The Transfiguration Is Not a Marginal Event — It Points to the Resurrection

SCRIPTURES & ART: The Transfiguration is not some marginal event in the life of Christ. It reveals both Jesus’ identity and God’s plan for us.

Lodovico Carracci, “The Transfiguration,” 1594
Lodovico Carracci, “The Transfiguration,” 1594 (photo: Public Domain)

The Gospel of the Second Sunday of Lent always features Jesus’ Transfiguration. Why the Transfiguration is so important in the context of Lent is suggested at the end of today’s Gospel from Mark (9:9-10). In that passage, Jesus once again imposes the “Messianic Secret” on the Transfiguration’s three apostolic witnesses. They are not to speak of it “until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” 

Jesus is clearly connecting the Transfiguration to his Resurrection. The Transfiguration in fact prefigures and anticipates the Resurrection. The Church, like Jesus, drops hints of his coming glory throughout Lent: the Gospel of the Second Sunday is always about the Transfiguration, the Fourth Sunday is already singing “Laetare (rejoice)…” etc. Yes, we are called to “repent and believe the Gospel” by turning from sin. But we Christians have an advantage over Peter, James, and John. We know how the story turns out. We know (at least in part) “what ‘rising from the dead’ means.” We know that — Good Friday notwithstanding — the story has a happy ending. Where history will end is fixed. The only question and real drama – the one we should approach “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) — is how we ourselves will be part of it.

The Transfiguration is neither something marginal in Jesus’ life nor in the life of the Church. We would be wrong to see it just as something to “buck up” the Apostles against coming bad days. The Transfiguration points to the Resurrection, the center and core of Christ’s work for us (1 Corinthians 15). While the Church always reads the Gospel of the Transfiguration in Lent (usually in February or March), the actual Feast is Aug. 6. Nine days later, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption, another reflection of Easter because Jesus’ conquest of death already began flowing into his Mystical Body in Mary. If Jesus is the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20), Mary is second. (Both feasts accent the redemption and transformation of our bodies, which is why I have elsewhere urged attention, in our quasi-gnostic times, to this element of those feasts.) The liturgical year then reaches its eschatological end, sometime in November, when its final readings focus on the Resurrection of the Body and the General Judgment at the end of time. What Jesus reveals in the Transfiguration is, therefore, nothing less than the life blood of salvation history in which his followers are invited to share. 

They share in it by believing in Jesus and conforming their lives to him. It’s not by accident that Mark places the Transfiguration almost smack dab in the middle of his Gospel. The center of the Gospel is Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ in 8:27-30. As soon as Peter acknowledges Jesus, Jesus tells the Apostles “not to tell anyone about him” (v. 30) — because they don’t yet fully understand him. He then says that “the Son of Man must suffer many things, be rejected, put to death, and after three days rise again” (8:31), a teaching that earns Peter’s protest and Jesus’ rebuke. The Transfiguration then follows: Jesus has affirmed he must suffer, yet he reveals the glory that comes from the Passion. The Apostles — even that special “inner core” of Peter, James, and John — are again told to keep silence because they “still don’t get it,” still wondering what “to rise from the dead means.”

The Transfiguration has been depicted by many artists, perhaps most famously by Raphael. My choice, however, is the late 16th/early 17th century Bolognese painter, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619). 

Carracci is active as the Baroque was becoming important in Italy, and its grand style is apparent in his “Transfiguration.” All six figures are huge and powerful, their muscular physiques clearly accented. The colors of the three Apostles on the bottom of the painting are bright and clear. Carracci also has classical elements, e.g., the figures’ poses are classical. 

I chose Carracci because the entire painting clearly showcases the radical nature of the Transfiguration, which irrupts into the world and completely transforms it. The whole canvas is affected by the Transfiguration. It’s not like Giovanni Bellini’s “Transfiguration,” from about 100 years earlier, where Jesus, Moses, and Elijah seem to be striking a pose in a corner of a nice Italian garden. In Carracci’s painting, what remains of the purely “earthly” is just an extension of the Mount of the Transfiguration (Tabor), seen in the distance between the two Apostles on the lower right. The Transfiguration makes the statement that the transformation of creation, set in motion by the Resurrection (which the Transfiguration prefigures) is creation’s destiny that cannot be denied. Yet, at the same time, we are invited to embrace that destiny. In the words of the hymn: “One day every tongue will confess that You are God//One day every knee will bow//Still the greatest treasure remains for those//who gladly choose you now.”

Carracci’s “Transfiguration” also centers on the six dramatis personae of the event. Carracci’s Apostles exhibit the reaction later discussed by Rudolf Otto in his Idea of the Holy: the holy is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the mystery that simultaneously both attracts and frightens us. One Apostle (Peter?), trying to stand up shield himself with his arm at the same time from the glory he sees. Another, knocked to the ground, both gazes with fascination on what he sees yet tries to hide his face with his red cloak. Is this perhaps an allusion to how Elijah went forth from the cave on Mount Horeb to meet the Lord whom he recognized in a whisper (see 1 Kings 19:13)? Is it too much to suggest that the vista on the world, mentioned previously on the lower right — the side Elijah where Elijah is seated — also looks like “the entrance to a cave?. The third Apostle (is it John, the “Disciple whom Jesus loved”?) gazes upward, almost ecstatic, with virtually no trace of fear (for “perfect love casts out all fear” — 1 John 4:18). 

The three “earthly” figures (and I use the term advisedly, for the Transfiguration bespeaks not just Jesus’ future glory but the liberation of “creation itself … brought to the freedom and glory of the children of God” [Romans 8:21]) react to the three “heavenly” ones: Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Jesus is, of course, at the center, because this is a Christological mystery in which our share stands in direct relation to Christ. He is clad in purest white and translucent, as Mark (9:2) tells us. The most vivid colors are “on earth,” while the heavenly figures are more permeated by the illuminating light of Christ. Moses sits on Jesus’ right, exhibiting his two iconographic attributes: the tablets of the Commandments (because Moses represents Torah, “law,” the most important part of the Old Testament) and two horns from his head (less often depicted, although Exodus 34:29-35 speaks of the transfigured radiance of Moses’ face after his encounter with Yahweh). Elijah sits on Jesus’ left, the archetype of the prophets (the second most important part of the Old Testament), taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:1, 11) and whose return was deemed a sign of the coming of the Messiah. That is why, in the previous chapter of Mark (8:28), where Jesus asks “who do people say that I am?” the answers include two explicit names: John the Baptist (who comes “in the spirit and power of Elijah” — see Luke 1:16-17; see also Mark 9:13) and Elijah himself.” 

For observant Jews like the Apostles, Moses and Elijah represent the two most important streams of Biblical thought, the Law and the Prophets. Each clearly acknowledges Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. Mark speaks of Jesus as being in conversation with them (Mark 9:4). I see the hands of Carracci’s Jesus in a traditional teaching posture, as if “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Carracci’s Moses and Elijah — like the disciples on the road to Emmaus — seem to be in learning mode, following the instruction of the heavenly Voice heard by the Apostles: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). Is this Carracci’s answer to the question, “whom do you say I am?” because, for the observant Jew, there would have been no greater authorities than Moses and Elijah — and it appears they are clearly being instructed. (I qualify this to be my interpretation, because many traditional interpretations see Christ’s hand gesture in this painting as pointing to our final, heavenly destination with God the Father.) 

The Transfiguration is, therefore, not some marginal event in the life of Christ. It reveals who Jesus is and God’s plan for us. We are to be a new creation, sons in the Son (see Galatians 4). Transfiguration is a permanent orientation of Christian life.