Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord: Celebrating the defeat of Islam in 1453

After the Muslims took Constantinople in 1453 after a 53-day siege, Sultan Mehmed II went next for Hungary, first attacking Belgrade.  It didn’t go well for Mehmed.  The siege turned into a counterattack which overran the Muslim camp. The Islamic invaders were forced to retreat.

In 1456 Pope Callixtus III made the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord a feast of the universal Church in honor of the defeat of Islam at Belgrade.

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.

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.

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 (Novus Ordo):
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.

O God, who in the glorious Transfiguration
of your Only Begotten Son
confirmed the mysteries of faith by the witness of the Fathers
and wonderfully prefigured our full adoption to sonship,
grant, we pray, to your servants,
that, listening to the voice of your beloved Son,
we may merit to become co-heirs with him

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?”

Offer your trials as reparation for sins.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Father, here in Austin Tx at my home parish (St. Mary Cathedral), we had a lovely choral Vespers, a short time of Adoration, Benediction, and a few sung parts of Compline. Absolutely beautiful.
    Brick by brick !

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  3. dep says:

    Am I in error in seeing the Transfiguration as, whatever else it is, a concrete statement that in Jesus we have the joining of the Law and the Prophets? That is not, of course, all that he is, but it is an important part, particularly to the Jews of the day, and, well, to us now. The story of how the Law and the Prophets come together in Jesus in his divinity and in his humanity to me is a critical point in bringing together Our Lord with all that had come before. I would suppose we would hear this shouted from the rafters, but we never hear it, so I must be wrong here. Where is my mistake?

  4. Grant M says:

    Wonderful EF Missal Cantata this Sunday, and for the first time the priest was wearing a shiny new biretta. It really does add gravitas to the priest, and made me appreciate for the first time the scheme at this blog to provide birettas for priests. [THANKS!] He even wore it to preach, which I have not seen since the year I spent attending an Anglo-Catholic church, although, unlike the Anglo-Catholic priest, he did not doff the biretta at every mention of the name of Jesus.


    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  5. Grant M says:

    I note that the EF collect is similar to the OF collect, but adds references to the King of Glory and the voice from the shining cloud, as well as a second reference to glory. Interesting that the OF drops these luminous images. But then it does add a reminder to listen to the Son, as the Voice from the shining cloud commanded.

  6. Prayerful says:

    Thanks Fr for these always illuminating articles. At least Concilium and ICEL didn’t make a dog’s dinner of that collect, part of a Mass with a very fine set of propers. The Feast is a very necessary reminder that a major part of defeating the current Moslem invasion (the pretended refugees Angela Merkel invited) is prayer. The Mass is the best of all prayers, where the priests calls the sacrifice of Calvary to the altar.

    One thing I notice is how many never read the neatly designed parish calendar/bulletin which neatly lists all the Feasts with commemorations and ferias as applicable. Just before High Mass a parishioner sitting near me was told by his wife it was the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost. I quietly mentioned to him it was in fact the Feast of the Transfiguration.

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