|Feast of the Transfiguration
of the Lord
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 9
2 Peter 1:16-19
In the Eastern Church the Feast of the Transfiguration is one of the most important Christian holy days. For a variety of reasons it has never enjoyed quite the same status in the West. This is a pity, for the feast really does celebrate one of the most important aspects of Christian faith.
Like Christmas, the Transfiguration is a feast about the incarnation of the Lord. While Christmas evokes images of humility and of the Son’s self-limitation, the Transfiguration draws upon images of divine power. To complete the circle between this feast and the feast of Christmas, we need only recall that the baby born in Bethlehem is none other than the “beloved son” in whom the father is well-pleased. This one is the bearer of a “reliable” message about God’s truth and, like the disciples on the mountain so long ago, today we are encouraged to “listen to him.”
Yet, this admonition to listen to the one who comes with divine power and authority is not, in my view, the most important thing about this narrative. As Christianity developed a tradition of spirituality, the story of the Transfiguration became the foundation of a key idea: Jesus’ Transfiguration is an anticipatory revelation of the transfiguration that awaits us all in the kingdom of God. One day we will share in the divine glory that Jesus possesses natively. The Roman Rite preserves some of this when during the Eucharistic Prayer the priest declares, “through the mingling of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” In the East, they speak of our sharing in glory of God as “divinization.”
Some people worry that the story of the transfiguration encourages Christians to forget the humanity of Jesus and to think of him as God in a body walking around. When I teach basic Christology, I always tell my students that this is decidedly not what Christians mean by incarnation. Jesus is not God in body. The incarnation is a celebration of God’s intimate connection to the world—the created world that we inhabit is not alien from God or incompatible with divine glory. At Christmas we can say with one of the fathers of the church, “the limitless became limited.” The transfiguration, on the other hand, is a celebration of the effects of God’s presence on the creation—in this case we might say, “the limited becomes glorified.”
The Transfiguration of Jesus is a sign encouraging us to hope for the transformation of the world. Like the transfiguration of Jesus that the disciples saw, our own vision of a transfigured creation is often hard to see. The spiritual life is, in many ways, a way of training our vision to see what is really there.
I close by noting this (even at the risk of sounding a bit trite):
one need not go up a mountain to see the glory of Lord. (Don’t forget
the disciples were often a bit dense and in need of special help to grasp
the obvious.) One need only look at the graced beauty of ordinary
life—a special sunset, or a sleeping child. How wonderfully appropriate
that the feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated in ordinary time.
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