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Reflections on the Transfiguration of Christ

In the Catholic tradition, one of the classical explanations of the Transfiguration is the one given by St Leo the Great. By changing His appearance in front of His disciples, St Leo tells us, Christ ‘chiefly wished to prevent [them] from feeling scandalized in their hearts by the cross.‘ Leo continues: ‘Christ did not want the disgrace of the passion, which He freely accepted, to break their faith. This is why He revealed to them the excellence of His hidden dignity.

Now when we consider this kind of explanation, there’s one objection to it which is perhaps likely to occur to us. This objection is that if Christ’s purpose was as St Leo describes it, then we will have to say that, in an important sense, it failed. We will have to say this because, of the three disciples who were there on the mountain when the Transfiguration took place, both Peter and James were in fact scandalized when Christ’s Passion and Death began to overwhelm them. We are told quite explicitly that, when it came to the foot of the Cross, then, of all the disciples, only John remained. Peter, indeed, not only fled from it, together with James and the others, but beforehand made his threefold denial of any relationship with Christ, which all the Evangelists pointedly, minutely, record. It’s very difficult to see, in light of all that we know, how the Transfiguration had any impact at all, either upon enlightening Peter or James about the meaning of the scandal and disgrace of the Crucifixion, or upon preventing them from breaking faith with it.

But of course St Leo offers to explain to us what Christ intended, not what He actually achieved. We can see how Leo’s explanation can be true of what Christ wanted to accomplish; we can see also that the Transfiguration itself ought to have been sufficient to accomplish it; and at the same time, we can recognize that it was only in St John that Christ’s desire was fulfilled. Even though all three disciples were accorded the same vision, the same possibility of insight, the same ground for perseverance, only one of them took to himself and made his own all that had been offered him.

And there’s nothing in this which ought to surprise us. Isn’t this, after all, how grace works, or fails to work? We are offered it; by no means are we compelled to accept it. Of course one could say that the grace of the Transfiguration was unusually vivid and alluring. It’s not one of the ordinary patterns of grace, to see Christ disclosed to us like this, in what St Leo memorably calls ‘His hidden dignity‘. But doesn’t that in fact strengthen exactly the point we’re making? For now we are able to see clearly that even such a grace as that was by no means irresistible. And this in turn brings us to what is surely one of the most intriguing aspects of the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration. In light of all that follows, we have to ask how is it that Peter and James could have failed to draw from their experience of the Transfiguration all that Christ desired to convey to them.

As far as a detailed answer to that question is concerned, we have to admit, I think, that we simply do not know.

We can’t provide any kind of detailed answer, because the Gospels are not primarily psychological, nor are they even primarily spiritual, portraits of the disciples. The Gospels do not convey to us in any very deep or sustained fashion what kind of man each of the disciples was. Yet this is what we would need, if we were properly to understand how it is that Peter and James came to refuse or to miss the grace which the Transfiguration embodied.

But what we are given to understand, it seems to me – and this is itself momentous – is that such a thing is possible. However clearly or powerfully grace has been offered us, however gifted we may have been by God with His favours, with His promptings and His illuminations, it is still always possible for us to turn away: completely, perhaps – or at least to inhibit God’s graces in some way, to make them ineffective within us, or somehow less effective than God has desired them to be. This is one of the most significant lessons which the episode of the Transfiguration has to teach us.

Can we however say any more about this with reference to the Transfiguration in particular? St Leo’s commentary perhaps provides us with some clues.

Leo draws our attention to the elements of scandal and disgrace which circulate darkly and powerfully around Christ and His Cross. In their hearts, St Leo tells us, Christ desired His disciples to be able to enter into these things and live through them. What does this suggest?

The heart, we can say, is the place of our deepest, our most defining and determining, desires. Here, in the heart, we discover what we really want. At least, we can potentially discover it: for learning what it is, at any given point in our lives, that is really most important to us is very often difficult – and may equally often, let’s face it, be a kind of knowledge which we do not find it very attractive to attain. But what of Peter’s heart, of James’s heart? What was it, when they witnessed the Transfiguration, that these men most deeply desired?

