In an Intimate Gaze of Glory: A Biblical Exegesis on the Transfiguration of Jesus

Holy Apostles College & Seminary

by Allison Ramirez

Dr. Matthew Ramage SAS 651: Synoptic Gospels

20 July 2022



Saint Irenaeus contends that: “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.” [1] The Transfiguration is one of those mystical scenes where we encounter a vision of God – his face – in a gaze of glory that is of Christ Jesus. Furthermore, in this intimate encounter with God’s face, we see the magnitude of man fully alive as presented to us in the person of Jesus. Not only does Jesus reveal to his closest disciples a glimpse of God’s majesty and glory, but he calls them – as a result of their intimate encounter with that glory – to become fully alive themselves. He invites them, and by extension each one of us, to consider how being “fully alive” as human beings means embracing a glory that comes not through power and might but through patient awaiting and the self-giving which encompasses suffering.

THE SYNOPTIC ACCOUNTS

Taking a first look at the biblical texts of the Transfiguration, as taken from the Synopsis of the Four Gospels edited by Kurt Aland, we will use Matthew’s account as our basis form. Matthew’s account follows the words of which all three gospel writers share unless otherwise noted in red (these being the few places where Matthew’s form differences from Luke and Mark’s). Noted in green are details as found only in Luke’s account and in orange are details found only in Mark’s. Occasionally, brackets note other synoptic combinations.

The Transfiguration of Jesus

Now about eight days after these sayings…And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, John and James, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves and went up on the mountain to pray. And he was transfigured before them, and as he was praying his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them. The appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.

[And behold], [not in Luke] there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, Elijah with Moses talking with him, talking to Jesus, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him Peter said to Jesus, “[Lord, Master] [Mark and Luke] it is well that we are here; if you wish, [Let us make] [Mark and Luke] I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what he said, for they were exceedingly afraid, not knowing what he said.

He was still speaking, as he said this when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud and a voice from the cloud, came out of the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, This is my Son, my Chosen with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. But, Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them. And when the voice had spoken they saw no one but Jesus only.

And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, charged them, “Tell no one the vision, what they had seen until the Son of man is raised from the dead.” So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen. [2]

As evidenced by the color-coding above, each of the synoptic writers adds his own emphasis to the Transfiguration account. Pope Benedict goes into a brief reflection on some of the key differences in the quotation below:

“And he was transfigured before them,” Mark says quite simply, going on to add somewhat awkwardly, as if stammering before the Mystery: “And his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them…Matthew has rather more elevated words at his command: “His face shown like the sun, and his clothes became white as light”…Luke is the only one of the Evangelists who begins his account by indicating the purpose of Jesus’ ascent: “He went up on the mountain to pray.” [3]

The Transfiguration as a “prayer event,” Benedict writes, “displays visibly what happens when Jesus talks with his Father: the profound interpenetration of his being with God, which then becomes pure light.” [4] The fullest experience of Christian prayer today is also “a profound interpenetration of one’s being with God,” which occurs in our effort to more closely unite ourselves God, unifying ourselves to him through prayer, while at the same time never fully losing our unique selves. We see this also in the uniqueness with which each synoptic writer recalls the Transfiguration, casting their own unique insights into this prayer experience, while at the same time forming one complete, unified picture of the Transfiguration as a whole. Traditionally we see Luke as writing to a Gentile audience who would have been unfamiliar with the Jewish traditions and stories of Jesus. He was well-educated and often included a lot of detail and information into his account for the benefit of his Gentile readership. Matthew, on the other hand, would have been writing to the Jewish nation, helping them connect the promises of the Old Testament with the new covenant found in Christ Jesus. Mark was most likely writing to early Christians in Rome. His accounts are typically fast-paced and action-packed.

BEFORE THE TRANSFIGURATION

Let us turn now from the Transfiguration text to the story directly preceding. Drawing again from the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “All three Synoptic Gospels create a link between Peter’s confession and the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration.” [5] Peter reveals something critical about Jesus’ identity days before he ever ascends the Mountain of Tabor to be transfigured, as all three synoptic writers recognize. In Matthew 16, Jesus asks his disciples, “And who do you say that I am?” to which “Simon Peter said in reply, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’” Mark’s gospel attributes Peter saying, “You are the Christ”, while Luke’s gospel records “The Christ of God.” [6] All three accounts include the word Christ, which comes from the Greek word christos meaning “anointed one.” The Hebrew word mashiach for Messiah also means ‘anointed one.’ Messiah is also translated to mean “the expected king or deliver of the Jews.”

