BCP collect for the Transfiguration. As an Epiphany story, the Transfiguration provides one of the most distinctive and dramatic showings of Jesus' divinity. The Hymnal 1982 provides several hymns for the Transfiguration, including "Christ upon the mountain peak" (Hymns 129-130) and "O wondrous type! O vision fair" (Hymns 136-137).
Ten Things About the Transfiguration
1. What does the word "transfiguration" mean?
The word "transfiguration" comes from the Latin roots trans- ("across") and figura ("form, shape"). It thus signifies a change of form or appearance. This is what happened to Jesus in the event known as the Transfiguration: His appearance changed and became glorious. Before looking at the Transfiguration itself, it's important that we look at what happened immediately before it in Luke's Gospel.
2. What happened right before the Transfiguration?
In Luke 9:27, at the end of a speech to the twelve apostles, Jesus adds, enigmatically: "There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God." This has often been taken as a prophecy that the end of the world would occur before the first generation of Christians died out. The phrase "kingdom of God" can also refer to other things, though, including the Church--the outward expression of God's invisible kingdom. The kingdom is embodied in Christ himself and thus might be "seen" if Christ were to manifest it in an unusual way, even in his own earthly life.
3. Did such a manifestation occur?
Yes, and it is the very next thing that Luke relates: the Transfiguration. Pope Benedict states that it has been “convincingly argued that the placing of this saying immediately before the Transfiguration clearly relates it to this event.” Some—that is to say, the three disciples who accompany Jesus up the mountain—are promised that they will personally witness the coming of the Kingdom of God 'in power.'
On the mountain the three of them see the glory of God’s Kingdom shining out of Jesus. On the mountain they are overshadowed by God’s holy cloud. On the mountain—in the conversation of the transfigured Jesus with the Law and the Prophets—they realize that the true Feast of Tabernacles has come. On the mountain they learn that Jesus himself is the living Torah, the complete Word of God. On the mountain they see the 'power' (dynamis) of the Kingdom that is coming in Christ" (Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, p. 317).
We thus may have the key to understanding Jesus' mysterious statement just before the Transfiguration. He wasn't talking about the end of the world. He was talking about this.
In fact, Luke notes that the Transfiguration took place "about eight days after these sayings," thus stressing its proximity to them and suggesting that it was the fulfillment of this saying, concerning the fact that some of them would see the kingdom of God. Mark gives a different number of days, saying it was "after six days" (Mk. 9:2), but these both approximate a week.
4. Who witnessed the Transfiguration?
The three who are privileged to witness the event are Peter, James, and John, the three core disciples. (Andrew was not there or not included.) The fact that Jesus only allowed three of his disciples to witness the event may have sparked the discussion which swiftly ensued about which of the disciples was the greatest (Luke 9:46).
5. Where did the Transfiguration take place?
Luke states that Jesus took the three "on the mountain to pray." This mountain is often thought to be Mt. Tabor in Israel, but none of the gospels identify it precisely. Click here to learn more about Mt. Tabor (though be aware that the gospels do not actually say which mountain it was).
6. Why did the Transfiguration take place?
The Catechism explains it this way: “Christ’s Transfiguration aims at strengthening the apostles’ faith in anticipation of his Passion: the ascent onto the 'high mountain' prepares for the ascent to Calvary.”
7. What does Luke--in particular--tell us about this event?
Luke mentions several details about the event that the other evangelists do not:
He notes that this happened while Jesus was praying.
He mentions that Peter and his companions "were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him."
He mentions that Peter made his suggestion to put up booths as Moses and Elijah were departing.
8. Why do Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain?
Moses and Elijah represent the two principal components of the Old Testament: the Law and the Prophets. Moses was the giver of the Law, and Elijah was considered the greatest of the prophets. The fact that these two figures "spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem" illustrates that the Law and the Prophets point forward to the Messiah and his sufferings. This foreshadows Jesus' own explanation, on the road to Emmaus, of the Scriptures pointing to himself (cf. Lk. 24:27, 32).
9. Why was Peter's suggestion misguided?
The fact that Peter's suggestion occurs when Moses and Elijah are preparing to depart reveals a desire to prolong the experience of glory. This means Peter is focusing on the wrong thing. The experience of the Transfiguration is meant to point forward to the sufferings Jesus is about to experience. It is meant to strengthen the disciples faith, revealing to them in a powerful way the divine hand that is at work in the events Jesus will undergo. This is why Moses and Elijah have been speaking "about his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem." Peter misses the point and wants to stay on the mountain, contrary to the message the two heavenly visitors have been expounding.
As a seeming rebuke of this, a theophany occurs: "A cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, 'This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!'"
10. What can we learn from this event?
The Transfiguration was a special event in which God allowed certain apostles to have a privileged spiritual experience that was meant to strengthen their faith for the challenges they would later endure. But it was only a temporary event. It was not meant to be permanent. In the same way, at certain times in this life, God may give certain members of the faithful (not all of the faithful, all the time), special experiences of his grace that strengthen their faith. We should welcome these experiences for the graces they are, but we should not expect them to continue indefinitely, nor should we be afraid or resentful when they cease. They may have been meant only as momentary glimpses of the joy of heaven to sustain us as we face the challenges of this life, to help strengthen us on the road that will--ultimately--bring us into the infinite and endless joy of heaven.