Second Sunday of Lent: The Transfiguration of Our Lord

SCRIPTURES & ART: The Transfiguration reminds us that we are not just reaching for Easter during Lent — we are reaching for eternity.

Raphael (1483-1520), “The Transfiguration (Detail)”
Raphael (1483-1520), “The Transfiguration (Detail)” (photo: Public Domain)

Just as the First Sunday of Lent’s Gospel is always Jesus’ Temptation in the Desert, so the Second Sunday’s is always his Transfiguration. 

The Church officially celebrates the Solemnity of the Transfiguration on Aug. 6. So why does this theme appear at the start of Lent?

Mostly because God and the Church want to keep our priorities straight. Lent is about overcoming sin. But why do we overcome sin?

Because we “wait in eager expectation for the glorious revelation of the children of God” (Romans 8:19)!

Yes, the Transfiguration is about Jesus. It is a theophany, a “revelation of God.” Jesus takes the inner core of his Apostles — Peter, James and John — up Mount Tabor. There he reveals his identity and his glory.

Jesus is the One. The two great streams of Jewish revelation — the Law (torah) and the Prophets (nebiim) — are represented by their heads, Moses and Elijah, respectively. They are the ones adoring Jesus.

Jesus reassures his apostles that his Passion leads to his Glory. If you read Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, and not just today’s selection, you will see that Peter had just declared — in Matthew 16 — that Jesus is Messiah. Jesus had also entrusted Peter with the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Then Jesus began speaking of his Passion, which elicits Peter saying “Never!” and Jesus calling him a “Satan.” 

Like the Devil last week — though perhaps with no such premeditation — Peter wants Jesus to be Messiah without following the path God had laid out. He wanted a triumphant Messiah without suffering, just as the devil pushed free breakfast rolls from rocks. In both cases, they want what’s good not according to God’s will but their own.

Having made clear that the path to his Kingdom lies through his Passion and Death, Jesus today makes clear that his Passion, Death and Resurrection are one big, inseparable Paschal Mystery. The Transfiguration reassures Peter, James and John that death will not have the final word, that Jesus is transfigured.

Finally, the Transfiguration is not just a “Jesus thing.” As we noted last week, Pope St. John Paul II and Vatican II repeated regularly that “Jesus Christ fully reveals man to himself.” The Resurrection is not just a personal reward to Jesus. It begins an ineluctable and irreversible process that will encompass all who share in his Passion and Death through Baptism. The Resurrection leads to and empowers the Assumption. It leads to the “resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” It leads to the Last Judgment and the final and decisive triumph of good over evil. And the Transfiguration points to all of this.

So the Transfiguration, in addition to making clear just who Jesus is, also makes clear that this world is to be “transfigured,” that what God reveals in his Son he wishes also to change in the “sons in the Son.” Transfiguration is the basic posture of Christianity.

That should set our perspectives straight in Lent. We are not just reaching for Easter in about a month. We are reaching for eternity. We should reach with confidence, because Jesus shows us today he will be victorious. That doesn’t make the suffering or pain any less real: Good Friday still has to be gone through. But it makes clear where our ultimate perspective lies. At Easter … and the Last Day.

Why does Jesus tell the three Apostles at the end of today’s Gospel not to tell anybody about this? Right now, it’s a “private revelation” for them, intended to shore up their faith when it’s tested. Jesus wants to keep some things quiet for now because of what we call the “Messianic Secret,” which is very prominent in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus wants to speak of his messiahship and God’s Kingdom. But Israel had overlaid both concepts with its own accretions, turning the Messiah into a political figure who would “restore the rule to Israel” (a temptation even the disciples could not definitively shake until Pentecost). So Jesus does not want his teaching to be distorted by intellectual baggage that warped rather than clarified that teaching. Jesus will later have his Apostles proclaim these truths to the world — after all, the Church is proclaiming them in today’s Gospel — but only after the Resurrection — only when the full truth of Jesus is revealed and identified.

The most famous depiction of the Transfiguration is obviously the Renaissance master Raphael’s, now in the Vatican. The cardinal who commissioned it became pope so, instead of its original destination — France — Pope Clement VII kept it in Rome. Napoleon did steal the painting and keep it for years at the Louvre, but with his downfall, “The Transfiguration” returned to Rome. 

Most people who speak of this painting have only the top half in mind. Raphael’s entire painting depicts Mark 9: the upper half, focused on the Transfiguration, covers verses 2-3, while the lower half focused on the account of the exorcism of a possessed boy, which follows immediately in verses 14-29. Our focus today will be only on the top half, which is most known to people today anyway. I show the entire painting, however, because absent the other half, it might look like there’s a crowd of people just beneath Tabor, commenting on the events Peter, James and John witness. They’re actually part of the second half of the painting.

Apart from combining two Biblical episodes into one painting, Raphael’s “Transfiguration arguably merges two artistic schools. The “Transfiguration” is clearly Baroque. The lower half is arguably moving toward mannerism, with a strong element of chiaroscuro.

In the Baroque “Transfiguration,” the key figures are dynamic, flowing and mobile: Jesus is the highest figure in the air, joined by Moses (on the viewer’s right, bearing tablets and with knob-like horns on his head, alluding to Exodus 34:29-30, reflecting Moses’ post-encounter with Yahweh’s radiance) and Elijah (on the viewer’s left). Both seem to converse with Jesus, but Christ’s positioning points to his superiority, even as he gazes toward his Father. His raised hands depict a cruciform position. 

Christ’s Apostles are awestruck on the mountain. Peter, in the usual gold, is in the center, John often in red (love), on the right, which leaves James on the left. The two onlookers under the tree are, according to one commentator, Justus and Pastor, two Christian martyrs from the early fourth century’s Diocletian persecution, whose feasts fell on Aug. 6 and are thus preempted by the Solemnity.

The cloud points to the eschatological and heavenly nature of the Transfiguration: this is the eruption of eternity into time. Clouds are also often the symbol of God’s hidden glory. That Moses and Elijah meet Jesus “in the air” may allude to 1 Thessalonians 4:17, where Paul speaks of the just being “taken up into the air” at the Last Judgment. 

Like a Renaissance painting, the natural is present in the painting, e.g., the shade tree for our two visiting saints on the left or the town beyond Tabor, framed by trees on the right. But Raphael clearly delineates this entry of heaven-to-earth by the cloud, the dominance of blue, and by the elevated mount that separates the “Transfiguration” from the earthly side of the painting.

Raphael has had a split reputation. For centuries, he was applauded as a great master and remains thought of as such by some today. Others have been less impressed by his eventual anticipation of mannerism — note the comparative stiffness and greater rigidity of the figures in the bottom of the painting to those on top. Those critics sometimes blame mannerism for the decline of sacred art.

The theological connection of the two parts of the painting could be an interesting perspective but, in light of the focus of today’s Gospel, we will not go there today.

Raphael (1483-1520), “The Transfiguration”
Raphael (1483-1520), “The Transfiguration”