Transfigurative ramblings

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 says 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?). 

Anyway, this is the titular feast of the Lateran Basilica.

Let’s look at all three of the prayers for the Transfiguration.

The word transfiguratio is interesting in itself. In classical, post-Augustinian 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. What happened?

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.

What happened?

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.

COLLECT (Transfiguration):
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?”

Oblata munera, quaesumus, Domine,
gloriosa Unigeniti tui Transfiguratione sanctifica,
nosque a peccatorum maculis,
splendoribus ipsius illustrationis, emunda.

Two words catch our attention here. First, splendor, found in our favored L&S but not in dictionaries of later Latin such as Souter or Blaise/Chirat. Splendor means “sheen, brightness, brilliance, luster, splendor”. Logically, it also refers to “excellence”. We should tie splendor to gloria, that divine characteristic. Splendor is probably here because gloriosa was used earlier. Words like gloria, splendor and claritas (in the next prayer) are nearly interchangeable. Using a variety of different words is a sine qua non for a good orator. An illustratio is a technical term from rhetoric, a “vivid representation” intended to complete a concept in the mind of the listener. The word transfiguratio itself may have an overlay of meaning from rhetoric.

Sanctify, O Lord, we beseech You,
the offered gifts by the glorious Transfiguration of your Only-Begotten,
and cleanse us from the stains of sins by the splendors of His dazzling example.

In this context think of illustratio as a momentary flash of who Christ really is, both man and God.

A word which is uttered projects a meaning to another.

Here, a dazzling vision “utters” another explanation of God’s will even as the divine voice was heard by the three Apostles. But such a vivid “example” must alter us who perceive it.

Caelestia, quaesumus, Domine, alimenta quae sumpsimus
in eius nos transforment imaginem,
cuius claritatem gloriosa Transfiguratione
manifestare voluisti.

May the heavenly nourishments which we consumed,
transform us, O Lord, we beseech You, into the image of Him,
whose splendor You desired to make manifest in the glorious Transfiguration.

Consider the splendor of the transfigured Lord. His humanity was for a moment suffused with the brilliance of His divine nature. God desires to share with us His own gloria, His claritas, His splendor. Jesus reveals something of what He will be after His Passion, but also what we will be. Let us not forget the words of the Second Vatican Council, in a key passage deeply influenced by the late Pope John Paul II when he was a young bishop participating in the preparation of Gaudium et spes 22 (emphasis mine):

The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. … He Who is "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), is Himself the perfect man. To the sons of Adam He restores the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward. Since human nature as He assumed it was not annulled, that very fact it has been raised up to a divine dignity in our respect too. For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. … Such is the mystery of man, and it is a great one, as seen by believers in the light of Christian revelation. Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us. Christ has risen, destroying death by His death; He has lavished life upon us so that, as sons in the Son, we can cry out in the Spirit: Abba, Father!

The Transfiguration of the Lord teaches us more fully about ourselves and our calling.

This ties in perfectly with the Eucharist, which when we receive It properly is.

Unlike the ordinary bread we convert into who we are by consuming it, the spiritual food of the Eucharist transforms us more and more in what He is.

Perhaps we can for a moment imagine after a good Holy Communion our hearts momentarily transfigured by God’s eternal glory, making our hearts like unto His.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Christabel says:

    Beautiful, Father. Just beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Humilitas says:

    Thank you Father for your beautiful teaching on the Feast of The Transfiguration of Our Lord.

    God bless you for all your good works.

  3. Sid Cundiff says:

    Ah!, St. John Lateran. Despite its conflicting aesthetic styles (The door of the Roman Senate house, a late Roman Basilica, Byzantine Mosaic, Medieval Cloister, Giotto fresco, Baroque nave) it’s still my favorite of the 4 great Roman basilicas. For me, to go in the door head down, to walk to the back of the great door, turn around, and look up — is to see the very image of The Church, built on the shoulders of the Twelve, and above the OT on one side, the NT on the other. St. Peter’s is about Peter, St. Paul’s outside the Walls about Paul, St. Mary Major about Mary, Holy Cross about the Passion, St. Lawrence outside the Walls and st. Sebastian about the martyrs. St. John’s is about The Church, Ecclesiology in paint, mosaic, and stone. It the Cathedral of Rome, the oldest church, the real “Holy See” can be seen in the choir. Correct me, but I think it’s the world’s only Archbasilica.

  4. Anastasia says:

    A very fine commentary. To stress a point: Because in the Bl. Trinity The SON always gives Himself totally to The FATHER, so then He is already and always the Crucified One; in the Transfiguration, we see that He is already and always the Resurrected One.

  5. Tim Ferguson says:

    I was reflecting today on the fact that the three apostles privileged to witness the Transfiguration represent three aspects of the Church – St. Peter, the hierarchical Church; St. John, the contemplative Church; and St. James, the pilgrim Church. I’m sure I’m not the first to note that, but it just struck me today – on the Mount of the Transfiguration, Christ brought with him the whole Church in the persons of these three apostles.

  6. Ioannes Andreades says:

    Sid Cundiff,
    I absolutely agree. She has weathered so much, just like ships do. I never miss watching the mass on Holy Thursday. I wish more papal services were scheduled there, as it is Rome’s cathedral. She certainly is the mater et caput.

    I’m unfamiliar, though, with the idea of a titular feast. I know that the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica falls on Nov. 9 (a Sunday this year). I was unaware that a church could have two kinds of feasts associated with it.

    Interesting write-up as always, Father. Thanks!

  7. Joe says:

    thank you Father. And the three apostles who witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus were the same three he took with himinto the Garden, and who were with him when he was betrayed by Judas.

  8. You get a spring feast too, Father, on 6 May…John’s taste of martyrdom.

  9. Liam says:

    The feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord is, IIRC, by custom the default titular feast for non-specific dedications to our Lord in general, though I’ve never found an explanation for why that is so and not some other feast of the Lord.

  10. Tom in NY says:

    The Transfiguration does not appear in John. Luke doesn’t use metamorphothe. Nor in any of the three accounts does doxa appear, nor any of its cognates. Doxa can indicate in Latin “gloria” and in English I take it as “glory and presence.” cf. John 1:14
    Matthew and Mark use “changed in shape” as they (and us) would describe the larva becoming a butterfly. The Greek form does not have to be the passive – it could be a middle voice, which English would consider reflexive.
    You are correct to note Jerome chose a distinctive word. It may have been a “new word” for his time. It brings more meaning than even “glorificatur.” Don’t forget Jerome grew up near the boundary of the Greek and Latin-speaking parts of the Empire.
    The “phos” of Mt. 17:2 can be our goal.Thank you for your reflection.

  11. Jacob says:

    Despite the dropping of the ‘Patriarch of the West’ title, wouldn’t still apply for the pope’s seat to be St. John Lateran as bishop of Rome?

  12. cathguy says:

    The lesson on the prayers for the feast of the Transfiguration are spiritually enriching and beautiful.

    Thank you father.

  13. Henri says:


    Could you clarify the issue of Major and Minor basilica.

    I had thought that I of the requirements of a basilica is that it must have a Mass celebrated in Latin periodically to hold that priviledge.

    Could you clarify and direct us to the source of those requirements.

    Thanks in anticipation

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