To transfigure means to change the form or outward appearance in order to exalt or glorify. Where can a person fully discover such an extraordinary activity? Beauty found in nature, such as caterpillars escaping their cocoons as butterflies, falls short because it isn’t worthy of worship. Ultimately Christians can only find transfiguration in its deepest, most illuminating sense in prayer informed by the mysteries of their faith.
A Mystery of Light
The Transfiguration, which we celebrate on August 6th, was a specific mystery that happened during the public ministry of Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all recall it although each account varies in length (cf. Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). The Transfiguration began with Jesus and the Apostles Peter, John, and James all climbing a mountain near Jerusalem to pray. Within short order of arriving, the three disciples see the face of Christ shine “like the sun” and his clothes turn “white as light” (Matthew 17:2).
Moses and Elijah appeared next and spoke with Jesus about his coming death, Resurrection and Ascension (cf. Luke 9:31). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the Transfiguration “gives us a foretaste of Christ’s glorious coming” (CCC, 556). One could easily lose sight of such splendor, however, amid the fear that constantly gripped the Apostles. Peter, John, and James slept until waking up to offer tents for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus (cf. Luke 9:32-33). The Gospel of Mark recounted at that offering how Peter “hardly knew what to say” given all three disciples “were so terrified” seeing the two Old Testament figures with Jesus (Mark 9:6).
The Transfiguration concludes with an overshadowing cloud, from which the Father announced: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Mark 9:7). Peter, James, and John, by this point fully awake, entered and fell down with more fear. Moses, Elijah, and the cloud eventually all disappeared. As they began to descend back down the mountain, Jesus instructed the three disciples not to tell anyone what they experienced until after the Resurrection.
A Light for the World
Today it is so easy for us to make excuses not to pray. Demands on our time may make us think that there isn’t enough time to pray. News headlines may leave us afraid and feeling it pointless to pray. Perhaps we act a lot like Peter, James and John, falling asleep as we try to pray.
Making excuses contributes to a dark world which rejects faith, surrenders hope, and abandons love. But if we accept the Transfiguration fully as a mystery of faith, and internalize the true nature of its extraordinary sights and sounds, we become a beacon to the world. We move away not only from our excuses for not praying, but we find the Holy Spirit takes our seemingly shallow prayers and turns them into concrete actions radiating with the deepest love. We can begin to “live as we pray” as we start to “pray as we live” (CCC, 2725).
Before descending the mountain, the Gospel of Matthew relates that Jesus touched the three disciples, saying: “Rise, and do not be afraid” (Matthew 17:7). Those words were stated often by Blessed John Paul II. They can also help us today, in prayer informed by the Transfiguration, to begin moving from fear to eternity.
Jason Godin teaches United States history at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas.