“…he was transfigured before them…” (NRSV, Matthew 17:2)
Our Lord began his public ministry in the populous and nationalistic district of Galilee, and by the end of the first year it was clear that his ministry had failed. The people remained heedless of his call to repent and allow God to rule them in their daily lives. They just looked on him as a miracle-working prophet and thought of him in political and military terms as a potential resistance leader against the Roman occupying power.
Nor was he any more successful with the religious rulers. They resented both him and his ministry and went so far as to accuse him publicly of being in league with Satan.
But though Jesus had failed with the people and their rulers he still had his Apostles and on them he now concentrated. He withdrew with them to the sparsely populated district in the far north of the country where in peace and solitude they could reflect on the events of the past year, with the added objectivity and detachment which physical distance can bring.
So the time came to put them to the test: “…who do you say that I am?” asked Jesus and their answer would reveal conclusively whether there was among them, the spiritual perception which was to be found nowhere else in the country. It was the moment of crisis and the moment of truth, and Peter was inspired to rise to both. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”, he declared – the long awaited King and Deliverer sent by God and uniquely related to him (NRSV, Matthew 16:15,16).
That momentous confession of faith showed that the Lord’s ministry had not wholly failed, and it now remained for him to devote himself to the training of the Apostles as the nucleus and future leaders of his Church.
But the first thing he had to do was to teach them what kind of a Messiah he must be. They accepted the popular idea of a warrior-king in the grand style who would drive the foreign invader from the Holy Land. The truth was very different. Not by an earthly throne would the Messiah, the Christ, win over the hearts of men and women and bring them to God, but only by suffering for them on the Cross and rising again from the dead.
“From that time on,” we read, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (NRSV, Matthew 16:21).
Such an idea was unthinkable to the Apostles. “God forbid it, Lord!” was Peter’s immediate reaction. “This must never happen to you” (NRSV, Matthew 16:22).
It was at this point that the Transfiguration took place. Its purpose was to prepare the Apostles for Our Lord’s Crucifixion and Resurrection by revealing to them, in an unforgettable way, the Father’s declared approval on his Son’s ministry and on his acceptance of the Cross.
So when Jesus was condemned and crucified, they would know that though rejected by men he was accepted by God.
When his face was covered with blood and sweat, they would have seen it shining like the sun.
When his seamless robe became a soldier’s perquisite, they would recollect how once it had been white as the light.
When two thieves were crucified with him on Calvary, they would remember that on the mountain there had stood beside him Moses and Elijah.
And when they listened to the passers-by jeering at him and saying, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (NRSV, Matthew 27:40), they would recall the Father’s own assurance, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (NRSV, Matthew 17:5).
And finally when he appeared to them on Easter Day in his risen body, for Peter, James and John there would be something reminiscent and familiar in his radiant glory.
And yet, like the Transfiguration itself, the Resurrection appearances had also a definite purpose and were of limited duration. Our Blessed Lord appeared to the Apostles for the relatively brief period of 40 days between Easter and Ascension Day, and then only to convince them that he was in very truth raised from the dead so that they themselves might be able to convince others.
As a result of the appearances they knew that Jesus had been raised, body and soul, from this natural level of existence to that supernatural world of God where he would always be present with them. And so they were able to go out and face the unknown future secure in the assurance of his final promise, “…I am with you always, to the end of the age” (NRSV, Matthew 28:20).
There now awaited them much persecution as Jesus had forewarned them, “In the world you face persecution” (NRSV, John 16:33) and they faced it with a glad boldness because they knew that he himself had overcome all that the world could do and had triumphed conclusively over evil and death itself.
And so for the rest of their lives – as every Christian is called upon to do – the Apostles walked by faith and not by sight, and faith is tried and proved only on a road that is long and rough. The fact that their faith did not fail was, in some measure, due to the inspiration of those moments of supernatural glory which Christ had granted to them at his Transfiguration and again after his Resurrection.
There come to every devout Christian, moments when one’s spiritual life – that is, one’s personal relationship with God – is transfigured by an overwhelming sense of joy or peace: by an intense awareness of his Presence and a sure conviction of his constant care and love.
They are times when his glory breaks through and raises us above the level of the world in which we live. Such times may be infrequent and short-lived, but they bring to us the reality of that supernatural world of God which surrounds us on every side and for which we were created.
Those moments are not given for their own sake. Their purpose is to uphold and sustain our faith in the hour of trial; so that, when everything seems to go to pieces and we are at the mercy of the harsh realities of life, we may be supported by the remembrance of the greater reality of God’s immediate presence and power.
Let us treasure such moments as and when they come, and may they strengthen our faith in the dark and difficult days, knowing that:
”Through waves and clouds and storms
his power will clear thy way:
wait thou his time; the darkest night
shall end in brightest day.(1)
1. Gerhardt, P. (1653) trans Wesley, J. (1739) and others Put thou thy trust in God. Available from:
http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/p/p141.html (Accessed 02 August 2012) (Internet).