At one level, who can say? But following St Leo’s suggestion, we can at least suggest that what Peter and James did not want was the scandal and disgrace of the Cross. More precisely, it’s not so much that they didn’t want these things – for who, after all, could actively desire them? It’s rather that their hearts were such that they would actively refuse any path which demanded such things. They would, in other words, do anything to avoid the radical marginalization and dispossession and defeat which Christ and His Cross required them to endure.

They knew, after all, the kind of Saviour, and therefore the kind of salvation, which they were prepared to imagine – the kind, therefore, they were prepared to accept. They wanted success, they looked to Christ for the fulfilment of their fantasy of enjoying some dramatic and decisive vindication, a glorious overthrowing of the alien and Godless people who dominated and despised them. And as they watched this dream, this demand, evaporate, as they saw the path ahead require them to renounce the spoils of victory, and instead endure an ever-deepening intensification of their vulnerability and abjection, then we find that they could not, in fact would not, tolerate it.

Perhaps the ‘hidden dignity’ which they had seen disclosed in the Transfiguration actually strengthened their refusal. For hadn’t they seen, in that ‘hidden dignity’, the promise of a victory, of a glory, which would undoubtedly be theirs? To see their hold upon that glory recede, apparently irretrievably, must have very hard to deal with. Recalling the Transfiguration, perhaps they felt taunted, even betrayed. People who feel betrayed often violently reject the hopes and desires which once upon a time had animated them. Can we glimpse this perhaps in Peter’s repudiation of Christ following His arrest? Three times Peter has to face the question: Are you not one of his disciples? And in response, cursing and swearing as St Mark tells us, all he can bring himself each time to reply is: I do not know this man of whom you speak. There may be more than fear at work here.

But whatever the truth of this, if we turn from Peter to St John, we have to ask: what did John have, that Peter lacked? What enabled John, at the foot of the Cross, to see that this was not the betrayal of what the Transfiguration had disclosed, but in fact its fulfilment?

The Church has often seen in John the embodiment of the contemplative spirit, in contrast to Peter’s impulsiveness, his yearning for action and for getting things done. She has also seen in John a particular affinity for love, for love as the meaning of God and of all that God does, the meaning of all that God undergoes, of all that He suffers on our behalf and therefore at our hands. Is it this which enables John to persevere? Is it this that makes him uniquely attuned not to victory, which the defeat of the Cross cannot, as such, disclose, but rather to love and its consummation, the consummatum estIt is Finished – which, in John’s own Gospel, is Christ’s final and definitive Word from the Cross?

St John possessed a special insight into God. It was an insight nurtured in contemplation, in his adherence ultimately only to love and love’s demands. Uniquely among the Evangelists, it is John who insists that the deepest and truest name for God is nothing other than Love. And this is what enabled him to see what Peter refused to see. The ‘hidden dignity’ of which St Leo speaks, momentarily disclosed in the Transfiguration, is not contradicted by the Cross. On the contrary, the Cross is in fact a disclosure of the very same glory. It is the glory of the God Who is Love.

John’s Gospel alone records the words Christ spoke in imminent anticipation of what He calls His hour, that is, the time of His suffering and death on the Cross. ‘Father‘, Christ prays, ‘the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee‘. Now God’s glory is not divided: this must be the same glory as was disclosed at the Transfiguration, but disclosed as it were from a new angle, a new perspective.

We might even suggest that the angle from the Cross is wider, the perspective deeper. For in the unveiling of glory in the Transfiguration, something remained hidden. What remained hidden was the truth that what the Transfiguration disclosed was not primarily the glory of God’s transcendent power, or even of His transcendent holiness. Though it may have looked like it, this was not in fact what it was – not, at least, in the way in which Peter was accustomed to think, as we have seen. What was in fact disclosed was at the deepest level the glory of God’s love. But what happens when we descend there, what the glory of God’s love actually looks like, remains, at that point, to be disclosed. It becomes visible only on the Cross. Only then, at the foot of the Cross, are we permitted to see, fully and completely expressed, what the Transfiguration had begun to reveal.

On the Cross, what Leo call’s God’s ‘hidden dignity’ is finally unveiled. We see the definitive interpretation of God’s power and God’s holiness. Their definitive interpretation is His love.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto