SATURDAY READING: The Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

transfiguration pope benedict

From Jesus of Nazareth

All three Synoptic Gospels create a link between Peter’s confession and the account of Jesus’s transfiguration by means of a reference to time.  Matthew and Mark say: “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother.” (Matthew 17:1; Mark 9:2)  Luke writes: “Now about eight days after these sayings.” (Luke 9:28)  Clearly, this means that the two events, in each of which Peter plays a prominent role, are interrelated.  We could say that in both cases the issue is the divinity of Jesus as the son; another point, though, is that in both cases the appearance of his glory is connected with the passion motif.  Jesus’s divinity belongs with the cross – only when we put the two together do we recognize Jesus correctly.  John expressed this intrinsic interconnectedness of cross and glory when he said that the cross is Jesus’s “exaltation,” and that his exaltation is accomplished in no other way than in the cross.  But now we must try to delve somewhat more deeply into this remarkable time reference.  There are two different interpretations, though they do not have to be considered mutually exclusive.

J.-M. van Cangh and M. van Esbroeck have explored the connection with the calendar of Jewish festivals.  They point out that only five days separate two major Jewish feasts that occur in the fall.  First there is the feast of Yom-he-Kippurim, the great feast of atonement; the celebration of the weeklong Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth) follows six days afterward.  This would mean that Peter’s confession fell on the great Day of Atonement and should be interpreted theologically against the backdrop of this feast, on which, for the one time in the year, the high priest solemnly pronounced the name YHWH in the Temple’s Holy of Holies.  This context would give added depth to Peter’s confession of Jesus as the son of the living God.  Jean Daniélou, by contrast, sees the evangelists’ references to the timing of the transfiguration exclusively in relation to the Feast of Tabernacles, which – as we have seen – lasted an entire week.  On this reading, Matthew, Mark, and Luke would all be in agreement about the chronology of the event.  The six or eight days would then designate the weeklong Feast of Tabernacles itself; Jesus’s transfiguration would accordingly have taken place on the last day of the feast, which was both its high point and the synthesis of its inner meaning.

Both interpretations have in common the idea that Jesus’s transfiguration is linked with the Feast of Tabernacles.  We will see that this connection actually comes to light in the text itself and that it makes possible a deeper understanding of the whole event.  In addition to the specific elements of these accounts, we may observe here a fundamental trait of Jesus’s life, which received particularly thorough treatment in John’s gospel.  As we saw in chapter 8, the great events of Jesus’s life are inwardly connected with the Jewish festival calendar.  They are, as it were, liturgical events in which the liturgy, with its remembrance and expectation, becomes reality – becomes life.  This life then leads back to the liturgy and from the liturgy seeks to become life again.

Our analysis of the connections between the transfiguration story and the Feast of Tabernacles illustrates once again the fact that all Jewish feasts contain three dimensions.  They originate from celebrations of nature religion and thus tell of creator and creation; they then become remembrances of God’s actions in history; finally, they go on from there to become feasts of hope, which strain forward to meet the Lord who is coming, the Lord in whom God’s saving action in history is fulfilled, thereby reconciling the whole of creation.  We will see how these three dimensions of Jewish feasts are further deepened and refashioned as they become actually present in Jesus’s life and suffering.

Contrasting with this liturgical interpretation of the timing of the transfiguration is an alternative account that is insistently maintained by H. Gese (Zur biblischen Theologie).  This interpretation holds that there is insufficient evidence for the claim that the text alludes to the Feast of Tabernacles.  Instead, it reads the whole text against the background of Exodus 24 – Moses’s ascent of Mount Sinai.  Now, this chapter, which recounts how God seals the covenant with Israel, is indeed an essential key to interpreting the story of the transfiguration.  There we read: “The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days.  And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.” (Exodus 24:16)  The Exodus text, unlike the Gospels, mentions the seventh day.  This is not necessarily an argument against connecting it with the story of the transfiguration.  Nevertheless, I do consider the first idea – that the timing is derived from the Jewish festival calendar – to be more convincing.  It should be pointed out, though, that it is not at all unusual for different typological connections to converge in the events occurring along Jesus’s way.  This makes it plain that Moses and the prophets all speak of Jesus.

