I want to draw your attention to certain details in Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, which reveal much about our Faith.
It won’t be useless to consider the Transfiguration yet again. Sunday’s Gospel is meant to be meditated on throughout the week anyway. This particular mystery, we know, was planned by the Lord to prepare his three closest disciples for the Passion: it seems we would do well to keep on pondering it, as Holy Week approaches.
And it’s likely we should give it special attention, precisely because it’s a mystery we are tempted to skip over, because of its strangeness. As if to set us straight, St. John Paul II placed it among the Luminous Mysteries, quite on a par there with the Eucharist.
I confess I have hardly stopped thinking about this mystery since a pre-COVID pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which included, for me, a 1600-foot hike up the lone-standing monadnock which is Mt. Tabor.
The Transfiguration is better called an “event” rather than a “vision,” because that is how the Evangelists take pains to present it. Consider Luke: He is clear that Jesus becomes transfigured while the disciples are asleep! It is, therefore, not a subjective appearance. (Why they fell asleep in the middle of the day is perhaps explained by the rigor of the ascent on a warm spring day.)
Then, notice Luke’s remarkable restraint: “While he was praying his face changed in appearance.” Literally, in the Greek: his face “was different.” How exactly was it different? Luke doesn’t say. He tells us, indeed, that Our Lord’s clothing became “dazzling white.” But he leaves it up to us to infer, correctly, that His clothing was dazzling because He was dazzling (as Matthew explicitly says). Yet for Luke, it’s apparently not important to emphasize this. That is, there is nothing gawking or boastful about his language. Just the opposite: it is understated and matter-of-fact.
As for Peter, James, and John, they first perceived the Lord’s transfigured appearance, and His converse with Moses and Elijah, only when they are waking up. Contrast this fact with a common theme outside Christianity, that the deepest insights are found in sleep, or even in drug-induced hallucinations.
William James, in his study of religious experiences (which he calls “convulsions of piety”), for instance, even makes alcohol a helper to mystical insight. “[T]he sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core.”
Helpful reading for Lent, that – because it’s the opposite of the Christian viewpoint found in Luke.
Peter mumbles some nonsense about setting up booths upon waking, which all three Evangelists report just about word-for-word. Maybe you’ve had someone in your family who was a “sleepwalker” and said things in his sleep or just on waking up. My brother, as a boy, once sat up in bed with a start and exclaimed, “When are the stagecoaches arriving?” You can bet we remembered it and never stopped ribbing him about it.
It’s useless to see any real connection between Peter’s words and the festival of Sukkot. Luke includes the statement in part, surely, to draw a contrast between true sobriety – which means seeing Jesus, Moses, and Elijah – and Peter’s sleepy confusion.
But Peter spoke, Luke says, because he noticed that Moses and Elijah were about to depart. How did he sense this? Did they turn and start walking away? That’s doubtful: presumably, it was what they said, some Hebrew equivalent of à bientôt (rather than au revoir).
And then, there is the cloud. “While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them.” The New American Bible under-translates here. It’s not that a shadow came over them: it’s that they were placed in darkness, because the cloud obscured the sun. This is a telling and important fact. The sun stands for God (for the early Christians, too, the Son in his glory in heaven). Yet the cloud obscures this light, while another light remains.
So, picture it: once the cloud blocked the sun, the disciples would see everything, instead, as illuminated by the light of Jesus. Think of being inside a dark cavern and someone nearby is holding a magnesium torch, except in this case He is the magnesium torch.
No wonder they were afraid. It was not from being in a cloud. Fog was familiar – after all, they were fishermen. Luke says: “They became frightened when they entered the cloud.” If it was a dense cloud, they would be unable to see Jesus any longer, but the light would continue to illuminate the air around them, and themselves, as if everything else had been swallowed up in light.
Consider what it’s like if, by mistake, you turn on the high beams while driving in the fog. It’s in this condition, in the very pillar of cloud, as if – without the Sun and the Son but still enjoying illumination – that they hear, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
It’s not possible to argue from the Scripture text alone to the truth of what is reported: faith is needed. And yet everything about Luke’s account speaks of truthfulness and truth: the understatement, the sobriety, the poking fun at Peter, the room left for inference.
Peter, James, and John took what they saw and, perhaps, continued to see it hidden in the Passion. We have this advantage over them: From repeated reflection on the Resurrection, if we wake up, we more easily perceive, with Mary, that it is God who is betrayed, arrested, abandoned, derided, unjustly sentenced, spat upon, beaten, scourged, abused, and crucified.
*Image: The Transfiguration by Giovanni Bellini, 1478-79 [Capodimonte Museum, Naples, Italy]
You may also enjoy:
David Warren’s Saint Luke’s Passion
Fr. Robert P. Imbelli’s The Transfiguration of Humanity (Homage to Paul VI)