Another key detail to Peter’s confession, as noted in class lecture, is that Peter makes this confession of faith on the feast of Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, which in Jewish tradition “was the only day each year that the high priest solemnly entered the temple into the holy of holies to see God and pronounce the name Yahweh; no other day of the year was the divine name pronounced.” [7] On this very day, Peter, acting as the high priest would, pronounces Jesus as the Son of God, and then six days later is taken up onto the mountain on the feast of booths or tabernacles. Peter’s reference to setting up three tents comes at the end of the Transfiguration account, and thus we see his words are in line with the Jewish commemoration of the Israelites time in the desert on the way to the promised land and how they lived in tents.

Peter’s words in conjunction with these two Jewish feasts, I argue, finds its physical manifestation in the visual scene of Jesus’ transfiguration. For Jesus can and does rightly hold the name of God pronounced of him by Peter and revealed to him and the Sons of Zebedee in glory atop the mountain. As well, the significance of the cloud at the Transfiguration reminds us of the presence of God with the Israelites in the desert where they dwelt in tents. I posit further, that the holy cloud or shekinah, not only represents God’s presence in the Old Testament but also three New Testament moments of intimacy, with the Transfiguration being one of them.

The other two moments of intimacy are found in Benedict summary, “[The cloud] reminds us of the hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger, Gabriel, who announces to her the “overshadowing” with the power of the Most High..[and] it presents Jesus’ departure, not as a journey to the stars, but as his entry into the mystery of God [when]…the cloud takes him up and withdraws him from [the disciples] sight [at his Ascension].” [8] The presence of the holy cloud is representative of beautiful moments of intimacy – God’s entering the presence of the people of Old, Jesus’ entering the womb of his mother, and entering into the presence of his father – and at the Transfiguration, the cloud is uniquely representative of the beautiful intimacy he is entering into with you and me, his disciples.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas in his summa theologaie, “I answer that Christ wished to be transfigured in order to show men His glory, and to arouse men to a desire of it.” [9] The name of God should rightly stir within us a sense of majesty and wonder, but Jesus reveals his glory not as something wholly ‘other’ but to spark in man the desire for an attainable glory which they will discover later is accomplished in sacrificial suffering. While the Jewish people had anticipated a savior in the image of a mighty warrior, Jesus reveals that the face of the Messiah finds his glory as suffering servant, and that to be Christ-like ourselves and share in his glory is to willingly accept our own crosses.

To be ‘anointed’ also means to be filled with The Holy Spirit. Jesus, as full of the Holy Spirit, guides his disciples to this truth that suffering leads to glory little by little. His closest friends will not immediately understand his words of needing to rise from the dead. They will come to this understanding only through time and witnessing the resurrection. To begin preparing his disciples, following Peter’s declaration about Jesus’ identity, Jesus immediately goes into a foretelling of his death and resurrection which includes the cross and self-denial in preparation for his ascent up Mount Tabor with Peter, as well as brothers James and John.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF MOUNTAINS

“When we inquire into the meaning of the mountain, the first point is of course the general background of mountain symbolism,” according to Benedict, which is, “The mountain is the place of ascent—not only outward, but also inward ascent; it is a liberation from the burden of everyday life.” [10] In the Old Testament, the mountain was a destination of metamorphosis for those who ascended it. Not only was there the physical challenge of scaling a mountain as well as the patient time it took to climb to the summit, but there was the ultimate encounter with God at the top. Many metaphors can be derived from mountains, but perhaps one of the most accurate is the idea that in order to reach what we desire: goodness, joy, glory —fruits wrought from true intimacy— we must first take part in the ‘climb’ that encompasses difficulty.

Pablo M. Edo quotes Pope Benedict XVI who said in his final Angelus address: “Prayer does not mean isolating oneself from the world and its problems…The Christian life consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love.” [11]

We see this very motif of strengthening those to be sent out to serve at work in the Transfiguration when considering the unique trials that the three disciples brought up the mountain – Peter, James, and John – will have to face in the future. For “God gives us consolations to prepare us and fortify us for desolations. The Transfiguration is given to these apostles to strengthen them in their encounter with the cross, and in turn, their own crosses.” [12]

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THOSE PRESENT

“Peter, James, and John are part of Jesus’ innermost circle…the closest friends of Christ,” according to Dr. Elizabeth Klein. Specifically, in the words of Dr. Ben Akers, “Peter is picked because he is the leader of the church and needs to be able to strengthen the other apostles. James will be the first apostle to shed his blood as a martyr and thus needs strengthening in this moment. John is the beloved disciple and also the one to endure for the faith the longest.”[13] These three disciples will be overcome by this image of Christ in glory but will only understand it fully in light of the cross, just as sometimes we only understand our present blessings and gifts after the hardships we face along the way are over.

