Today is the titular feast of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome.
"But Father! But Father", I can hear you objecting. "Don’t you know that that basilica is called ‘St. John‘? How can the Transfiguration of the Lord be the titular feast?"
Glad you asked. The real name of the Lateran Basilica is the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior, St. John Baptist and St. John the Evangelist at the Lateran. So, for a titular feast you really need a feast of the Lord.
While today is the main day for the basilica, they do make much over the two saints John as well. I do too. For my "onomastico", as the Italians call it, or "name day" I claim both the Baptist and the evangelist. That way I get two days in the summer (don’t forget the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist) and one in the winter.
And let us not forget that the Lateran Basilica is a Major Papal (formerly Patriarchal) Basilica. There are lots of minor basilicas in Rome and throughout the world There were five Patriarchal Basilicas in Rome to go with the five ancient patriarchal sees, four major patriarchal basilicas and one minor. How did that happen? The patriarchs always were allocated (symbolically) a basilica in Rome, thus Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch, had St. Peter’s in the Vatican, St. Paul’s outside the walls, and St. Mary Major. When Jerusalem was added as a patriarchate it was assigned St. Lawrence outside the walls, though it remained a minor basilica.
The Bishop of Rome as Patriarch of the West had the Lateran Basilica obviously. And he still does, even though the Pope seems to have dropped the title of Patriarch of the West (remember that?). Interesting move that. It demonstrates how Pope Benedict is the Pope of Christian Unity. Without changing anything of the substance of the office of the Bishop of Rome, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, he is willing to set aside things that are non-essential for the sake of greater mutual good will.
Anyway, this is the titular feast of the Lateran Basilica.
The word transfiguratio is interesting in itself. In classical, post-Augustan Latin Pliny used this for “a change of shape”. However, that is not what happened with Christ on the mountain, probably Mount Tabor in Galilee not far from Nazareth.
If we see Christ’s Baptism at the Jordan as the beginning point of His public life, and the Ascension as the end, then the Transfiguration its zenith.
The accounts of the Transfiguration are found in Matthew 17:1-6, Mark 9:1-8, and Luke 9:28-36. Also, 2 Peter 1:16-18 and John 1:14 refer to it.
Scripture tells us that a week or so after Jesus and the disciples were at Caesarea Philippi (where Christ gave Peter the "keys") Jesus took Peter, James and John to a high mountain. They were surrounded by a bright cloud, like that in which God spoke to Moses. Christ shone with light so dazzling it was hard to see. On either side of Him were Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet. A voice was heard, as at the time of Jesus’ Baptism: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him". The Gospels of Matthew and Mark use the Greek word metemorphothe for what happened. St. Jerome in his Vulgate chose transfiguratus est. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) expand the event saying "his face did shine as the sun: and his garments became white as snow," or "as light," according to the Greek text. This brightness has been taken to be a glimpse of Christ’s divinity shining through His flesh. Christ allowed the three key Apostles to see this so as to strengthen them before His Passion soon to follow.
Getting back to the word transfiguratio, it clearly points to a dramatic change, though in Christ’s case not one of form or shape. The word is from the preposition trans with figura. A figura is “a form, shape” but also in philosophical language a “quality, kind, nature, manner”. Most interesting to me is the mean of figura as a “form of a word” or “a figure of speech”. Think of the Prologue of the Gospel of John 1:14, recited by priests for centuries at the end of Holy Mass: “we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father”.
In the Prologue of John the Evangelist says that Jesus the Son is the divine logos, the Word: “In the beginning was the Word….” A word is an utterance which projects the concept of the speaker. The Jews has used Hebrew memra, God’s creative or directive word or speech which manifests His power in the mind or in matter, as a substitute for the divine Name of God.
Jerome’s choice of a word with the root figura or “figure of speech” is very apt in many ways, and its draws our imaginations into the realm of God’s eternal uttering, His eternal rhetoric.
Deus, qui fidei sacramenta
in Unigeniti tui gloriosa Transfiguratione
patrum testimonio roborasti,
et adoptionem filiorum perfectam mirabiliter praesignasti,
concede nobis famulis tuis,
ut, ipsius dilecti Filii tui vocem audientes,
eiusdem coheredes effici mereamur.
O God, who in the glorious Transfiguration
of your Only-begotten Son
strengthened the sacrament of faith by the witness of the fathers (Moses and Elijah),
and in a marvelous way foreshadowed the perfect adoption of children,
grant to your servants that,
hearing the voice of Your beloved Son himself,
we may merit to be made the same Son’s coheirs.
In the Transfiguration, God reveals more fully the Sonship of Jesus and, thus, reveals in Jesus, our own sonship.
When the Father reveals the Son as Son, He is telling us about His own life, how He generates the Son and how the Holy Spirit from all eternity is the love between them. Fortified with this knowledge, we can participate in the life of the Trinity in a fuller way. Because of our unity with Christ in our common human nature, the way to divine sonship is opened up. He is the Father’s Son by nature, but we by grace. God makes us His children through a perfect adoption… adoptio perfecta. From God’s point of view, it is perfect (“brought to completion”) because God puts His seal and mark upon us. From our point of view, it will be perfect only when we see God face to face in heaven.
Because of this adoption, the adoptio filiorum and adoptio perfecta, an eternal inheritance awaits us. We merit a patrimony.
St. Leo the Great (+461) said in a sermon (s. 51):
“In this mystery of the Transfiguration, God’s Providence has laid a solid foundation for the hope of the Church, so that the whole body of Christ may know what a transformation will be granted to it, and that the members may be assured that they will be sharers in the glory which shone forth in their Head.”
We are already sons and daughters by God’s adoption, but that sonship is not yet completed.
We lack the final essential component: perseverance in faith and obedience for the whole course of our lives. Even the Apostle Peter, his eyes dazzled by the Lord on Mount Tabor, failed to see what was happening. The great St. Augustine in a sermon on the Transfiguration (s. 78, 6), addresses Peter, and through Peter he really addresses us: “Descend the mount, O Peter. You wanted to rest on the mountain. Come down.”
We still have work to do in this life before we can rest.
Citing the same passage of Augustine the CCC 556 takes up this same theme:
Peter did not yet understand this when he wanted to remain with Christ on the mountain. It has been reserved for you, Peter, but for after death. For now, Jesus says: “Go down to toil on earth, to serve on earth, to be scorned and crucified on earth. Life goes down to be killed; Bread goes down to suffer hunger; the Way goes down to be exhausted on his journey; the Spring goes down to suffer thirst; and you refuse to suffer?”