A theophany is a revelation of God to man, when God makes himself plainly known. As examples, we might think of Moses’ discovery of the burning bush or Paul’s encounter with God on the road to Damascus. The Transfiguration is one such event, when the disciples see the glory of the Lord.
But what did they see? St. Thomas Aquinas suggests that in the Transfiguration, Christ allows his disciples to glimpse his glorified body; this is a glimpse of the radiant appearance of Christ after our Lord suffered his passion.
But why? Here’s where Aquinas offers something really rich. He says,
Our Lord, after foretelling His Passion to His disciples, had exhorted them to follow the path of His sufferings (Matthew 16:21-24). Now in order that anyone go straight along a road, he must have some knowledge of the end: thus an archer will not shoot the arrow straight unless he first see the target.
Christ was transfigured, meaning, the brilliance of his soul shone forth from inside of him, allowing his disciples to see the radiance of his charity. Such is the state of the heavenly host: brilliant and splendid. For the disciples it was a revelation, a vision of the good things to come.
But what do we see as we contemplate this mystery? What should our hearts and minds fix upon as we turn this mystery over? For there was not just the glory of the Lord, a foretaste of heaven, but Moses and Elijah appeared there speaking with Christ.
Mysteries to see in the vision
Aquinas suggests we are being allowed to see the following great theological truths in this vision.
Truth of Jesus' teaching
Moses and Elijah appear speaking with Christ to confirm the apostles’ faith.
Just as Christ confirms his teaching by working miracles, so the appearance of these holy saints demonstrates the truth of Jesus’ teaching. Some have said that Christ is Moses or Elijah, but this could not be, since they have appeared speaking with him.
Fulfillment of the Law
Christ reveals that he fulfills the law and the prophets.
Christ has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). Jesus is the last great paschal lamb of Israel. He is the one who has come to save his people from their sins. Standing in conversation with the holy prophets of Israel, Christ shows us that he is at odds neither with the law given by Moses nor the holiness preached by Elijah.
Judge of the living and the dead
Christ teaches he is judge of the living and the dead.
Each Sunday as we recite the Creed, we profess our belief that Christ is the judge of all. Elijah, having been assumed into heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11), here represents the living. Moses, having died (Deut. 34:5), represents the dead. It is Christ who stands between them, the lord of creation, who holds the keys to life and death.
Rewards of following Christ
Christ gives reassurance to the apostles.
Not only does our Lord confirm the apostles’ faith, but he affirms them, encouraging their fidelity. Moses and Elijah followed God’s will at great cost. Their lives are examples of sacrifice, and yet their presence alongside Christ reveals the rewards God has planned for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9).
Meekness and zeal
In holding conversation with Moses and Elijah, Christ upholds two great virtues of the Gospel.
In Moses, we see meekness. He veils his face before God, and insists that Aaron be his spokesman, not believing himself up to the task. Elijah shows us zeal for the Lord. At the raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath and at the contest with the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18) we see Elijah confident and zealous for the Lord. Elijah worked many miracles by his prayer, inspiring great faithfulness to the God of Israel.
Do we see these mysteries as we gaze on Christ?
Do we see these mysteries as we gaze on Christ? Perhaps our eyes are tired from straining. Perhaps we have not opened them to try to see. Perhaps we are not reliant on the graces of the sacraments to strengthen our vision. Wipe away your tears this Sunday, cast out all sleep from your eyes. Christ is calling to you this Lent; he invites you to see him more clearly.
The mystery of the Transfiguration is the glimpse of things to come: a vision of future glory in the face of present struggle and suffering. As we continue our Lenten journeys, cling to the vision of the glorified Christ, the promise of refulgent life to come.
7 Symbols from the Gospel account of the Transfiguration, as explained by Benedict XVI