Catholic Q&A: The Transfiguration of the Lord

Catholic Q&A: The Transfiguration of the Lord

By Fr. Rick Poblocki

What is the Transfiguration?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Transfiguration is:

“The mysterious event in which Jesus, speaking with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, was transformed in appearance – in the sight of Peter, James, and John – as a moment of disclosure of His divine glory” (CCC, Glossary, pp. 901-902; 554).

  • The English word “Transfiguration” comes from the Latin word “transfigurare” (pronounced tranz-fig-you-ra-ray).  The first part of the Latin word, “trans” means “change;” and the Latin word “figura” (pronounced fig-goo-ra) means “figure” OR “appearance.”  These words combine to describe what happened to Jesus at this event: Jesus’ appearance (figure) changed.  The Greek text uses the word metamorphosis (pronounced met-ta-mor-foe-sis, meaning “to change form, shape, or appearance”) to describe the change or transformation that occurred in Our Lord at this momentous occasion.

When do celebrations of Our Lord’s Transfiguration appear in the Church’s calendar?

The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated on August 6th of every year and it is featured during the Lenten season, on the Second Sunday of Lent.

Who witnessed the Transfiguration?

There were three witnesses to the Transfiguration: St. Peter, St. James, and James’ brother, St. John.

What changes occurred in Our Lord?

Our Lord’s appearance changed!  The three Gospel narratives tell us that the Lord Jesus’ “face shone like the sun,” (Matthew 17:2); and “the appearance of His countenance was altered” (Luke 9:29).  Each narrative tells us that Our Lord’s clothing changed: “His garments became white as light” (Matthew 17:2); “glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3); “and His raiment became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29).

Where in the Gospels is the Transfiguration reported?

The Transfiguration narrative appears in Matthew 17:1-18 (read in Cycle or Year A of the Lectionary); in Mark 9:2-8 (read in Year B); and in Luke 9:28-36 (read in Year C).  The Transfiguration is also mentioned in 2 Peter 1:16-18.

Why were the three Apostles allowed to witness Jesus’ Transfiguration?

Like most Jews of the time, the Apostles mistakenly believed that the blessings to be brought by the Messiah or Christ would be earthly or material blessings.  As in the time of King David, the Messiah was supposed to bring freedom from foreign domination; there would be a return to a golden age of material prosperity like the times when David and Solomon ruled.  When Jesus had already begun to prepare His disciples for His impending death by revealing that He would suffer (Matthew 16:21), the Apostles rejected this revelation.  By means of His Transfiguration Christ wanted to teach them that God’s Christ would give them more than earthly happiness, political independence or material prosperity.  Our Lord wanted them to learn that He would come to His glory through suffering and Death, in order to bring them the better happiness of freedom from sin and the grace of everlasting life.  The Transfiguration was to teach them and us that we will come to share in Christ’s glory in the same way and that ultimate happiness cannot be measured in earthly terms.  The Transfiguration also “gives us a foretaste of Christ’s glorious coming, when He will change your lowly body to be like His glorious body” (Philippians 3:21).  The Transfiguration also reminds us that “it is through many persecutions that we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22; Cf. CCC, 556).

Why did Moses and Elijah appear to Our Lord during the Transfiguration?

Both Moses and Elijah were real people that once lived; but, they were “bigger than life.”  Moses symbolized the Jewish Law in much the same way “Uncle Sam” embodies the idea of “America.”  Likewise, the Prophet Elijah was also a symbol of Prophecy as much the same way as the “Statue of Liberty” represents the ideal of freedom to Americans.  The Transfiguration serves to “prove” by “The Law” (Moses) and “The Prophets” (Elijah) that Christ’s Suffering was indeed the plan of God (Luke 24:26).  This “proof” is further backed by the testimony of God the Father Himself – commanding that Jesus’ revelation must be heeded (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:25).  Moses and Elijah are also the only Old Testament figures to hear God’s voice on Mt. Sinai, which is also called Mt. Horeb (Exodus 24:18; 1 Kings 19:8-18).  The Transfiguration counteracts the mistaken belief held by the Apostles and many Jews of the time that the Messiah will bring only earthly blessings, like freedom from the Romans, material prosperity, and earthly contentment.

Why is Jesus’ passage from this world called an “exodus”?

Jesus’ passage from this world is called an exodus by St. Luke to make clear that just as the Jews passed from the bondage of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the promised land, so too Christ passes over the bondage of sin and death to the “promised land” of heaven, bringing us with Him through our Baptism.  Our passage from death to life is made in union with Christ at the moment we are baptized, and it continues as we live out our Baptism daily.

Why did St. Peter propose to build tents?

To understand St. Peter’s response, we must remember that when God had freed Israel from slavery to Egypt and led them through the desert for 40 years, He lived in a tent among them for that time as a sign that He saved them from the Egyptians.  So, this “Tent of a Meeting” was a sign that God completed His liberation of Israel from the bondage of slavery.  The tent also brought back memories to Peter and the Jewish people of a time when access and communication to God was easily available.  With his impetuous and impulsive nature, Peter misunderstood the Transfiguration to mean – not that Jesus was beginning the suffering and Death by which He would save us – but that the Transfiguration was the sign that God’s plan was not only complete, but that Jesus was wrong all along about His suffering and death.  Therefore, His proposal to build tents indicates that he understood those tents to mean the same thing the Meeting Tent meant in the first Exodus: God’s saving plan has been completed.  He could not have been more wrong, as God the Father makes clear.

