Beloved: 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, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 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 star rises in your hearts
Both Latin and Eastern rite Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration today. It’s the traditional date on both calendars.
For Eastern Catholics, the Feast of the Transfiguration is especially significant. It is among their 12 “great feasts.” Eastern Christianity emphasizes that Christ’s transfiguration is the prototype of spiritual illumination, which is possible for the committed disciple of Jesus. This Christian form of “enlightenment” is facilitated by the ascetic disciplines of prayer, fasting, and charitable almsgiving. A revered hierarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the late Archbishop Joseph Raya, described this traditional Byzantine view of the transfiguration in his book of meditations on the Biblical event and its liturgical celebration, entitled “Transfiguration of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” “Transfiguration,” Archbishop Raya wrote, “is not simply an event out of the two-thousand-year old past, or a future yet to come. It is rather a reality of the present, a way of life available to those who seek and accept Christ’s nearness.”
For us in the Latin or Western Rite Church, the Transfiguration is also an important Feast Day. In his address before the Angelus in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI described how the events of the Transfiguration display Christ as the “full manifestation of God’s light.” This light, which shines forth from Christ both at the transfiguration and after his resurrection, is ultimately triumphant over “the power of the darkness of evil.” The Pope stressed that the Feast of the Transfiguration is an important opportunity for believers to look to Christ as “the light of the world,” and to experience the kind of conversion which the Bible frequently describes as an emergence from darkness to light. “In our time too,” Pope Benedict said, “we urgently need to emerge from the darkness of evil, to experience the joy of the children of light!”
This feast commemorates one of the pinnacles of Jesus’ earthly ministry. On Mt. Tabor Christ revealed his divinity by means of a miraculous and supernatural light to three of his closest disciples: Peter, James and John. A couple of decades later, St. Peter shares his experience in today’s epistle lesson, the second letter which bears his name. It is the only place in the Scriptures outside the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, where anyone refers to the “Transfiguration.”
To refresh your memories, it’s the occasion when Jesus suddenly becomes radiant with divine light as he converses with Moses and Elijah. And then, behold!—Jesus is standing alone. And all of a sudden, God’s voice came from heaven proclaiming: “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In a rather matter-of-fact way, Peter remembers that We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.
We can presume that by the time of Peter’s writing in mid-first century that some of the opponents of the faith were scoffing at the extraordinary tales that were going around about Jesus. Peter insists that the “transfiguration” actually happened. He was a personal eye-witness. The result of this eye-witness testimony is that the apostles could look back on the entire world of biblical prophecy; that grand, untidy seemingly chaotic collection of stories which revealed as one story the series of sign posts pointing to what was to come and by divine revelation through the teaching of the Church, it all somehow made sense.
Among the prophecies was one from Numbers 24 which referred to the star that would arise from Jacob. This was widely understood to be a prophecy of the Messiah and it may very well have supplied Peter with the inspiration for his statement at the end of our lesson today that Jesus is the “morning star.” (Num. 24:17) Peter’s point in this little discourse is that the stories of Jesus reach something of a climax in the extraordinary revelation of glory at the moment of transfiguration. In part because of this event, the Church is now enlightened to read the entire Hebrew scriptures in the light of Christ.
Peter is addressing the new reality that has come about by the Incarnation of Christ. The Transfiguration bears witness to this. God had come in the flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and the transfiguration gives us a glimpse of his divinity. This was something incredible, something that culminated in the Cross and Resurrection. Everything had been straining forward to the day when God’s glory would be revealed.
But nobody thought that there would be this tremendous lag time between the Messiah’s appearance and the time of his return which would mark the beginning of the new age and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. There were no speculations what this interim period would be like or even why such a period would exist.
So Peter and the other Apostles went about the business of explaining. They shared why and how the scriptures were being fulfilled even yet and what the faithful should be doing in the meantime. Christians then and now are in need of solid teaching as St. Peter stated in verse 19 from today’s reading. He writes… 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 star rises in your hearts.
As mentioned earlier, this “morning star” is most certainly a reference to the messianic proclamation from the OT book of Numbers, which speaks both to prophecy in general and specifically to one of the main reasons for the transfiguration; it was an act of enlightenment to show the faithful the way to true holiness in the glory of God.
For the faithful, Christ’s coming, his teaching and miracles, this transfiguration, his death and resurrection are to be held on to, like people clinging to a bright light in the most oppressive darkness, all the while awaiting the coming of Christ in the fullness of Glory.
So, let us step back a bit and take another look. We must remember that things were tough for the early Church. St. Peter’s ideas and practices confront a striking resemblance to our own day. He was confronting skeptics who questioned God’s direct intervention into the affairs of the world, especially those of the faithful. He also took to task those who refuted Christ’s imminent return in Glory to judge the living and the dead and to establish a new heaven and a new earth.
Peter was also calling to judgment an extremely permissive age, an age of excesses of appetites of all forms in the name of personal freedom.
Peter was also reminding the reader of God’s divine activity in our day to day endeavors and that ours’ is not just a God who is remote, far off in heaven—transcendent if you will—but a God who is also imminent, who is near and active in our lives.
For a good illustration of what things were like, I quote from the introduction to the “Student Bible.” First-century apostles must have felt like pioneers in a mosquito-infested swamp. A pest attacked them—Slap—They’d kill it and instantly another would land. Wherever they went new dangers swarmed up. One group denied Jesus was God; then another declared him God but not fully human. The apostles denounced scrupulosity, only to encounter free-swingers who assumed “anything goes.” Members of one congregation quit work and huddled together to await Jesus’ return; those of another gave up on his returning at all.
Second Peter was written in response to the young Church’s jumpy tendencies. Whereas First Peter centered on fearsome dangers from outside, this letter speaks of dangers from within. False teachers were stirring dissent, questioning basic doctrine, and leading Christians into immorality. 2 Peter’s purpose is to set the record straight and to call people to the holiness of observing the one true faith.
And from St. Peter’s second letter, it is the Transfiguration in particular that we honor today. It helps to enlighten us and show us Christ’s divinity and our hope of the glory of celestial holiness and to affirm the solid teaching of the Church, especially in the bedrock found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the teaching that keeps us faithful when there are so many forces that yearn to lead us astray.