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.

John had come to reassemble Israel in preparation for the advent of the messiah.  But if the messiah himself is the suffering son of man, and if it is only as such that he opens the way to salvation, then the work of Elijah that prepares his way must also somehow bear the mark of the passion.  And it does: “They did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” (Marks 9:13)  Jesus recalls the destiny that actually befell the Baptist, but his reference to scripture is probably also an allusion to the traditions of the day foretelling the martyrdom of Elijah.  Elijah was considered “the only one who, though persecuted, escaped martyrdom; but when he returns. . . he too has to undergo death.” (Pesch, Markusevangelium)

The hoped-for salvation and the passion are thus joined together intimately and then developed into a picture of the redemption that accords with scripture’s deepest intention, although in terms of the prevailing expectations of the day it constitutes a startling novelty.  Scripture had to be read anew with the suffering Christ, and so it must ever be.  We constantly have to let the Lord draw us into his conversation with Moses and Elijah; we constantly have to learn from him, the risen Lord, to understand scripture afresh.

Let us return to the transfiguration story itself.  The three disciples are shaken by the enormousness of what they have seen.  They are overcome by “fear of God,” as we have seen them be on other occasions when they have experienced God’s closeness in Jesus, when they have sensed their own wretchedness and have been practically paralyzed by fear.  “They were terrified,” (Marks 9:6) says Mark.  And yet Peter begins to speak, although he is so dazed that “he did not know what to say” (Mark 9:6): “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.  Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Mark 9:5)

These words, which Peter speaks in a sort of ecstasy, in the midst of fear yet also in the joy of God’s closeness, have been the object of much discussion.  Do they have something to do with the Feast of Tabernacles, on the final day of which the transfiguration took place?  H. Gese contests this and argues that the real point of reference in the Old Testament is Exodus 33:7, which describes the “ritualization of the Sinai event.”  According to this text, Moses goes “outside the camp” to pitch the Tent of Meeting, on which the pillar of cloud then descends.  There the Lord and Moses spoke “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” (Exodus 33:1)  On this interpretation, then, Peter’s intention is to give permanence to the event of revelation and erect tents of meeting; the account of the cloud overshadowing the disciples could confirm this reading.  It is perfectly possible that the transfiguration account does contain a reminiscence of the Exodus text; both Jewish and early Christian exegesis customarily interweave different scriptural references so that they converge and complement each other.  Nevertheless, the proposal to set up three tents of meeting argues against such a connection, or at least makes it appear secondary.

The connection with the Feast of Tabernacles becomes convincing if we take account of the messianic interpretation of the feast in the Judaism of Jesus’s day.  Jean Daniélou (in The Bible and the Liturgy) has made a convincing study of this aspect and linked it with the testimony of the fathers, who were still quite familiar with the traditions of Judaism and reread them in a Christian context.  The Feast of Tabernacles exhibits the same three-dimensional structure that we have seen to be typical of major Jewish feasts generally: a celebration originally borrowed from nature religion becomes at the same time a feast in remembrance of God’s saving deeds in history, and remembrance in turn becomes hope for definitive redemption.  Creation, history, and hope become interlinked.  If at one time, during the Feast of Tabernacles with its water libation, there had been a prayer for the rain needed in a drought-stricken land, the feast very quickly developed into the remembrance of Israel’s wandering through the desert, when the Jews lived in tents (tabernacles, sukkoth). (Leviticus 23:43)  Daniélou cites Harald Risenfeld: “The huts were thought of, not only as a remembrance of the protection of God in the desert, but also as a prefiguration of the sukkoth in which the just are to dwell in the age to come.  Thus, it seems that a very exact eschatological symbolism was attached to the most characteristic rite of the Feast of Tabernacles, as this was celebrated in Jewish times.” (Bible and Liturgy)  In the New Testament, a mention of the eternal tabernacles of the righteous in the life to come occurs in Luke. (Luke 16:9)  “The manifestation of the glory of Jesus,” to quote Daniélou, “appears to Peter to be the sign that the times of the Messiah have arrived.  And one of the qualities of these messianic times was to be the dwelling of the just in the tents signified by the huts of the Feast of Tabernacles.” (Bible and Liturgy)  By experiencing the transfiguration during the Feast of Tabernacles, Peter, in his ecstasy, was able to recognize “that the realities prefigured by the feast were accomplished.  The scene of the transfiguration marks the fact that the messianic times have come.”  It is only as they go down from the mountain that Peter has to learn once again that the messianic age is first and foremost the age of the cross and that the transfiguration – the experience of becoming light from and with the Lord – requires us to be burned by the light of the passion and so transformed.

These connections also shed new light on the meaning of the fundamental claim of the prologue to John’s gospel, where the evangelist sums up the mystery of Jesus: “And the word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” (John 1:14)  Indeed, the Lord has pitched the tent of his body among us and has thus inaugurated the messianic age.  Following this line of thought, Gregory of Nyssa reflected on the connection between the Feast of Tabernacles and the incarnation in a magnificent text.  He says that the Feast of Tabernacles, though constantly celebrated, remained unfulfilled.  “For the true Feast of Tabernacles had not yet come.  According to the words of the prophet, however [an illusion to Psalm 118:27], God, the Lord of all things, has revealed himself to us in order to complete the construction of the tabernacle of our ruined habitation, human nature.” (De anima, and Daniélou, Bible and Liturgy)

Let us return from these broad vistas to the story of the transfiguration.  “And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved son; listen to him.’” (Mark 9:7)  The holy cloud, the shekinah, is the sign of the presence of God himself.  The cloud hovering over the Tent of Meeting indicated that God was present.  Jesus is the holy tent above whom the cloud of God’s presence now stands and spreads out to “overshadow” the others as well.  The scene repeats that of Jesus’s baptism, in which the Father himself, speaking out of the cloud, had proclaimed Jesus as son: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)

The solemn proclamation of sonship, however, is now followed by the command, “Listen to him.”  At this point, we are reminded of the link with Moses’s ascent of Mount Sinai, which we saw at the beginning to be the background of the transfiguration story.  On the mountain, Moses received the Torah, God’s teaching word.  Now we are told in reference to Jesus: “Listen to him.”  H. Gese has provided a perceptive commentary on this scene: “Jesus himself has become the divine word of revelation.  The Gospels could not illustrate it any more clearly or powerfully: Jesus himself is the Torah.” (Zur biblischen Theologie)  This one command brings the theophany to its conclusion and sums up its deepest meaning.  The disciples must accompany Jesus back down the mountain and learn ever anew to “listen to him.”

If we learn to understand the content of the transfiguration story in these terms – as the irruption and inauguration of the messianic age – then we are also able to grasp the obscure statement that Mark’s gospel inserts between Peter’s confession and the teaching on discipleship, on one hand, and the account of the transfiguration, on the other: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the dominion of God [the kingdom of God] come with power.” (Marks 9:1)  What does this mean?  Is Jesus predicting that some of the bystanders will still be alive at the time of his Parousia, at the definitive inbreaking of the kingdom of God?  If not, then what?

Rudolf Pesch (Markusevangelium) has convincingly argued that the placing of this saying immediately before the transfiguration clearly relates it to this event.  Some – that is to say, the three disciples who accompany Jesus up the mountain – are promised that they will personally witness the coming of the kingdom of God “in power.”  On the mountain the three of them see the glory of God’s kingdom shining out of Jesus.  On the mountain they are overshadowed by God’s holy cloud.  On the mountain – in the conversation of the transfigured Jesus with the law and the prophets – they realize that the true Feast of Tabernacles has come.  On the mountain they learn that Jesus himself is the living Torah, the complete word of God.  On the mountain they see the “power” (dynamis) of the kingdom that is coming in Christ.

Yet equally through the awe-inspiring encounter with God’s glory in Jesus, they must learn what Paul says to the disciples of all ages in the First Letter to the Corinthians: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power [dynamis] of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23)  This “power” (dynamis) of the coming kingdom appears to them in the transfigured Jesus, who speaks with the witnesses of the old covenant about the necessity of his passion as the way to glory. (Luke 24:26)  They personally experience the anticipation of the Parousia, and that is how they are slowly initiated into the full depth of the mystery of Jesus.

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