Summer Glory

BEN112975 The Transfiguration, 1480 (oil on panel) by Bellini, Giovanni (c.1430-1516); 115x154 cm; Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy; Italian,  out of copyright
Giovanni Bellini, Transfiguration, ca. 1480, Museo Capodimonte, Naples

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive, and the life of a human being is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God” (Adversus haereses, IV, 20, 7).

This quote by the second-century Church Father, Irenaeus of Lyon, is particularly appropriate this week as we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration on Thursday. The story is told multiple times in the New Testament (Mt. 17:1-21; Mark 9:2-29; Luke 9:28-42; 2 Peter 1: 16-18) that Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a mountain top and there his body was transfigured in its heavenly glory. Standing witness were Moses and Ezechiel.

Fra Angelico, Transfiguration, 1438-1450, Convent of San Marco, Florence
Fra Angelico, Transfiguration, 1438-1450, Convent of San Marco, Florence

The meaning of the Gospel event is best explained by the reading from the Roman Martyrology: “The Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, when Christ Jesus, beloved only-begotten of the eternal Father, revealed his glory before the holy apostles, Peter, James and John, with the law and the prophets as witnesses, so that he might make our glory repaired by grace visible in the lowliness of our servile form, to which he had united himself, and that the image of God, according to which we were created, although corrupted in Adam, might be proclaimed to the ends of the earth.” The Church teaches here that in Christ’s transfigured glory is the promise of our own human flesh reborn in eternity.

Raphael, Transfiguration, 1516-1520, Vatican City, Pinacoteca
Raphael, Transfiguration, 1516-1520, Pinacoteca, Vatican City

How is it that the Church celebrates this event in August? It is an ancient feast in the Greek Church. The feast day is exactly forty days before the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14. It is therefore a preparation for the Church’s communal meditation on the cross. Symbolically the feast reveals the true meaning of Christ’s suffering and death. Pope Benedict gave this as the lesson of the transfiguration. “The Passion is transformed into light, into freedom and joy” (Jesus of Nazareth, 2007, p. 311). Pope Francis adds a connection of love to the light that the transfiguration casts on the cross. “Jesus thus chooses to give to Peter, James and John a foretaste of his glory, which He will have after the Resurrection, in order to confirm them in faith and encourage them to follow Him on the trying path, on the Way of the Cross. Thus, on a high mountain, immersed in prayer, He is transfigured before them: his face and his entire person irradiate a blinding light. The three disciples are frightened, as a cloud envelops them and the Father’s voice sounds from above, as at the Baptism on the Jordan: ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him’ (Mk 9:7). Jesus is the Son-made-Servant, sent into the world to save us all through the Cross, fulfilling the plan of salvation. His full adherence to God’s will renders his humanity transparent to the glory of God, who is love” (emphasis by the pope, Homily, March 15, 2015).

Armenian Icon Transfiguration
Icon of the Transfiguration, 11th century, Monastery of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice

The feast began to appear in the Latin West in the Carolingian era. It was particularly popular in monasteries where monks and nuns thought of their monastic communities as an image of life transfigured by the light and love of Christ. The ninth-century monk, Wandelbert of Prüm, in his metrical martyrology, linked the transfiguration to the passion and death of Jesus.

On the sixth of August
the holy flesh of Christ
bound to suffer death and the cross
gave in advance
the heavenly form.

Saint John Paul II included the Transfiguration as the fourth decade of the luminous mysteries of the holy rosary. In this way, the Church offers us a private meditation on its meaning at any time of the year.

Peter-Paul Rubens, Transfiguration, 1605,  Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy

Photo credits: Google images labeled for non-commercial reuse.Translation of the first entry of the Roman Martyrology for August 6 adapted from
History of the feast from Pierre Jounel, Le culte des saints dans les basiliques du Latran et du Vatican au douzième siècle (Paris: 1977).

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