On most Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox liturgical calendars today marks the Feast of the Transfiguration. For conservative evangelicals, the transfiguration has apologetic weight since it points toward the deity of Christ. As important as this aspect of the transfiguration might be, however, it’s greater significance resides elsewhere. Standing between Jesus’s baptism and ascension, Christian tradition interprets this event both in its iconography and doxology as a revelation of Christ’s divinity, a foretaste of the eschaton, and a pledge of the perfectibility of the human person.
It is a moment of ecstasy on the part of the disciples in which they behold with unveiled faces the deified Christ. Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas bring out the full meaning for the Orthodox tradition as the manifestation of divine power in the beauty of the transfigured Christ. The body of Christ became translucent when the Taboric light illuminated every dimension thereby underscoring both his divine nature and the complete transformation of creation.
One finds the connection between power, participation in the divine nature, and transfiguration in Second Peter. The epistle begins by linking divine power and sharing in God’s own life (2 Pet. 1:3) before declaring that the proclamation of “the power and coming of Christ” came through the testimony of the majesty revealed on the holy mountain (2 Pet. 1:16-18). In this way, the epistle fuses the divine power that transforms believers with the glory of Christ at his transfiguration. For Mark’s Gospel, the connection occurs almost immediately as Jesus’s statement that some “will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” prefaces the event of the transfiguration (Mark 9:1-2).
Maximus the Confessor interprets this event as a moment in which the disciples passed from flesh to spirit because “having both their bodily and spiritual senses purified, they were taught the spiritual meanings of the mysteries that were shown to them.” The light that shown all around caught the disciples up into a heightened state from which they could now perceive more fully the divine identity of Christ. In the west, Richard of St. Victor would say something similar when he claimed that the journey up the mountain was the arduous ascent to knowledge of the self. Upon arriving at the top, revelations begin to occur as Christ shines upon the soul. The sudden fainting of the disciples symbolizes the passage into ecstasy. For both Maximus and Richard, there is a synergism in which ascetic ascent gives way to grace-induced vision.
The transfiguration also points toward the connection between holiness, happiness, and resurrection. To explain its relationship to resurrection, John Wesley draws an analogy with human experiences of joy and laughter, stating “the joy of the soul, even in this life, has some influence upon the countenance, by rendering it more open and cheerful.” Rejoicing together in the give and take of family life, bantering with friends, or experiencing the deep laughter that arises from the recesses of the soul changes persons, transforming sorrow into gladness even if for a moment. The joy humans experience in their many relationships breaks through in transformed faces. Wesley finds in these experiences an analogue to the end.
The glory of Christ on Mount Tabor embodies a joy that is unspeakable. In other words, the transformation of human affections impacts bodily states, causing a change in countenance. There is a radiance on the face of the joyous that pulls out the beauty of the divine image, which lays buried underneath the veils of the passions. If holiness concerns reintegrated and redirected emotion and desire so that perfect love reigns in the heart, then it creates a joy that alters human existence. The transfiguration symbolizes the Psalmist’s admonition to taste the Lord and see that he is good. Every moment of joy is but a foretaste of that deeper bliss, and it breaks through in serendipitous ways as C. S. Lewis discovered.
The transfiguration, then, symbolizes the life to come and thus the goal of ascetic pursuit. It reminds the believer that the vision of God unfolds amidst the splendor of holiness while also pointing toward the way in which the final movement to ecstatic wonder is always grace-filled and joy-laden. It is the sudden burst of divine light as when Helios peaks over the horizon casting his rays on all creation so that the world glows in the golden haze of dawn, translucent and transformed.