The Transfiguration: Gospel to the Dead

Detail from “Transfiguration of Jesus” (1405) by Andrei Rublev []

At Caesarea Philippi Jesus told the apostles that he would suffer and die and on the third day rise again. A week later, transfigured upon a mountain, he told Moses and Elijah.

Present when he told them were Peter and James and John, whom he had chosen to have with him when he raised Jairus’ dead daughter to life, and whom he would choose to have nearest to him in Gethsemane. We tend to think of them as principals at the Transfiguration, almost as though the whole incident had been staged for their sake. Strengthened and comforted by it they certainly were; but they were not principals. Jesus conversed with Moses and Elijah: the three apostles were asleep part of the time and contributed nothing. Only one of them said anything at all: Peter said that it was a good thing they were there—they could make three shelters, one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah; but he himself tells us, through Mark (9:5), that he was too frightened to know what he was saying.

Let us glance quickly at what happened as told in the opening verses of Mark’s ninth chapter and Matthew’s seventeenth. Read especially Luke (9:28-36). He gives the most detailed account, and we wonder who was his informant. Of the three who were there, Peter tells us what happened through Mark (and find it again in 2 Peter 1:17-18—be sure to read it); James was long dead; could it have been John? Apart from “we saw his glory, he glory as of the only begotten of the Father”, he says nothing of the Transfiguration in his own Gospel. It may be that Luke had a ready told all that John had to tell.

As at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had climbed some way up a mountain to pray. As he prayed he was “transfigured”—the Greek word is “metamorphosed”—his face shining like the sun, his garments dazzling white, like snow. It is not clear at what point the three apostles went to sleep, but when they were fully awake they saw their Lord “in his glory”, and Moses and Elijah standing with him, they too in glory. The three were speaking of the death that he would die in Jerusalem.

Moses was Israel’s law giver, dead these fifteen hundred years. Elijah, greatest of prophets, had been whirled up into the sky eight hundred years before; and the prophet Malachi had said (4:5) that God would send him “before the coming of the great and awe-filled day of the Lord”. Where had they come from?

Of Elijah the destiny is wholly mysterious. About Moses there is no such mystery. He was simply one of the greatest of those who had died at peace with God. Heaven was closed to these until Calvary should expiate the sin of the race. The soul of Moses, and the souls of all of them, were in a place of waiting—limbo, the border region, we most often call it. Abraham’s bosom, Jesus called it in the parable of Dives and Lazarus; paradise, he called it to the thief who appealed to him on the Cross.

Supremely Moses represented the Law, and Elijah the prophets. What happened on the mountain established the continuity between Israel of old and the Kingdom, now at last to be founded, in which Israel was to find its fulfillment. It seems strange that the representatives of the Kingdom were, as they would be likewise in Gethsemane, asleep part of the time, and frightened when they were fully awake. It was no very stimulating account Moses would take back to limbo of the men on whom the Kingdom was to be built.

But for these—long dead or newly dead—who had been waiting in all patience till the Redeemer should open heaven to them, Peter, James, and John must have mattered little compared with the news Moses brought back that their redemption was at hand and how it was to be accomplished. What Jesus had told at Caesarea Philippi to men living upon earth, he now told through Moses to the expectant dead. Through Moses the Law had been given to the children of Israel. Through Moses the Gospel, the good news, reached limbo.

As Peter finished his proposal to build three shelters, a luminous cloud overshadowed them, wrapping them round so that once again they were afraid. A Voice came out of the cloud saying: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him.” The last three words, establishing our Lord’s authority as teacher, were new. All the rest had been said by the same Voice at Jesus’ baptism in Jordan.

Peter, James, and John had been afraid—afraid when they saw Jesus and Moses and Elijah all white and luminous, afraid when the cloud wrapped them round, afraid when the Voice sounded from the cloud. With a touch of his hand and the words “Arise and fear not”, he recalled them to the world they were used to.

As they raised their frightened faces, they saw “no one but only Jesus”! He told them to say nothing of what they had seen on the mountain till the Son of Man (still his own phrase for himself, used of him by none of them) should be risen from the dead. Among themselves, they wondered just what that “risen from the dead” might mean. They had seen the daughter of Jairus and the young man of Nain dead and alive again. But they could not imagine how all this could apply to him who had raised those two.

And there was another problem, which they did discuss with Jesus himself as he and they came down the slope next day. They had just seen Elijah, and with this talk of Jesus dying, they would remember that Elijah had not died like other men; and they would remember that Malachi had said that Elijah would return and restore a sinful people to virtue before the day of the Lord. It was all very puzzling, and they put the puzzle to their Master. His answer, to the effect that Elijah had already returned in the person of John the Baptist, might have been clearer to them, had they known what the angel had said to Zechariah in the annunciation of John’s birth (Lk 1:17)—”He shall go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah … to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.” At least they would have remembered that Elijah had lived in the desert, preached repentance, and rebuked rulers.

Frank Sheed (1897-1981) was an Australian of Irish descent. A law student, he graduated from Sydney University in Arts and Law, then moved in 1926, with his wife Maisie Ward, to London. There they founded the well-known Catholic publishing house of Sheed & Ward in 1926, which published some of the finest Catholic literature of the first half of the twentieth century. Known for his sharp mind and clarity of expression, Sheed became one of the most famous Catholic apologists of the century. He was an outstanding street-corner speaker who popularized the Catholic Evidence Guild in both England and America (where he later resided). In 1957 he received a doctorate of Sacred Theology honoris causa authorized by the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities in Rome.  Sheed wrote several books, including Theology and SanityA Map of Life, Theology for Beginners, and Christ in Eclipse.He and Maise also compiled the Catholic Evidence Training Outlines, which included his notes for training outdoor speakers and apologists and is still a valuable tool for Catholic apologists and catechists.

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