Moving into the significance of the two Old Testament characters to appear beside Jesus, a popular interpretation of the presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus atop the mountain is that they come to represent the law and the prophets, both of which Jesus comes to fulfill. Though Dr. Brant Pitre argues that there is a deeper significance as to why Moses and Elijah appear, specifically in that Moses and Elijah are the two people who received theophanies (visible manifestations of God to humanity) on a mountain in the Old Testament.

On Mount Sinai in Exodus 33, Moses says of God “Show me your glory… But, [God] said, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live…See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” [14]

And likewise, Elijah on Mount Horeb in 1 Kings 19 experiences the voice of God say, ‘“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a still small voice. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” [15]

What is uniquely significant here, more than just what Moses (the law) and Elijah (the prophets) represent is that, as Dr. Brant Pitre reveals: “Moses and Elijah are finally able to the see the face of the God who they were not able to see in the Old Testament.” [16] God shows up on the scene with a human face for the benefit of his three disciples, but he also remembers the longings of Moses and Elijah to look upon his face. And now, not only are they able to see God face-to-face, but they converse with Jesus and are an example of awe and wonder to the current men of Jesus’ day, Peter, James, and John. God is not only able to strengthen us for hardships to come, but he also remembers and brings fulfillment to our longings from long ago.

FOLLOWING THE TRANSFIGURATION

Following the Transfiguration scene, as Jesus’ disciples come down with him from the mountain, they immediately encounter a boy with a demon who the disciples cannot heal. Jesus heals the boy and then the disciples ask why they could not cast the demon out. Jesus replies “Because of your little faith.” Before the Transfiguration, Peter proclaims his faith in Jesus as the Son of God, but now more than ever, the disciples will need an ever-greater faith and trust in order to have their preconceptions of messiah transformed. Jesus is showing them glory in a brand-new way, one they had never imagined before. The demoniac story parallels the healing of a father’s son with how we are all healed by a father’s son, Christ Jesus himself.

As well, in Raphael’s painting of The Transfiguration scene, according to Dr. Akers, “The true son of the father is up on the mountain in whom God is well pleased filled with the spirit. At the bottom of the mountain, you have a beloved son of the father who is filled with the evil spirit.” Dr. Klein adds, “And the demoniac child is pointing to the top of the mountain where Jesus is. This reminds us how healing miracles are supposed to point to something –not to oneself, but to Jesus.”[17]

BAPTISM, TRANSFIGURATION, CROSS

At the Baptism of Jesus, the very start of his earthly ministry, a voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” And now, at Jesus’ Transfiguration, the pinnacle of his earthly ministry, God’s voice comes again from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son,” with the added emphasis “Listen to him!” There is an undeniable link from the Baptism to the Transfiguration to the Passion. In the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we learn that Jesus is beloved by God. Now at the Transfiguration we have the command to listen to Jesus, which we find the disciples having a hard time doing, as they fail to trust in his words that he will both die and rise again.

Visually, the Transfiguration mirrors the crucifixion scene. At Jesus’ passion we see two criminals, one on each side of Jesus with him in the middle and the disciples at his feet. At the Transfiguration it is the two righteous men on each of Jesus’ sides with his disciples at his feet. Present also in this juxtaposition scenes of life and death is the presence on the mountain of one who dies (Moses) and one who is taken up (Elijah) and that Jesus fulfills and represents both, through both dying and being taken up into heaven. [18]

THE TRANSFIGURATION – THEN & NOW

There are several meaningful interpretations that arise from the Transfiguration both for the followers of Jesus day and for us now. Dr. Tim Gray quotes Pope John Paul II who says that the Transfiguration is “a foretaste of the contemplation yet to come.” Dr. Gray asks readers, “Do you prepare for heaven by contemplating Christ’s face every day in payer?” Do we daily practice seeking the face of God in our neighbors, in our enemies, in ourselves? [19] For if we truly desire to look upon the face of Christ, be it in scripture, religious icons, or in the faces of those around us, we will be more receptive to true wonder and awe toward the world and people around us.

Alice Hildebrand writes on the topic of reverence as “the mother of all virtues.” She describes reverence as, “an uplifting and joyful feeling of awe...it is an ever renewed and grateful discovery of the mysteries of being; it is an overcoming of one’s moral blindness preventing us from perceiving the glories of the universe that we live in. It is a joy to perceive how marvelous it is “to be.”’ [20] In the Transfiguration, when the disciples hear the voice of God, they fall on their faces and are filled with awe. We need more awe in our lives of the grandeur of God, and the Transfiguration gives us a beautiful image of the intimacy that is born from wonder.

