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The Feast of Transfiguration

Yesterday (6th August) we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration. Feast of the Transfiguration is a Christian commemoration of the occasion upon which Jesus Christ took three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, up on a mountain, where Moses and Elijah appeared and Jesus was transfigured, his face and clothes becoming dazzlingly bright (Mark 9:2–13; Matthew 17:1–13; Luke 9:28–36). The festival celebrates the revelation of the eternal glory of the Second Person of the Trinity, which was normally veiled during Christ’s life on earth. According to tradition, the event took place on Mount Tabor.

It is not known when the festival was first celebrated, but it was kept in Jerusalem as early as the 7th century and in most parts of the Byzantine Empire by the 9th century. It was gradually introduced into the Western Church, and its observance was fixed as August 6 by Pope Calixtus III in 1457 as a thank offering for the victory over the Turks at Belgrade on that day in 1456. In 2002 Pope John Paul II updated the meditations of the rosary with five “luminous mysteries,” of which the Transfiguration is one.

In the Orthodox Church it has always been a major festival. In some churches it is celebrated on other dates. The Armenian Apostolic Church keeps it on the fourteenth Sunday after Easter, and some Lutherans on the Sunday after Epiphany.

What does this event mean? Thomas Aquinas’ treatment in the Summa theologiae sums up much of the wisdom of the Church Fathers on this matter.

Aquinas says that it was fitting for Christ to be manifested in his glory to his select Apostles because those who walk an arduous path need a clear sense of the goal of their journey. The arduous path is this life, with all of its attendant sufferings, failures, disappointments, and injustices.

Beset by all of this negativity, a pilgrim on life’s way can easily succumb to despair unless he is granted a glimpse of the glory that comes at the end of his striving. And this is why, Aquinas argues, Jesus, before journeying to Jerusalem to walk the way of the cross, for a brief moment allows the light to shine through him.

Though we live and move within the confines of this world of space and time, we are not meant, finally, for this dimensional system; we are summoned to life on high with God in a transformed state of existence. The Transfiguration, therefore, awakens our sense of wonder and steels our courage to face the darkness here below.

Those who have visited Coventry Cathedral will be aware of the story of its rebuilding in the aftermath of war-time bombing. Standing in what remains of the medieval ruins you can see into the new section of the Cathedral. Through the great glass screen, you can glimpse the extraordinary tapestry of Christ in Glory at the far end of the cathedral. From the midst of the pain and struggle of apparent ruin there is the reminder of the ultimate victory of Christ.

The transfiguration gospel offers a similar glimpse as the shadow of the cross becomes increasingly dark as it falls across Jesus and the disciples' path (and indeed our own journey through Lent). The disciples have moved from the excitement of hearing their master's radical teaching to witnessing His life-changing and love-affirming miracles, to being plunged into deep confusion as Jesus reveals He will suffer. Now they are overwhelmed by the merest glimpse of His true glory.

In a world that feels increasingly fragile it is all too easy to live with the sense of deep darkness over us. Yet in the words of poet Malcolm Guite, "Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar eclipse that glimpse of how things really are." (Guite: ‘Transfiguration' in Sounding the Seasons, Canterbury Press.)

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