I came across the painting above — Transfiguration by John Armstrong (1947) — by accident, but as soon as I saw it, I knew that, for me, it expressed the Transfiguration of Christ better than any of the more classical artistic representations I’ve seen. I find the dazzling Christ figured at once comforting and imposing, something that captures my somewhat conflicted feelings about today’s Gospel.
For a long time, the Transfiguration had not been a favorite reading of mine. I just didn’t “get” it, or at least what it was supposed to mean for me living in the world today. Then, a few years ago, I wrote a Scripture reflection on this very subject for Our Sunday Visitor, and the experience helped transfigure the Transfiguration for me. I thought I would print that essay here in its entirety in hopes that it might do the same for even one person:
Jesus knew that when the frightening events surrounding his crucifixion began, his Apostles were going to need something to keep them going. So he gathered three of them – Peter, James and John – and took them to a high mountain where he was transfigured before their eyes.
This dazzling moment was meant to offer them encouragement and comfort during the time when they would lose hope, and it is meant to do the same for each one of us as we journey through Lent and through the difficult times of our lives. Like a priceless photo we can turn to again and again, the Transfiguration stands out as one shining example – literally – of just how understanding and compassionate Jesus is.
But there’s something else in this story that I find even more comforting than the image of Jesus between Moses and Elijah: It is the image of the Apostles falling to the ground in fear despite the fact that they were part of Jesus’ inner circle. Throughout the Gospels, the Apostles never fail to remind us that the people Jesus handpicked to spread his Good News were often scared, missing in action or worse.
On the mountain of the Transfiguration, Peter was more concerned with erecting three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah than with digesting what the event really meant. He later denies that he even knows Jesus. He is absent from the foot of the cross and boarded up in a small room with the others when Mary Magdalene comes to proclaim that she has seen the risen Christ. Peter alone should provide each one of us with the comforting realization that if he can become The Rock, then surely we can become at the very least pebbles worthy of getting caught in the Master’s sandals.
Jesus took these three Apostles up Mount Tabor, knowing that they would need something pretty spectacular to shore them up when the times got tough. God spoke from above, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” It doesn’t really get more spectacular than that – not until Easter Sunday, that is.
I have to admit that I had never really given much thought to the Transfiguration as an image designed to give me strength. I have listened to the Transfiguration account year after year, believing that its significance was something beyond my comprehension. It’s too mystical for me, I thought. That was until recently, when I sat down with this Gospel reading – away from Church, away from homilies, away from enthusiastic children trying to climb out of my lap and into the next pew.
That’s when it hit me: Jesus is at once transfigured and transfiguring. Yes, he is God’s son revealed to us. Yes, he gives us an image we will never forget. But he does more than that. He reminds us that through the power of God’s all-merciful love each one of us can be transfigured here and now in our daily lives. We might not be able to dazzle like the sun, but our souls can radiate a spectacular spiritual light if we just open our hearts to Jesus and his transfiguring message of compassion and forgiveness.
Lent is under way. Perhaps we are struggling to keep our Lenten promises and sacrifices. Maybe we, too, have fallen in frustration or fear. If that is the case, we can reflect on the image of the Transfiguration, and listen to the words Jesus spoke to his Apostles when he reached out to them in their fear, “Rise, and do not be afraid.”