Dr. Tim Gray also quotes Pope Leo the Great who says of the Transfiguration scene, “By the Lord’s example, the faithful were called upon to believe that, although we should not doubt the promise of happiness, we should understand that in the trials of this life we must ask for the power of endurance rather than for glory. The joyousness of reigning cannot precede the times of suffering.” [21] Christians both of Jesus’ day and ours must ask themselves, “Do I truly believe that the fullest glory and intimacy, happiness, and joy, comes about through endurance and at times suffering?” As well, sometimes the answer to a longing comes about in a way we might never have imagined as is the case of Moses and Elijah.

Finally, in 2 Peter 1 there is another account of the Transfiguration scene, by which Peter implores his listeners to be attentive to reliable witness and, in this case, to heed the prophetic message Peter and the other apostles bring to the people through their experience of God on the mountain. He calls his readers to be open and attentive to how it is not personal interpretation or will that derives prophecy but human beings moved by the spirit speaking under the influence of God. May we be mindful of the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Peter writes:

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory…We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning sun rises in your hearts. [22]

Bibliography

Alice Von Hildebrand. “Reverence: The Mother of All Virtues,” (Colorado: Catholic News Agency, 2016).

Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008).

Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011).

Ben Akers & Elizabeth Klein. A Bible Study on the Luminous Mysteries: The Transfiguration(Part 4 of 5), (Augustine Institute: FORMED, 2022). A Bible Study on the Luminous Mysteries: The Transfiguration (Part 4 of 5) - All Episodes - FORMED

Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus Course Introduction: The Transfiguration of Jesus on the Mountain (Part 3 of 5), (Los Angeles: Catholic Productions, 2016). (552) The Case for Jesus Course Introduction: The Transfiguration of Jesus on the Mountain (Part 3 of 5) - YouTube

Matthew Ramage, “Peter’s Confession of Faith and the Transfiguration” (class notes: Synoptic Gospels, Holy Apostles College & Seminary, Cromwell, CT, 6, July 2022).

Pablo Edo, Commentary on the Gospel: Transfiguration (New York: Opus Dei) Commentary on the Gospel: Transfiguration - Opus Dei

Synopsis of the Four Gospels, ed. Kurt Aland (American Bible Society, 1985).

Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, q. 45, a. 3, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

Tim Gray. The Luminous Mysteries: Biblical Reflections on the Life of Christ (Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2004). [1] Tim Gray. The Luminous Mysteries: Biblical Reflections on the Life of Christ (Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2004), 100. [2] Synopsis of the Four Gospels, ed. Kurt Aland (American Bible Society, 1985), 153. [3]Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordon to the Transfiguration, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 309. 4 Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordon to the Transfiguration, 310. [5] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordon to the Transfiguration, 287. [6] Synopsis of the Four Gospels, ed. Kurt Aland (American Bible Society, 1985), 149-150 [7]Matthew Ramage, “Peter’s Confession of Faith and the Transfiguration” (class notes: Synoptic Gospels, Holy Apostles College & Seminary, Cromwell, CT, 6, July 2022). [8] Pope Benedict XVI Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 282. [9] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, q. 45, a. 3, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org. [10] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordon to the Transfiguration, 309. [11]Pablo Edo, Commentary on the Gospel: Transfiguration (New York: Opus Dei) Commentary on the Gospel: Transfiguration - Opus Dei [12] Matthew Ramage, “Peter’s Confession of Faith and the Transfiguration” [13]Ben Akers & Elizabeth Klein. A Bible Study on the Luminous Mysteries: The Transfiguration (Part 4 of 5), (Augustine Institute: FORMED, 2022). [14] Exodus 33 (RSVCE) [15] 1 Kings 19 (RSVCE) [16] Dr. Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus Course Introduction: The Transfiguration of Jesus on the Mountain (Part 3 of 5), (Los Angeles: Catholic Productions, 2016). [17] Ben Akers & Elizabeth Klein. A Bible Study on the Luminous Mysteries: The Transfiguration [18] Ben Akers & Elizabeth Klein. A Bible Study on the Luminous Mysteries: The Transfiguration [19]Tim Gray. The Luminous Mysteries: Biblical Reflections on the Life of Christ, 101. [20] Alice Von Hildebrand. “Reverence: The Mother of All Virtues.” (Colorado: Catholic News Agency, 2016). [21] Tim Gray. The Luminous Mysteries: Biblical Reflections on the Life of Christ, 105. [22] 2 Peter 1: 16-21 (RSVCE)

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