Transfiguration – God’s divinity and its connection with His humanity

Among the mysteries of faith that constantly challenge our minds and imaginations are the relationships between the humanity and the divinity of Christ, and between His death and resurrection. Perhaps some reflection on Our Lord’s transfiguration may aid us in this process!

In the Preface prayer of the Mass for the feast day, one traditional explanation of the event refers to the “scandal of the cross.”  Seeing the divinity of Christ shining through his humanity was supposed to encourage the apostles in face of the imminent crucifixion.

But I don’t find that suggestion very convincing for a number of reasons. Firstly, only three of the apostles were privileged to receive this special revelation. Secondly, they were expressly forbidden to share the information with anyone. And, thirdly, most of them ran away from the cross when the challenge came. In this light, the transfiguration was a signal failure.

If there is any scandal to be faced surely it is not the cross but the resurrection, a fact that is supported by St Mark’s account of this great epiphany! Mark, alone of the three gospels chronicling the event, mentions at the conclusion of his account, “… though among themselves they discussed what ‘rising from the dead could mean’” (Mk 9:10).

The resurrection from the dead was not a given among Jewish people in Jesus’ day. The Sadducees had no time for it, while the Pharisees thought it was something that might happen to everyone at the end of time. But Jesus promises that he will rise after three days!

Since there was no precedent for such a happening, it was no wonder that the apostles were so puzzled by the words of their master. Recall too, the reaction St Paul got in mentioning the resurrection in front of the sophisticated philosophers in Athens much later – they laughed at the idea!

But here in the transfiguration of Jesus there is an inkling of what resurrection might mean, a transformation from within, not an external manifestation, as happens with Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with a shining face. A seed has been sown in the minds of three close friends by Jesus which will flower when Jesus returns to them in the Upper Room after three days in the grave.

This link between resurrection and transfiguration takes on a further dimension when we speak about the Lord’s divinity shining through his humanity. How do the gospels see this relationship?

There is a fundamental difference of approach to the identity of Christ between the first three gospels and the fourth. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tend to begin their reflection on the life of Jesus with a focus on his humanity and then seek, step by step, to uncover his divinity. Think of the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke, the story of a homeless baby, hunted by a cruel, murderous king, fleeing into Egypt, recognised only by despised shepherds and heathen wise men.

And in the public ministry Jesus will, in spite of his miracles and fine teaching, be rejected by most of the people he has come to save, ending up on the cross!

When the story of Jesus is told from this point of view of the humanity of Jesus, sharing in the suffering of the common man and woman, crucifixion is a given, but resurrection is a challenge. How does a crucified man get to rise again? It can only be by means of God’s power, which is signalled, not just in miracles but in the voice of God at the Baptism and now again in the Transfiguration scene, together with the visible signs of shining face and bright clothes.

Turning to the Gospel of John, we find his starting point is the divinity of Christ rather than his humanity. From the first page, we hear of one who is the Word from the beginning, God coming alive in human flesh (Jn 1:1-2). If Jesus is God, then the story will not have a problem with resurrection. That is a given. (If he had power to come down he will have power to return. You could say he has a return ticket!)

The challenge will be crucifixion and the question, “What will this God take on?” He will take on the worst suffering of human beings – that of a common criminal despised and rejected by his own.

So, there is no account of transfiguration in John as there is in the first three accounts. Instead there is a very real sense that the divinity of Christ shines forth from the cross. It is there that Jesus is glorified if we have eyes to see, a glory that will then shine out in the resurrection but is already present to the eyes of faith (Jn17:1-5). Indeed, John will conclude his gospel with the story of Thomas insisting that he will only believe in the resurrection if he sees and touches the wounds of Jesus (Jn20:24-29)!

Then again, even in the first three Gospels there are signs of this recognition, especially in Mark’s passion, where, under the cross, a Roman Centurion will cry out about Jesus: “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk.15:39)!

Whether you tell the story of Jesus from below (his humanity) or from above (his divinity) ultimately we see the glory of God in the disfigured, as well as the transfigured, face of Jesus. He is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah which we hear in the reading from Good Friday: “As the crowds were appalled on seeing him – so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human… without beauty, without majesty we saw him, no looks to attract our eyes; a thing despised and rejected by men” (Is 52:13-53:12).

Therefore, in conclusion, we can say that while the resurrection is the definitive proof of the divinity of Jesus Christ for believers, prefigured in the transfiguration, it is the cross which reveals to our hearts the loving quality of that divinity. God in Christ was willing to go that far, and he continues to go that far in sharing in our sufferings today.

For He has not gone away! Jesus, human and divine – all through his death and resurrection!

Kieran Cronin OFM