|Icon of the Transfiguration at St. Catherine Monastery|
at Mt. Sinai. It is an apse mosaic commissioned in the
6th century by Emperor Justinian the Great.
This essay is for a reflection on today’s feast, the feast of the Transfiguration, in which Jesus took up with Him Sts. Peter, James, and John up to Mount Tabor to pray. This is a great feast and is the moment in which Jesus showed forth His divinity to His disciples as well as making Moses and Elijah spring forth to see Him. The theme of this essay concerns less regarding the Transfiguration itself but Christ’s model of prayer in bringing His disciples with Him to pray and embrace His divinity. There is much mystery to the Transfiguration, and much of our own life is played out in the hope that we will see Jesus in His divinity and that that Light which shined forth from Him in all holiness might shine upon our souls and make us holy.
Jesus took with Him Peter, James, and John and climbed the mountain to pray. (Luke 9:28)
"Jesus climbed the mountain in order to pray. The Transfiguration is in the first place a mystery of prayer, and more precisely, of the prayer of Jesus Himself. He is called by the Spirit to meet His Father more intimately in solitude. There are numerous passages in the Gospel which show how solitude and prayer are for the Lord closely connected. He goes to pray in solitude; when He wishes to pray He withdraws into solitude.
Jesus climbs the slopes of the mountain as did the great men of prayer of the Old Testament who were called by God to meet Him and see Him face to face. Moses and Elijah had experienced the most glorious moments of the Old Covenant when the Lord had revealed all that could be understood of His name before the coming of the Son.
Jesus goes off into solitude and yet He does not go alone. He chooses three companions. Unlike Moses and Elijah, Jesus is not to present Himself in isolation before the Father. The former represented the whole of Israel; yet it was for a totally solitary encounter that they went to meet the Almighty. In the economy of love, it is no longer the same: the solitary prayer of Jesus is at the same time a prayer of communion. He takes with Him the three confidants whom we will find a little later in another solemn moment of prayer in Gethsemane. Jesus has need of a fraternal presence at His side. He does not wish to be, nor can He be alone. The prayer of the disciples is not even mentioned, for there is only one prayer: the prayer of Jesus. Their role is simply to be united to Him, their hearts beating to the rhythm of His."
Might I remark here that perhaps the monk means to say that when Christ has need of a fraternal presence and that He cannot be alone is to remark that Jesus says to His disciples: “Everything that is Mine is yours, just as that which is yours is Mine” (John 17:10). This is part of the self-emptying and love of Christ by which He shares His very presence and Divinity with us. He chose to present Himself to the Father in the full love of both His Humanity and Divinity, but so too did He share His presence with His disciples that He might abide in love in them, and they in Him. May our hearts beat to the rhythm of His Sacred Heart.
"Jesus climbed the mountain in communion with His brothers, and yet we cannot tail to see how He is separated from them. They fall asleep. Peter, full of his usual good will, cannot help making a suggestion which one realizes at once makes no sense. When Jesus asks them to keep silent until the Resurrection, they can only ask: ‘What is “Resurrection”?’ Jesus is, therefore, truly alone even if His disciples are physically present and even when, with all their hearts, they wish to be near Him.
Let us consider this profound balance of solitude and communion which characterizes the prayer of Jesus. Up in the mountain, away from the crowds, He is with His disciples; while close to them, He nevertheless enters into a deeper solitude where no one can follow Him. The prayer in the Garden of Olives will give a yet more poignant witness of this interaction of presence and absence, which defines our prayer of communion.
In the Transfiguration, we are dealing with exceptional prayer. The Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus. As at His baptism He must enter into a solemn moment of His return to the Father. The Transfiguration is a pinnacle of His existence, yet is much more a point of departure. Jesus enters thus into the mystery of His ‘exodus’, as St. Luke says in reference to the conversation between the Saviour and Moses and Elijah. The Paschal Mystery is already beginning, and is played out in light, just as in Gethsemane it will be played out in darkness. Jesus is at the summit of a new Horeb, flooded by the Spirit; He is in the process of concluding the new alliance which will soon be sealed in His blood. The light in which He is bathed reveals His full right of access to the Father. It inaugurates already His entrance into glory.
However, this meeting of the humanity of the Son with the Father does not take the form of a crushing presence on the part of an impersonal God. It appears rather as a communion with Moses and Elijah. His two predecessors on the holy mountain are there to welcome Him and to show that the New Covenant is a work of love. There is not only the communion of the Father and the Son in the Spirit; there is its permanent and visible sign: the encounter between human beings of flesh and blood who, when transformed by light, continue to possess a heart that thirsts to give itself."
The Carthusian monk has come across something profound here, the manner in which the Transfiguration as the sharing and revelation of the Divine in glory and light, and the Garden of Mt. Olive’s sharing and revelation of the Divine in humility and darkness. Is this not two sides of the spiritual life, the sacrifice and the exaltation? There is something utterly sublime in these two moments of Christ’s prayer, and it is something worth meditating upon. What a great mystery.
The Transfiguration as Jesus’ pinnacle of existence is that it shows the radiance of His Divinity, but as of yet is perhaps a point of departure on account of the manner in which God surpasses our creatureliness. Mount Tabor is also called a new Horeb in the sense that at Horeb Moses received the Tablet of the Law and saw God, whereas our new Law is in Jesus Christ Himself, and He is true God. Let us continue.
"We have spoken up to now of the prayer of Jesus, for it is at the centre of the mystery of the Transfiguration. Yet we cannot pass over in silence the presence, or better still, the contemplation of the disciples.
They form a group profoundly united. Since the distant day when Jesus called them from their fishing nets at the edge of the lake of Genesareth, to journey with Him through Galilee, they had entered into intimacy with the Master, and it is this common bond with Him which sealed a unity among them that reaches its zenith at this time.
Did they realize what was going to happen? It is not likely, judging from the naïveté of their reactions. They climbed the mountain with Him; but, as we have said, we cannot speak of a prayer which would be strictly theirs. They are simply engulfed in the radiance of Jesus. Their contemplation does not spring from their own depths, but is an overflow of the prayer of Jesus which descends on them. Today, ‘God Himself has shone in their hearts to radiate the knowledge of His glory, the glory on the face of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6)"
This is the profound moment of reflection on God’s grace, that He takes us up many times of His own initiative, leading us as children even in our frail misconceptions and poor understanding. His grace comes over us so that He may lead us into the Transfiguration, that we might be taken up into His prayer and His Divinity.
"We should see in them much more than simple witnesses: they truly participate in the mystery which is being accomplished in the mystery which is being accomplished before their eyes, in so far as they receive what is being accomplished before their eyes, in so far as they receive what Jesus gives them in simplicity and humility. God is content with this good will; even as Peter makes a remark which betrays his lack of understanding of the situation, the cloud through which they will enter into intimacy with the Father is already approaching.
How much then do we receive then in the Sacred Liturgy with which we behold Jesus again in His self-offering, this time with preparation, but always with the same aloofness, bewilderment, and lack of understanding.
‘A bright cloud covered them with its shadow.’ We find here the hallmark of the most solemn moments in salvation history, when God chooses to reveal His greatest secrets. On Sinai, Moses entered into a cloud before Yahweh revealed His name to him. In like manner, at the dedication of the new temple, Solomon found himself taken up into a cloud as Yahweh came to take possession of his dwelling place. Finally, at the Annunciation, is not the characteristic sign of the presence of God that the angel gives to the Virgin: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with Its shadow’?"
How many have realized the significance of God showing forth His radiance in the cloud and shadow as being connected to the stainless and holy Theotokos (the God-bearer, Mary)? She was covered with His power and with His shadow. Is it that she was perhaps likewise taken up into a cloud when God called upon her to decisively give a yes to the Incarnation? Perhaps. More things to meditate on.
"Here, then, are the three poor disciples, men of no exceptional merit, who enter into the cloud, the loftiest image of Divine Power. They have direct access to the Father, for they are close to Jesus and are His friends. Their dullness, their incomprehension, does not matter, their hearts are given totally to Jesus and that is enough.
They are to become sharers in the glory which suffuses Jesus. What occurred in the depths of his soul is made known to them by the Father’s voice. He reveals once again that Jesus is His Son, the Beloved, the Chosen One of whom the prophets spoke. The occasions on which the Father Himself proclaims His intimacy with the Son in the Spirit so directly are extremely rare in the Gospel. The baptism of Jesus was the first time; Peter at Caesarea Philippi had spoken in the same way under the direct inspiration of the Father; now today, on the mountain top, the Father again intervenes to make the disciples penetrate more profoundly into the mystery of the Son, the Son who enters into the Paschal Mystery so as to return to His Father."
O Lord, command what You will, and give what You command!
"From now on, the disciples will be bearers of a momentous secret. They had followed Jesus into a mountain solitude in order to pray near Him; now they are introduced into solitude still greater: the solitude of mystery. They were told by the Father to listen to Jesus, but He has nothing to say to them for the moment other than to keep quiet. Solitude in the company of Jesus has introduced them to silence.
Henceforth they carry in their hearts this vision which will stay with them to the end of their days: ‘We saw His glory, the glory that is His as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14)
But already the cloud has passed. ‘Arise, do not be afraid.’ They are astonished: Jesus is alone; there is silence… life continues.
The lessons that one can draw from the Transfiguration concern ever Christian; but we can easily see in it a call to a better understanding of our vocation in its deepest aspects. To conclude, let us summarize the important features of this spiritual doctrine.
