Today’s Gospel is a startling contrast to last week’s. Last week, we saw Our Lord in the desert hungry from a forty-day fast, being tempted by the devil. The Church took great pains to show us Our Lord doing penance so that we would follow Him in our observance of the Lenten fast. But today, we see Our Lord glorified, or, at least “transfigured” before his Apostles. Has the Church, so early in the Lenten season, somehow gotten distracted and lost track of what we should be considering?
Reason: Ordinations. Of course, this is not the case. There is a good reason this Gospel appears here, and it’s because of what takes place on the various Ember Days throughout the year — specifically each of the four Ember Saturdays: ordinations. In times past, the Ember Saturday ordinations began toward evening and the ceremonies were so long that the Mass itself did not begin until Sunday. (There were twelve lessons that had to be chanted!) When the ordinations were moved to the morning and the ceremonies shortened, the Gospel for the ordinations was kept for both the Ember Saturday Mass and the Mass of this Sunday.
Apropos. The appropriateness of it is that the newly ordained priests and other sacred ministers are represented by the three Apostles whom Our Lord brought “up into a high mountain apart.” As you know, the priest prays Psalm 42 before ascending the steps of the altar begging our Lord to “send forth his truth and his light which have conducted him and brought him to God’s holy mount and to his tabernacle.” Mountains as places of worship are found all throughout the scriptures. Abraham offered Isaac on a mountain top. The Temple of Solomon was on Mount Moriah, and the Crucifixion was on Mount Calvary. Indeed, the two figures who show up on the transfiguration, Moses and Elias, entered into intimate communion with God on the tops of mountains: Sanai for Moses and Carmel and Horeb for Elias. With all of these mountains of worship in our sacred background, it is no wonder that the Church’s priests and other sacred ministers are associated with this mystery of Tabor. The silent canon of the Mass is compared by liturgical commentators to Our Lord’s entrance into the cloud in the Transfiguration.
Lenten Encouragement. Aside from this circumstance of the Ember Week ordinations, today’s Gospel is fitting for us to meditate on this early in Lent for another reason. It will encourage us by giving us a little glimpse of the glory that is ours if we persevere in the drudgery of this vale of tears, now symbolized for us by our Lenten resolutions, and the great fast of Lent.
What Happened? Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke relate the history of the Transfiguration with slight variation of detail. Coordinating what the different Evangelists say, here is the sequence of events of the Transfiguration:
First, Christ took the three Apostles up to a high mountain and prayed. Tradition tells us this is Mount Tabor, in Galilee. The Gospels don’t actually report that. Now, we’re not sure if it was at night or in the day-time, but the Apostles were tired from the ascent of the Mount, which was not easy. They were so tired that all three fell asleep, as St. Luke tells us in his account of the event. While they were sleeping, Our Lord was transfigured, that is, his face became resplendent with light and his clothing took on a whiteness completely beyond nature. St. Mark said that no fuller on Earth could make garments that white. Fullers used the “fullers herb” to whiten fabric (generally, wool). This was the ancient equivalent of bleaching, only it was a trade plied by specialists.
Next, Moses and Elias appeared and talked with Christ concerning His passion and death.
Then the Apostles woke up to behold this incredible scene.
After some time, Moses and Elias made as if they were leaving and St. Peter, stupefied at the whole scene and not wanting to see it end, expressed his desire to build three tents, one for Christ, one Moses, and one for Elias.
Finally, the cloud came, obscuring Moses and Elias; and then the voice of God the Father thundered: “This is My beloved Son. Hear ye him.” At this point, the Apostles fell to the ground because they were so overcome by the glorious manifestation. When Our Lord approached to comfort them, Elias and Moses were gone.
Dogmatic Observations. Our Lord Jesus manifested “clarity” (or brightness), one of the four attributes of a glorified body. The other attributes are impassibility (inability to suffer pain), subtlety (the ability to pass through things, as Our Lord came out of the womb and passed though the locked door on Easter day), and agility (the ability to travel from place to place at the speed of thought, like angels do, only with our bodies). The radiance of our Lord’s brightness was tempered, according to St. John Chrysostom, so as not to overwhelm the Apostles. The bodies of the just in Heaven are brighter, say some commentators.
