Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
…. Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus alone.
–Matthew 17:1-3, 5-8 (NRSV)
The wondrous account of Jesus’ Transfiguration has an interesting place in the Gospel narrative. It happens right after Jesus confirms His Messianic identity for the first time (Matthew 16:13-17), and between Jesus’ first two descriptions of His eventual suffering and death in Jerusalem (Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23). Just as the culmination of Jesus’ mission and the reality of His identity begin to be revealed, Jesus ascends a high mountain with some of His disciples and is transfigured before them in dazzling and even frightening glory.
We may be quick to categorize the Transfiguration as a transformation, but it may be more appropriate to think of it as a kind of revelation. Jesus does not change; rather, I think that in this mountaintop moment a veneer is ripped away, and Peter, James, and John are given an opportunity gaze upon Jesus in all His glory. If in being transfigured Jesus becomes anything, He becomes that which He already is: The Beloved, who shines brilliantly through God’s unfathomable Love.
It is for this reason that I think the placement of the Transfiguration in the Gospel narrative is more than mere coincidence. After all, in these chapters of Matthew we witness the full scope of Jesus’ nature revealed, and the Transfiguration is an integral part of that revelation. Jesus is the Messiah: The suffering servant who will be killed and resurrected. And Jesus is the Beloved: Fully divine, but fully human, and fully embraced by the radiant Love of God.
As Christians, we are baptized into the fullness of the life of Jesus, and we are called to share in the fullness of His identity. We are called to share in Christ the suffering servant: to take up our crosses, to give selflessly, to forgive relentlessly, and to live in peace with our neighbor. And we are called to share in Christ the Beloved of God. We are called to be transfigured. And just as Jesus’ Transfiguration is not so much a transformation as it is a realization of that which Jesus already is, perhaps our Transfiguration is not so much a transformation as it is a realization of that which we already are. We are so deeply loved by God. We live and move and breathe and have our being in that Love. And our Beloved-ness is not something we make, nor is it something we earn; it is something already given, a reality already and always present. God who is Love became fully human in Christ Jesus, and we His fellow humans are engulfed in that same, radiant Love.
Thomas Merton, an American Trappist mystic and writer, experienced the reality of our human Transfiguration as the Beloved of God. He writes:
“In Louisville, on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers… I have the immense joy of being human, a member of the race in which God himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. If only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun!”
This Lent, I invite you to ponder what amazing things would happen if the veneer were ripped away and we all realized our Transfiguration in the Love of Christ Jesus. How would our lives change if we could see how much we already shine with God’s Love? How would our world change if, like Thomas Merton, we could see how much our fellow members of the human family shine with God’s Love?
Merciful God, help us to become that which we already are. Help us to become the Beloved. Help us to know the reality of Your radiant, unfailing Love. Help us to fully experience our Transfiguration.
Aidan Stoddart ’21 is a freshman in Weld Hall.