The Transfiguration

Written by then Cardinal Ratzinger in his book “Jesus of Nazareth”.

Let us turn now to the text of the Transfiguration narrative itself.  There we are told that Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up onto a high mountain by themselves. (Mark 9:2)  We will come across these three again on the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:33) during Jesus’s agony in the garden, which is the counterimage of the transfiguration, although the two scenes are inextricably linked.  Nor should we overlook the connection with Exodus 24, where Moses takes Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu with him as he climbs the mountain – though seventy of the elders of Israel are also included.

Once again the mountain serves – as it did in the Sermon on the Mount and in the nights spent by Jesus in prayer – as the locus of God’s particular closeness.  Once again we need to keep together in our minds the various mountains of Jesus’s life: the mountain of the temptation; the mountain of his great preaching; the mountain of his prayer; the mountain of the transfiguration; the mountain of his agony; the mountain of the cross; and finally, the mountain of the risen Lord, where he declares – in total antithesis to the offer of world dominion through the devil’s power: “All power in Heaven and on Earth is given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)  But in the background we also catch sight of Sinai, Horeb, Moriah – the mountains of Old Testament revelation.  They are all at one and the same time mountains of passion and of revelation, and they also refer in turn to the Temple Mount, where revelation becomes liturgy.

When we inquire into the meaning of the mountain, the first point is of course the general background of mountain symbolism.  The mountain is the place of ascent – not only outward, but also inward ascent; it is a liberation from the burden of everyday life, a breathing in of the pure air of creation; it offers a view of the broad expanse of creation and its beauty; it gives one an inner peak to stand on and an intuitive sense of the creator.  History then adds to all this the experience of the God who speaks, and the experience of the passion, culminating in the sacrifice of Isaac, in the sacrifice of the lamb that points ahead to the definite Lamb sacrificed on Mount Calvary.  Moses and Elijah were privileged to receive God’s revelation on the mountain, and now they are conversing with the one who is God’s revelation in person.

“And he was transfigured before them,” Mark says quite simply, going on to add somewhat awkwardly, as if stammering before the mystery: “And his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on Earth could bleach them.” (Mark 9:2-3)  Matthew has rather more elevated words at his command: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” (Matthew 17:2)  Luke is the only one of the evangelists who begins his account by indicating the purpose of Jesus’s ascent: He “went up on the mountain to pray.” (Luke 9:28)  It is in the context of Jesus’s prayer that he now explains the event that the three disciples are to witness: “And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.” (Luke 9:29)  The transfiguration is a prayer event; it displays visibly what happens when Jesus talks with his father: the profound interpenetration of his being with God, which then becomes pure light.  In his oneness with the Father, Jesus is himself “light from light.”  The reality that he is in the deepest core of his being, which Peter tried to express in his confession – that reality becomes perceptible to the senses at this moment: Jesus’s being in the light of God, his own being-light as son.

At this point Jesus’s relation to the figure of Moses as well as the differences between the two become apparent: “As he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (Exodus 34:29-35)  Because Moses has been talking with God, God’s light streams upon him and makes him radiant.  But the light that causes him to shine comes upon him from the outside, so to speak.  Jesus, however, shines from within; he does not simply receive light, but he himself is light from light.

Yet Jesus’s garment of white light at the transfiguration speaks of our future as well.  In apocalyptic literature, white garments are an expression of heavenly beings – the garments of angels and of the elect.  In this vein the apocalypse of John – the Book of Revelation – speaks of the white garments that are worn by those who have been saved (cf. especially 7:9, 13; 19:14).  But it also tells us something new: The garments of the elect are white because they have washed them in the blood of the Lamb (cf. Revelation 7:14); this means that through baptism they have been united with Jesus’s passion, and his passion is the purification that restores to us the original garment lost through our sin (cf. Luke 15:22).  Through baptism we are clothed with Jesus in light and we ourselves become light.

At this point Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus.  What the risen Lord will later explain to the disciples on the road to Emmaus is seen here in visible form.  The law and the prophets speak with Jesus; they speak of Jesus.  Only Luke tells us – at least in a brief allusion – what God’s two great witnesses were talking about with Jesus: They “appeared in glory and spoke of his departure [his exodus], which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31)  Their topic of conversation is the cross, but understood in an inclusive sense as Jesus’s exodus, which had to take place in Jerusalem.  Jesus’s cross is an exodus: a departure from this life, a passage through the “Red Sea” of the passion, and a transition into glory – a glory, however, that forever bears the mark of Jesus’s wounds.
This is a clear statement that the law and the prophets are fundamentally about the “hope of Israel,” the exodus that brings definite liberation; but the content of this hope is the suffering son of man and servant of God, who by his suffering opens the door into freedom and renewal.  Moses and Elijah are themselves figures of the passion and witnesses of the passion.  They speak with the transfigured Jesus about what they said while on Earth, about the passion of Jesus.  But by speaking of these things with Jesus during his transfiguration they make it apparent that this passion brings salvation; that it is filled with the glory of God; that the passion is transformed into light, into freedom and joy.

At this point, we need to jump ahead to the conversation that the three disciples have with Jesus as they come down from the “high mountain.”  Jesus is talking with them about his coming resurrection from the dead, which of course presupposes the cross.  The disciples ask instead about the return of Elijah, which is foretold by the scribes.  This is Jesus’s reply: “Elijah does come first to restore all things.  And how is it written of the son of man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?  But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” (Marks 9:13)  Jesus’s words confirm the expectation of Elijah’s return.  At the same time, however, he completes and corrects the common picture of it.  He tacitly identifies the Elijah who will return as John the Baptist: the return of Elijah has already happened in the work of the Baptist.


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