Mystical Meanings. There are three “trinities” in this scene. In descending order, they are: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; Jesus, Moses, and Elias; Peter, James, and John. First Trinity: The Cloud is Holy Ghost, like the “glory cloud” that the Jews saw in the desert and in the temple (so say St. Ambrose, Origen, St. Bede and St. Thomas) . Second Trinity: Moses represents the Law and Elias the Prophets; the entirety of the OT Scriptrues. Both give testimony to Christ (says St. Augustine). Third Trinity: Peter, James, and John, the “special three” of the Twelve. These three were going to see Him in His agony in the Garden. This glorious vision of the transfigured Christ would strengthen them to bear it. Among their other privileges was that these three were present for the cure of St. Peter’s mother-in-law, and for the raising to life of the daughter of Jairus.
These three favored ones represent the three theological virtues. St. Peter, whose profession of Faith was rewarded with the supreme pontificate, represents Faith. St. James (the Greater, the older of the two and the brother of St. John) represents hope, for he was the first Apostle to have his hope fulfilled by dying for Christ before all the others. St. John, the beloved disciple, who rested his head on the Sacred Heart at the Last Supper, represents Charity.
St. Matthew tells us they went “into a high mountain apart,” which some interpret to illustrate the necessity of elevating ourselves above things of earth to approach heavenly contemplation.
Moral Meanings. The commentators tell us that St. Peter erred in several ways: He wanted his happiness on earth, dwelling on Tabor, because he placed his happiness in the vision of Jesus’ glorified humanity and not the vision of the Godhead; he wanted to keep Our Lord on the mountain, where only three men were seeing him, which would take away Christ’s preaching and redemptive death; he put Moses and Elias on a par with Christ. The stern words of the Father rebuked these errors, especially the last mentioned: This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Hear ye him. Moses and Elias have nothing more to offer. Dwell with My Son. Listen to Him and you will come to me in glory and will be by grace what He is by nature, My sons.
A Desire for Heaven. Our Lord’s sacred Humanity is the perfect type of Our transfigured humanity. It’s a picture not only of what Our Lord will look like in Heaven, but of how we ourselves will appear. Mindful that Christs Mysteries are our mysteries, too, we should cultivate an ardent desire to be transfigured into Christ when we are Resurrected with Him at Easter, but more so when we resurrect at the last day.
Here are the three different Synoptic accounts of the Transfiguration, a mystery that St. John does not account for us. We begin with St. Matthew, whom the Church chooses to narrate the Gospel to us today.
MT 17:1. And after six days Jesus taketh unto him Peter and James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart: 17:2. And he was transfigured before them. And his face did shine as the sun: and his garments became white as snow. 17:3. And behold there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking with him. 17:4. 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. 17:5. 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. 17:6. And the disciples hearing fell upon their face, and were very much afraid. 17:7. And Jesus came and touched them: and said to them: Arise, and fear not. 17:8. And they lifting up their eyes, saw no one, but only Jesus. 17:9. And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying: Tell the vision to no man, till the Son of man be risen from the dead.
MK: 9:1. And after six days, Jesus taketh with him Peter and James and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves, and was transfigured before them. 9:2. And his garments became shining and exceeding white as snow, so as no fuller upon earth can make white. 9:3. And there appeared to them Elias with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus. 9:4. And Peter answering, said to Jesus: Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. And let us make three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. 9:5. For he knew not what he said: for they were struck with fear. 9:6. And there was a cloud overshadowing them. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying: This is my most beloved Son. Hear ye him. 9:7. And immediately looking about, they saw no man any more, but Jesus only with them. 9:8. And as they came down from the mountain, he charged them not to tell any man what things they had seen, till the Son of man shall be risen again from the dead.
LK: 9:28. And it came to pass, about eight days after these words, that he took Peter and James and John and went up into a mountain to pray. 9:29. And whilst he prayed, the shape of his countenance was altered and his raiment became white and glittering. 9:30. And behold two men were talking with him. And they were Moses and Elias, 9:31. Appearing in majesty. And they spoke of his decease that he should accomplish in Jerusalem. 9:32. But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep. And waking, they saw his glory and the two men that stood with him. 9:33. And it came to pass that, as they were departing from him, Peter saith to Jesus: Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses; and one for Elias: not knowing what he said. 9:34. And as he spoke these things, there came a cloud and overshadowed them. And they were afraid when they entered into the cloud. 9:35. And a voice came out of the cloud; saying: This is my beloved son. Hear him. 9:36. And whilst the voice was uttered Jesus was found alone. And they held their peace and told no man in those days any of these things which they had seen.