Meditations on the Feast of the Transfiguration

The end of the second chapter of the Gospel of John tells us that, because of the miracles he performed, many people believed in the name of Jesus when he was in Jerusalem during the Passover feast. However, the narrative goes on to disclose that “Jesus did not trust himself to them, because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man” (Jn. 2: 23-25).

The Gospels themselves are replete with stories of Jesus distancing himself from particular people and groups of people. He speaks in parables in order to hide the true meaning of his sayings from those who are wise in their own eyes (Mt. 11:25) and whose “…heart has grown dull and [whose] ears are heavy of hearing…” (Mt. 13:15a).

And yet, in contrast, he explains the parables to his disciples in private (Mt. 13:18-23) and rejoices that his Father has revealed the mysteries of the kingdom of God to the humble and child-like (Mt. 11:25). The poor in spirit seem to have a special access to Jesus and the kingdom he is proclaiming (Mt. 5:3).

Over and over again he rejects many of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes who are animated by self-righteousness, greed, and the pursuit of power and prestige. Christ can also hold at arm’s length the common man in the crowd who is following him not for the words of life, but because he hopes to get his fill of the loaves and fishes (Jn. 6:26).

One common feature of all these people is that, in their relationship to God, the Most High is a means-to-an-end and not an end-in-himself. Their “arrangement” with him is utilitarian: he is their meal ticket, “fire insurance” or perhaps a way to cultivate their own wealth, prestige, and power—sometimes a Celestial Santa Claus who makes their dreams come true and never asks them to carry a cross.

With a smaller group of people, Christ extends an invitation to intimacy and tries to pull them close to himself, much like a groom to a bride or a shepherd to a lamb. We see this in his calling of the Twelve and in his special relationship to his inner circle within the Twelve: Peter, James and John.

These three accompany him to a high mountain where he is transfigured before them (Mt. 17:1-13) and provide a window of insight in answering the question, “What kind of people become part of Christ’s inner circle?” Certainly not only people who are already saints or close to perfection.

Peter would deny Christ three times and James and John would struggle with both vainglory and vindictiveness. The sons of Zebedee would ask to be seated on his left and right when Christ came into the full glory of his kingdom (Mk. 10:35-37) and they wanted to call fire down on a village of Samaritans when they did not receive Christ (Lk. 9:51-56).

James and John were not the first to wrestle with vainglory nor will they be the last. St. Ambrose recognized it as one of the most difficult sins to overcome: “Ambition often makes criminals of those whom no vice would delight, whom no lust could move, whom no avarice could deceive.”

This should be encouraging to the practicing Catholic who is fighting various sins and wonders if God is even interested in intimacy with them or using them to advance his kingdom. What God is looking for most of all is what Fr. Jacques Philippe calls “good faith.”

Put simply: Christ is not only calling saints to intimacy with him but also those who want to be saints. Recently I heard an earnest Catholic say, “I’m not completely sure I’m walking on the straight and narrow but I want to be.”

And, in contrast to the multitudes that Christ distanced himself from, his inner circle (and the Twelve, save Judas Iscariot) was growing in their modus operandi of pursuing Christ as an end-in-himself rather than a means-to-an-end. In their single-minded commitment to him, they left houses, properties, family, friends and vocations to follow him, an emotional and spiritual down payment of sorts of a Bride declaring her exclusive devotion to the Groom.

Holy Writ describes such singular passion in highlighting the Pursuit of the One Thing by the holy ones. For example, King David only wanted one thing: “…that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27: 4b).

Jesus told Martha that only one thing was needful and Mary had chosen it: to sit at his feet, listen to his voice and bask in his presence (Lk. 10:38-42). The apostle Paul only wanted one thing and counted all things as refuse except for an intimate knowledge of Christ characterized by knowing him in the power of his resurrection, fellowship of his suffering and identification with his death (Phil. 3:10).

Someone may ask, “Is a utilitarian relationship with Christ really such a bad thing? Doesn’t he do things for us? Isn’t he our Savior, Sanctifier, Healer, Provider, etc.?