Solitude is the place of prayer. The only true prayer which radiates there is that of Jesus: all other prayer is a reflection of the light which shines forth from His face. Let us, therefore, follow Jesus in solitude, relying on the power of His call; it is not our competence or our virtues which give us access to the Father, but the invitation of Jesus to follow Him up the mountain.
The solitude of prayer is equally a communion. Jesus has called us; we are with Him. Yet we are all brothers united in the love which He lavishes upon us in a single movement of His heart. It is not in isolation that we climb the holy mountain, but as brothers whose solitude is fraternal.
At the heart of this communion, however, a new form of solitude exists. Jesus prays apart and seems not to communicate with those around Him. It is at the heart of this deeper solitude that a more intimate communion is revealed: a communion coming from God, manifested in different ways, but always the sign and reality in us of the communion among the Divine Persons.
Such is our ideal: to enter into the Paschal Mystery with Jesus and to receive from the Father the revelation that His Son has been given us and is ours to welcome. We have no other call here below than to bear this mystery, in silence, in our heart. Amen."
This then is the mystery of grace, exemplified in the Divinity of Christ being revealed to His disciples. He took them up the mountain as lopsided and alien as their souls were to Christ’s true purpose and manner of existence, He raised them up and revealed Himself to them, that in His prayer, in His state, in His self-giving, the disciples were placed into a participation of these things. It is not a manner of our running and willing, though this is important, but of God’s calling us forward and taking us upon Him. This is very trifling and confusing to think that we are not entirely in charge. This is not to say that we do not have a free will of our own, but after the mystery of grace, God brings us forward to the events that He desire to share with us, not by coercion, but by a call. St. Peter in 2 Peter 1 writes:
16 For we have not by following artificial fables made known to you the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ: but we were eyewitnesses of his greatness. 17 For he received from God the Father honour and glory, this voice coming down to him from the excellent glory: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him. 18 And this voice, we heard brought from heaven, when we were with him in the holy mount. 19 And we have the more firm prophetical word: whereunto you do well to attend, as to a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawn and the day star arise in your hearts. 20 Understanding this first: That no prophecy of scripture is made by private interpretation. 21 For prophecy came not by the will of man at any time: but the holy men of God spoke, inspired by the Holy Ghost.
There is nothing that is holy and good that is done alone, in privacy, apart from Him. We cannot grasp upwards and take from God His holiness or grace, but rather it is received from Him in His Wisdom. As we reflect on the Transfiguration this day let us hope to be taken in to be participators in God’s Divine Nature trusting that He will take us up to Mount Tabor to be transfigured in His holy Light by which He revealed Himself (cf 2 Peter 1:4). Though we are sinful and a wayward bunch, let us hope, pray, and humbly submit ourselves to Christ that slowly through clinging to Him by faith, hope, and charity we might be taken up the mountain to be taken up into His cloud and shadow, taken beyond all of our worldliness, our vanities, our misconceptions, our conceptions, and every point of reference to ourselves so as to behold Him as He is, and actively participate in the glory of His Love which reigns forever and ever.
Notes on the Icon:
This icon is located at the Eastern Orthodox monastery, St. Catherine, at Mount Sinai. It is located in the apse of the church where the mosaic is located. The blue aura around Christ is called a mandorla (Italian for walnut) in artistic terms but is supposed to reflect His Divinity, and the rays of light that radiate outward is that manifestation of Christ's grace and light radiating outward from His holy Divinity. The figures, as I reckon, are from left to right and top to bottom, Elijah, Christ, Moses, St. John, St. Peter, and St. James. My apologies on the guess, it's been some time since I've been acquainted with this icon though it is the most beautiful one of the Transfiguration, or at least one of the most expressive in my opinion.
Moses and Elijah both have their hands and fingers raised to Christ, both pointing to Him as their source and in the manner in which they are conveying speech to them. The Apostles are expressing shock because they were asleep and are now awakened by Christ and the Father. It is possible that St. Peter is in the middle on account of him having spoken directly to Christ at this time. The icon is fittingly placed in the apse of the Church where Communion occurs and where we hope to be taken up into Christ's Transfiguration as He is present with us in the Most Blessed Sacrament. It is also fitting that the icon places Christ as raising His hands in blessing and direction to us, so that in the contemplation of the icon Christ might speak to our hearts as we venerate and adore His holy image and figure.
All of the faces present around the main image are images of saints, donors, and of Emperor Justinian the Great. I do not know if he is celebrated as a saint in the Catholic Church, but I suspect he is venerated in the Eastern liturgies and so it would be right to call him St. Justinian even in spite of some of the trouble he may have caused (see Prokopius' Secret Histories).
May God bless us this Transfiguration and help us in contemplating the Holy Mystery in which He takes His disciples to participate in His Trinitarian Communion and Holy Love. Let us cling to You O Lord!