The Transfiguration

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
August 2, 2017
Mount Transfiguration

We know almost nothing about a 7th century monk curiously known as Anastasius of Sinai.   His name is more intriguing than, say, Frederick of Cherrydale.   “Anastasius” is a Greek name that means “Resurrection,” and it’s more popular than most non-Greeks might suspect.   Two Byzantine Emperors went by that name, as did four Popes, several Greek politicians, plus numerous Greek footballers and one weightlifter.   But none of them had the dignity of being surnamed “of Sinai.”  Sinai is the mountain on which the Book of Exodus depicts Moses as a prophet experiencing a theophany and receiving the Ten Commandments in a cloud of glory.   In light of this, imagine an American or British priest taking the name “Father Resurrection of Sinai.” Traditionally, English speakers have not been wont to give or take grandiloquent names.   Moreover, doing so could put too much pressure on a young priest.  His mother would be too proud, his friends doubtful and his siblings wouldn’t know what to think. 


I would expect someone by the name of Anastasius of Sinai to comment on the Transfiguration of Christ.  The subject matter befits the name.   He cuts to the quick:  Jesus was transfigured – i.e. gave a sneak preview of his Resurrection – in order to save the faith of Peter, James and John, who would be in danger of losing it in forthcoming trials.   As Anastasius quotes from the Gospel, Jesus was transfigured six days after he told Peter that the “gates of hell” or the “powers of death” will not prevail against him and his Church.  To be sure, in the Bible, plenty of mystical matters are associated with “after six.”   For example, God rested after the sixth day; Moses told the Israelites that they should save twice as much bread on sixth day in preparation for the Sabbath; Moses himself was summed by God from the cloud (on Mount Sinai) after six days; there were six steps leading up to Solomon’s throne; the prophet Isaiah saw six-winged Seraphim in his vision of God’s glory.   Quoting the Gospel, Anastasius says that it was after “six days” that Christ disclosed the future glory of the Resurrection to Peter, James and John so that their faith may not fail in the hour of trial (see the full text of Matthew 16-17).  


The actual Resurrection of Christ was a prophecy of the Last Judgment and the End of the World.  The Transfiguration was prophecy of Sunday rest and the life-giving assurances and consolations that come from the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  It foretells Christ’s strength in the midst of trial and discouragement.   The Transfiguration is about the Holy Day:  Sunday.   “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” said Peter.   It’s as if he said, “Let’s put up some tents and camp out for a while.  I don’t want to go back down the mountain now.”    Strange to say, the Gospel says that the three Apostles “were terrified,” and yet they wanted to stick around.   It must have been a different kind of “terror,” that is, an overwhelmingly glorious and transcendent experience, like Isaiah’s vision of God’s glory (see Isaiah 6).    


But they couldn’t stay.  After this experience, the Gospel mundanely reports, “As they were coming down the mountain” – as if they were on their way back to Front Royal – “[Jesus] charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone”(Mark 9:9).   There’s an old saying:  “Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.”  How Peter, James and John kept their lips sealed on this vision of the transfigured Christ is perhaps just another unexplored mystery of the Gospel.  Modern scripture scholars might be inclined to say that they shared the secret with Mary Magdalene.  For today’s Bible gurus, everything comes back to Mary Magdalene.   Why wouldn’t she be in the loop?  After all, she was married to Jesus, and she had every right to know what her husband was doing on Mount Tabor. 