This is an excellent question, and, yes, we no doubt receive the benefits of availing ourselves to a full sacramental life in Christ. However, this isn’t the whole picture.

The earnest, practicing Catholic is like a woman from an economically deprived background who marries a virtuous man who is well-off. She is grateful for her newfound financial security but her favorite part of the marriage is being with him.

This dynamic animates Peter, James and John, albeit imperfectly, as they join Jesus in scaling the mountain where a measure of his glory will be revealed to them. Here, past, present, and future will ineffably converge.

The appearance of Moses and Elijah hearken back to the past and the parallels to God’s self-revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai are striking (Exodus 24). The event also points to the resurrected Christ, the Eucharist (the Source and Summit of our Faith), and, on the other side of eternity, the Beatific Vision.

What’s sometimes overlooked is that just before the Transfiguration, Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Mt. 16:16). Christ’s face “shining like the sun” confirms Peter’s revelation with an exclamation mark.

Here the one thing that animated David, Mary, and Paul is highlighted and underscored. Moses and Elijah appear but the Father’s voice from the cloud declares his Son’s preeminence: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him.” How fitting that the story ends with the disappearance of Moses and Elijah and with the three disciples lifting up their eyes and seeing only Jesus.

Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets and the message is clear: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings all point to, culminate in and magnify Christ. In fact, every book of the Hebrew Bible either prefigures, foreshadows or points to him. Even a strange book like Hosea foreshadows Christ’s difficult relationship with his sometimes idolatrous and wayward Church.

The same could be said of characters from the Old Testament. Think of Joseph who serves as a type of Christ in several ways.

Both are a very special son to their fathers; both are rejected by their own people; both are betrayed for silver; both suffer at the hands of false witnesses; and both, after suffering humiliation, are exalted to their respective thrones.

This is why the apostle Paul referred to Christ as the sum total or culmination of all spiritual things (Eph. 1:10). He knew that wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption were not things or mere doctrines; they were/are a Person that we partake of when we celebrate the Eucharist (I Cor. 1:30).

Peter missed the point. He wanted to fulfill the Jewish Feast of Booths and build three small tent-like structures in honor of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

The problem here is that the difference between Jesus and these figures of the old covenant is not one of degree but of kind. Yes, he condescends to us in his humanity but, as Barth and Kierkegaard remind us, he is the Wholly Other God and there is an infinite qualitative difference between the Creator and his creation.

The Father’s voice from heaven to the inner circle could’ve just as well said, “This is my beloved Son and the Source and Summit of your faith.” As practicing Catholics, we need to keep first things first and not lose the Forest (Christ) amidst the trees (the particulars of our faith).

As someone who moved in evangelical and evangelical-charismatic circles for years, I know many Christ-centered people in these precincts who are orthodox Catholics’ best friends and our allies in the culture wars and in the fight for Western civilization. However, because it is a fallen subculture, on occasion, certain people in different streams of Protestantism have made other things preeminent to Christ: denominations, doctrinal distinctives, charismatic pastors, and the familiar sacred trinity of Building, Budget and Attendance.

Such observations should lead practicing Catholics to remember that all the particulars of the Catholic faith—Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium, the sacramental life, devotion to Mary, spiritual disciplines, liturgical life, the Catechism, the Holy See and ecclesiastical hierarchy, etc.—point to and are fulfilled in Christ. As the most devoted Marians among us well know, the Holy Mother was/is always magnifying her Son.

At the wedding at Cana she directed the servants at the celebration to “Do whatever he tells you.” Her sorrows at the foot of the cross are well-known and our prayers to her on the Rosary are overshadowed by meditating on various Gospel stories that highlight her Son’s earthly ministry and Ascension.

We do well to follow her example and to remember the Transfiguration of the Lord when Christ’s inner circle witnessed the Source and Summit of their faith and received a foretaste of the pleasures reserved for them in eternity.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Transfiguration of Christ” painted by Giovanni Vellini, circa. 1480.

Jonathan B. Coe

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He has written for Catholic Exchange and The Imaginative Conservative. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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