What was the significance of the “Cloud” and God the Father’s Voice?

In the experience of the Transfiguration, the three disciples encounter not only the Lord Jesus, but also the other two Divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity: God the Father, Who made Himself known by His Voice.  The Holy Spirit made Himself known by appearing visibly in the form of the luminous “Cloud” (CCC, 555).  This “Cloud” is the Shekinah (pronounced Sheck-key-nah) or “Glory of the Lord.”

Is it correct to say that in the Transfiguration, the entire Trinity appeared and made itself known to the spectators?

Yes, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit made Themselves known to the three disciples.  As St. Thomas Aquinas put it: “The whole Trinity appeared: The Father in the Voice; the Son in the Man; and the Holy Spirit in the shining Cloud” (Summa Theologiae, III, 45, 4ad 2).

What were the meaning of the words spoken by the Eternal Father?

Each Transfiguration narrative emphasizes the necessity of listening to Jesus: “This is My Beloved Son with Whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” (Matthew 17:5); “This is My Beloved Son; listen to Him!” (Mark 9:7); and “This is My Beloved Son, My Chosen, listen to Him” (Luke 9:35).  Despite the slight differences in each of the narratives, the key emphasis is upon “listening to Jesus.”  The vision serves as a corrective to Peter’s assumption that the presence of Moses and Elijah will make what Jesus wishes to accomplish “easy.”  The Father’s words serve as a warning that people should not measure “salvation” in the terms they think correct – but to listen to Jesus and follow how God alone will execute His plan.  In this case, Peter’s mention of tents means that he thinks Moses, Elijah, and Jesus will live among them and bring them an easy salvation without the Cross Jesus keeps mentioning.  The Father’s Voice and command are correcting Peter by telling him to lay aside what he thinks salvation is – it is necessary to follow completely what Jesus says it would be.  This revelation, plus further divine enlightenment from the Risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit will help the disciples to make sense of Jesus’ scandalous rejection and His death by the Cross.

Where did the Transfiguration take place?

Scholars usually identify Mount Tabor as the site of the Transfiguration.  A beautiful basilica is built upon the site.  Some other scholars identify Mount Hermon as the site where the Transfiguration took place.

Why did the Transfiguration occur upon a mountain?

The biblical peoples considered mountains to be places of divine revelation.  So, there is no better place for God to reveal that Jesus would save us by His suffering and death, than on the holy mountain!

At what point on the mountain did the Transfiguration take place?

St. Luke clearly states that Jesus was “transfigured” during the time He prayed (Luke 9:29).

Was Jesus’ Transfiguration a permanent change or state?

No, Jesus’ Transfiguration was only a temporary change or transformation, because Jesus’ “permanent” transformation or Transfiguration would come only through His suffering, death, and resurrection – the very things He was discussing with Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:31).

If St. Peter needed to be corrected by God, wouldn’t this undermine the Church’s claim that the Pope is infallible?

Papal infallibility is not compromised because St. Peter and the others are still earning and receiving God’s Revelation!  After the Resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, St. Peter and all Popes after him, remain true to Christ.  Christ Himself makes this absolutely clear when He tells Peter: “when you have turned again [i.e. after he recovers from denying Christ], strengthen the brethren” (Luke 22:32).

How is the Transfiguration related to Lent?

First, the Transfiguration is related to Our Lord’s Baptism.  The Lord’s Baptism was a threshold that moved Him from His hidden life to His public ministry.  The Transfiguration is a threshold or gateway in which Jesus crosses from His public ministry to His suffering and death.  Jesus’ “Passover” is His suffering and death for our spiritual benefit.  Jesus’ Baptism is a model for our Baptism and service of God.  In Lent the Church’s desire is to inspire the Faithful to renew their efforts to reject sin and live with greater intensity a life of great holiness.  The connection between Lent and the Transfiguration is that our efforts to conquer sin and grow in holiness will come to full flower in the reward given to those who reject sin and live a life of intense holiness: they will come to share in the glory of the Lord Jesus’ Resurrection.

How will that be possible for me to become a sharer in Christ’s Risen glory?

Your rising from the dead and your glorification is made possible by the Gift of the Holy Spirit you received in Baptism.  The Holy Spirit Who is present in the souls of those in a state of grace (those free from Mortal Sin) is the same spirit Who raised Jesus from the dead.  If He raised Jesus up, and He is present in your body and soul, then He will cause you to be raised up.  The Spirit builds up God’s life in us, especially when we receive the Sacraments worthily (CCC, 556).

Does the Transfiguration have any meaning to me or any effect upon me in this present time?

Yes!  The Transfiguration allows us to experience the Second Coming of Jesus even before it happens in the history!  The Transfiguration of Jesus’ human nature shows us that when He returns in glory at the End of Time, Our Lord will transform our bodies to be like His (Philippians 3:21).  The Transfiguration also warns us that “it is through many persecutions that we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts of the Apostles, 14:22).  Thus, as the Preface of the Second Sunday of Lent proclaims: “…the Passion leads to the Glory of the Resurrection” (Roman Missal, 3rd Edition).

For further reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 554-556, 568.

Fr. Rick Poblocki is the Pastor of St. Josaphat’s Parish in Cheektowaga, NY. This article also appears in St. Josaphat’s Weekly Bulletin, available for view in its entirety at Don’t miss Fr. Rick on the Tuesday and Thursday Open Forum Editions of Calling All Catholics, weekdays at 5pm on The Station of the Cross Catholic Radio Network and the NEW iCatholicRadio App. Used with permission.



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