Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Transfiguration of Christ: Part I


Second Sunday of Lent. Luke 9:28b-36.
"Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen."

“His face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.”—This proves the reality of the transfiguration of Christ our Lord.

Objections: 1. It would seem that the transfiguration of Christ’s body was only imaginary and not real. 2. It would seem that this clarity is not the clarity of glory, since Christ’s body was not then made immortal, nor was this clarity permanent.


I answer that: It was fitting that our Savior should be transfigured before his disciples because, in order to go straight along a path, one must have some knowledge of the end of the road (as an archer will not the arrow unless he first see the target). Since Christ had encouraged his disciples to follow the path of his suffering, he then revealed to them the glory which would follow upon this suffering. And it is fitting that he would reveal to them the future glory of his body, since it was this glory which Christ would merit through his Passion (as he had enjoyed the glory of beatitude in his soul from the first moment of his conception, ST III, q.9, a.2 and q.34, a.4). For this reason Christ was transfigured—to show his disciples the glory of his clarity (which is to be transfigured), to which he will glory he will likewise configure those who follow after the footsteps of his Passion (ST III, q.45, a.1).

The garments of Christ which “became dazzling white” are the saints, who will be transformed like unto Christ. Indeed, the saints will receive their future glory in clinging to Christ as garments cling to a man (ST III, q.45, a.2, ad 3).

Reply to objection 1: There is no reason to presume that Christ either set aside the reality of his human nature or substituted an imaginary aerial body for his real one. Rather, as St. Jerome witnesses, the brightness of the face and the whiteness of the garments intend not a change of substance, but a putting on of glory (ST III, q.45, a.1, ad 1). Indeed, it is most necessary that our Lord true body be transfigured, since this was to give us hope for the future glorification of our own bodies. As our very bodies will be raised on the last day (ST Supplementum, q. 79, a.1), it was necessary that his very body be transfigured. Moreover, as the transfiguration foreshadowed his own resurrection, since it was his very body which was raised from the tomb (ST III, q.54, a.1), it was necessary that his very body be transfigured.

Reply to objection 2: Here we must consider the cause of the transfiguration, for the clarity of the glorified body is derived from the glory of the beatified soul. Now Christ enjoyed perfect beatitude in his soul from the moment of his conception, but this glory did not overflow into his sensible appetite or into his body, on account of a Divine dispensation—since had Christ’s body been glorified, he would not have suffered and we would not have been redeemed (ST III, q.14, a.1, ad 2).

There is no reason to suppose, however, that Christ could not, of his own power, pour forth the glory of his soul into his body. And this he did, as regards the clarity or brilliance of glory, during his transfiguration. Nevertheless, in his transfiguration, the glory of Christ’s soul and of his Godhead did not overflow into his body as an immanent quality affecting his body, but after the manner of a transient passion. Thus, the glory resided in Christ’s body as light from the sun resides in the air and not according to its substance. For this reason, the transfiguration was only temporary, since Christ’s body was not yet glorified. Thus, the transfiguration is properly a miracle as a clarity was given to the body of Christ in a most extraordinary manner before his glorification (ST III, q. 45, a. 2).

Cornelius a’ Lapide, however, seems to maintain a contrary opinion in regard to this last point. In his commentary on Matthew, he states that “this splendor, as well as the other gifts of a glorified body, appertained to the body of Christ throughout the whole time of His life, from the very moment of His Conception. Nevertheless, in order that Christ might suffer and have His conversation among men, this glory and all the other gifts which I have spoken of were held back, as it were, in the beatified soul of Christ, so that it did not infuse them into His body by means of a physical emanation. Otherwise they would have shone through His body, like light through a lantern. This repression, therefore, was a miracle. And the cessation of this repression in the transfiguration, and emanation of the interior splendor into the body of Christ was the cessation of a miracle. But to men it seemed to be a miracle, because it was new, and they were ignorant of the cause.” Thus, he maintains that the transfiguration was not a miracle, but the “cessation of a miracle,” i.e. the temporary relaxing of a constant miracle by which Christ held back the glory of his soul from his body.

This opinion, however, seems improbable. First, we must recognize that miracles are said to be of three types (ST I-II, q.113, a.10): the first sense of a miracle refers to those acts which can only be performed by God and which inspire wonder and awe in men, because their cause lies hidden (this is the broadest definition and would even include the creation of the world)—and in this sense, the transfiguration was indeed a miracle and not the cessation of a constant miracle. In a second way, a miracle is said to be when a form is introduced to a body which is beyond the natural capacity of that body (e.g. the resurrection of the body or changing water to wine), in this sense the transfiguration does not seem to be a miracle, since it is within the body is capable of glory without the addition of a new form. Finally, an event may be called miraculous when it occurs outside the usual order of things (e.g. ecstatic visions, healings, etc.) and in this sense the transfiguration was miracle.

Moreover, it is in this final sense of “miracle” (an event which occurs outside the usual order of reality) in which an event is most properly called miraculous. Thus, it seems that the transfiguration of our Lord was not the temporary cessation of a constant miracle, but was itself a miraculous event. Finally, even if we were to agree with Cornelius a’ Lapide that it was miraculous that Christ glory did not always shine forth from his soul through his body, the transfiguration would not be the cessation of this constant miracle, since Christ’s body was not glorified in the transfiguration but only enjoyed a transient experience of several qualities of his future glorification—hence, it is most certainly miraculous that Christ’s body temporarily enjoyed the clarity of glory before being truly glorified.

Thus, it is most proper to say that the clarity which Christ assumed in his transfiguration was the clarity of glory as to its essence, since it was the very glory of his Godhead and of his beatified soul which overflowed into his body; but not according to its mode of being, since this glory affected the body not as an immanent quality of the body, but in a mode analogous to that of a transient passion (ST III, q.45, a.2). And it is necessary to hold this—since if the transfiguration should give man hope of future glory, it must agree in essence with the glory to come; but, since it was necessary that Christ’s body remain passible so as to merit his glorification and also the salvation of all through his Passion, the clarity of the transfiguration had to differ according to mode of being from the permanent glorification of the resurrected body.

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