Nonetheless, the vision of the transfigured Christ – and the Father’s testimony, “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him” – may have been for Peter, James and John what we might call a “contemplative silence.”  There are precedents:  "This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: ‘Among those who approach me I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.’ Aaron remained silent” (Leviticus 10:3).  Zechariah had this issue after the Archangel Gabriel told him that his childless and elderly wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son (see Luke 1:5-25).  Moreover, for Peter, James and John, the Transfiguration was in the lineup of many fearful and amazing things that Christ had revealed to them, which they would only be able to process after Pentecost.  Perhaps they kept quiet about the Transfiguration because Jesus didn’t give them a chance to talk about it.   There was no Happy Hour between the Transfiguration and what came next.  Once they got down the mountain, they ran into a quarrelsome crowd and a group of scribes, standing around a guy whose son was possessed by a demon.  Jesus wasted no time castigating the crowd, the scribes and his own effete disciples – “Oh faithless generation!” – and He declared, “Everything is possible to the one who has faith.”  “I do believe,” pleaded the hapless father, “Help my unbelief!”   Jesus immediately exorcized the demon.  Later that night, He privately fielded questions from his disciples about casting out demons (see Mark 9:14-29).   In other words, it was a long day.  Perhaps their brains were too overloaded to talk about the Transfiguration. 


In any event, one thing is clear:  Jesus was transfigured in order to strengthen our faith in the midst of trial.   In my personal opinion – not official church doctrine – the Sacrament of Confirmation confers the grace of Christ’s Transfiguration on the baptized, in the same way that it conferred a faith strengthening grace on Peter, James and John.    The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Confirmation is a “seal of the Holy Spirit” that forever enrolls us in Christ’s service and gives us the “promise of divine protection in the great eschatological trial” (CCC 1296).    In other words, Confirmation – like the Apostles’ vision of the transfigured Christ – strengthens our faith for the trials that are bound to challenge it.   And so, I share with you the text of Anastasius of Sinai’s sermon on the Transfiguration.


From a Sermon on the Transfiguration of the Lord by Anastasius of Sinai

Upon Mount Tabor, Jesus revealed to his disciples a heavenly mystery. While living among them he had spoken of the kingdom and of his second coming in glory, but to banish from their hearts any possible doubt concerning the kingdom and to confirm their faith in what lay in the future by its prefiguration in the present, he gave them on Mount Tabor a wonderful vision of his glory, a foreshadowing of the kingdom of heaven. It was as if he said to them: “As time goes by you may be in danger of losing your faith. To save you from this I tell you now that some standing here listening to me will not taste death until they have seen the Son of Man coming in the glory of his Father. “ Moreover, in order to assure us that Christ could command such power when he wished, the evangelist continues: Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James and John, and led them up a high mountain where they were alone. There, before their eyes, he was transfigured. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Then the disciples saw Moses and Elijah appear, and they were talking to Jesus. 

These are the divine wonders we celebrate today; this is the saving revelation given us upon the mountain; this is the festival of Christ that has drawn us here. Let us listen, then, to the sacred voice of God so compellingly calling us from on high, from the summit of the mountain, so that with the Lord’s chosen disciples we may penetrate the deep meaning of these holy mysteries, so far beyond our capacity to express. Jesus goes before us to show us the way, both up the mountain and into heaven, and – I speak boldly – it is for us now to follow him with all speed, yearning for the heavenly vision that will give us a share in his radiance, renew our spiritual nature and transform us into his own likeness, making us for ever sharers in his Godhead and raising us to heights as yet undreamed of.

Let us run with confidence and joy to enter into the cloud like Moses and Elijah, or like James and John. Let us be caught up like Peter to behold the divine vision and to be transfigured by that glorious transfiguration. Let us retire from the world, stand aloof from the earth, rise above the body, detach ourselves from creatures and turn to the creator, to whom Peter in ecstasy exclaimed: Lord, it is good for us to be here.

It is indeed good to be here, as you have said, Peter. It is good to be with Jesus and to remain here for ever. What greater happiness or higher honor could we have than to be with God, to be made like him and to live in his light?

Therefore, since each of us possesses God in his heart and is being transformed into his divine image, we also should cry out with joy: It is good for us to be here – here where all things shine with divine radiance, where there is joy and gladness and exultation; where there is nothing in our hearts but peace, serenity and stillness; where God is seen. For here, in our hearts, Christ takes up his abode together with the Father, saying as he enters: Today salvation has come to this house. With Christ, our hearts receive all the wealth of his eternal blessings, and there where they are stored up for us in him, we see reflected as in a mirror both the first fruits and the whole of the world to come.