Reflect on the Beautiful Feast of the Transfiguration
“And after six days Jesus taketh unto him Peter and James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart: And he was transfigured before them. And his face did shine as the sun: and his garments became white as snow. And behold there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking with him. And Peter answering, said to Jesus: Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. And as he was yet speaking, behold a bright cloud overshadowed them. And lo, a voice out of the cloud, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him.” (Matthew 17:1-5)
On August 6th, we celebrate the great Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. The Transfiguration is not merely a curiosity meant to appeal to pious sentiments; it is an important event rich in fruit for contemplation and in grace for holy living. It reveals to us the marvelous unity of Body, Soul, and Divinity in the Person of Christ and the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in Him. It also gives us hope in the midst of suffering by giving us a foretaste of the glory of Heaven and of our adoption as children of God. We should ponder these things as we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, making acts of faith, hope, and love of Jesus Christ and His saving grace.
The Transfiguration and the Hypostatic Union
“And he was transfigured before them. And his face did shine as the sun: and his garments became white as snow.”
Our Lord is fully human and fully divine while being only one Person, the Second Person of the Trinity. He is not a human person, but is rather a Divine Person that subsists in two natures. This union of a human body and soul and the Divine nature in a single Person had several marvelous effects on Christ’s human nature. God is the source of grace, and Christ’s soul was more closely united to God than any other rational creature; it was thereby most closely united to the source of grace. Hence, Christ’s soul possesses the fullness of grace. By the fullness of grace poured out upon Him, Christ is the first principle of all things that possess grace, including us (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, Q. 7, A. 9).
Further, it would not be fitting for the human nature united in Person to the Second Person of the Trinity to be imperfect, and Christ’s human nature included a human soul with an intellect. The perfection of the intellect consists in the possession of knowledge, and therefore Christ possessed knowledge of all things that it is possible for the human intellect to know. Christ also possessed the Beatific Vision, whereby He knew God and all created things through God (ST III, Q 9, Art. 2 and 3).
Finally, Our Lord possessed perfect virtue, and His rational will was perfectly conformed to the Divine will. Hence, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ said to the Father: “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). Even though He was naturally repulsed by the great suffering and death which He was about to endure, Christ still willed that He undergo His Passion for the sake of the salvation of the human race (ST III, Q. 18, A. 5).
The soul and the body are intimately united and together constitute one human nature. The soul gives life to the body and superintends its functions, and when the soul leaves the body at death, it is no longer a human body, but a corpse. Christ’s soul and body, too, were united in this intimate way. Through the perfection of grace, virtue, and knowledge described above, Christ’s soul was glorious beyond our capabilities of imagining. Surely, then, must not Christ’s body, which was so closely united to His glorious soul, have participated in that glory? This is precisely what took place in the Transfiguration. In the words of St. Thomas, “the clarity of Christ’s body in His transfiguration was derived from His Godhead…and from the glory of His soul” (ST III, Q. 45, A. 2). Christ’s body would have always been as gloriously beautiful as it was in the Transfiguration, but by the power of His Divine will Christ prevented the glory of His soul from overflowing to His body. By this means He was able to redeem us by suffering for our sins (ST III Q. 14, A. 1, ad 2). In the Transfiguration, however, Christ allowed the unity of His soul and body to have its full and resplendent effect. These truths of the Hypostatic Union of natures in Christ can provide fruit for endless contemplation.
Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets
“And behold there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking with him.”
The Transfiguration was for the purpose of showing to men the glory of Christ, and the glory that is their own destiny if they persevere in holiness of life. Men receive this glory of salvation only through the power of Christ, and this is true of all men, whether they lived before Christ or after Him. Therefore, Christ chose Elias and Moses, who came before Him, and Peter, James, and John, who came after Him, to witness His glory (ST III Q. 45, A. 3).
Elias and Moses also appeared with Jesus in the Transfiguration to show that He was foretold by the Mosaic Law and by the Old Testament prophets, one of whom was Elias. The Mosaic Law contained prescriptions for many sacrifices to atone for the sins of the Israelites. However, sacrifices of animals cannot take away the sins of men. As the letter to the Hebrews says, “it is impossible that with the blood of oxen and goats sin should be taken away” (Hebrews 10:4). These sacrifices were prefigures of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, which does have the power to take away the sins of men: “For the law having a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of the things; by the selfsame sacrifices which they offer continually every year, can never make the comers thereunto perfect” (Hebrews 10:1). It is this sacrifice on the Cross foretold by the Law by which men are able to attain the glory displayed in the Transfiguration.
Christ’s Passion was also foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament, symbolized by Elias. One prophetic passage that particularly strikingly foretells the suffering of Christ is the fifty-third chapter of the prophet Isaiah. A short excerpt of this chapter reads:
“Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed.” (Isaiah 53: 4-5)
Few things can afford the beauty and profundity of meaning contained in the prefiguring of Christ and His Passion by the Law and the prophets of the Old Testament. The Feast of the Transfiguration provides us with the opportunity to meditate on this wonderful truth.
The Transfiguration as a Source of Hope in the Midst of Suffering
“Thy lightnings enlightened the world: the earth shook and trembled. How lovely are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! my soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord.” (Introit from the Mass for the Feast of the Transfiguration)
In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas considers whether it was fitting that Christ was transfigured. He answers this in the affirmative, and the principle reason he gives is that by manifesting His glory to His disciples, Christ aided them in taking up and enduring their own crosses (ST III, Q. 45, A. 1). Just before the Transfiguration, Christ foretold His Passion to His disciples:
“From that time Jesus began to shew to his disciples, that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the ancients and scribes and chief priests, and be put to death, and the third day rise again.” (Matthew 16:21)
He also told them, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
The way of the Cross is a difficult and trying journey, along which one can easily go astray unless he keep his goal—eternal life—in mind. Therefore, in order to assist His disciples along this road, Christ gave them a brief glimpse of His own glory, in which they would share if they persevered along the way of suffering. The Transfiguration should also be a source of hope and assistance to us in our acceptance of the little trials we face in living a life of Christian virtue. If we do not keep before the eyes of our minds the ultimate goal of eternal glory with Christ, we will quickly lose the will to persevere along His way. We will be led astray by the false and worldly goals that the world, the flesh, and the devil hold up to us to deviate our intention from our true end. As we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, we should examine our lives to see whether our choices are ordered ultimately to love of God or to love of created things. We must constantly pray to Our Lord to enlighten our minds and purify our intention in order that we may accomplish this ordering, which is impossible to men without the assistance of grace.