The late Bishop Ian Ramsey of Durkham, who wrote extensively on the problem of religious language, Christian ethics, the relationship between science and religion, and Christian apologetics, often used the term “cosmic disclosure.”
A cosmic disclosure is when you encounter an incident or a person and this brings about infinite dimension and meaning, that without this incident or person, one’s whole life makes no more significance or is changed drastically. An example of this is when, for the first time in your life, you truly recognize how much you love your husband or wife and children, and without them, your life will have no more meaning or will already be completely different. If this happens to you and this incident changes you and your life, you are experiencing a cosmic disclosure.
The spiritual author Anthony Bloom, according Fr. Gil Guillimette, SJ, describes what Bishop Ian Ramsey is trying to say in the following words: “There are moments when things which surround us – people, situations – suddenly acquire depth, become transparent, as it were, and allow us to see them with a new significance… We see people apparently as they are, and someday we suddenly spot something else…. All of a sudden a face… appears to us completely new, lending us a depth of meaning, depth of significance. In such moments occurs what Ian Ramsey calls ‘cosmic disclosure.’”
The transfiguration incident in the life of Jesus can very well be described as a cosmic disclosure of who Jesus Christ really is. It is a moment of cosmic disclosure for the apostles Peter, James and John who accompany Jesus on Mt. tabor. Found in all the synoptic gospels, it basically deals with the issue concerning the divinity of Jesus and with the connection between Jesus’ appearance in glory and his passion and death.
Historically and chronologically, the transfiguration of Jesus took place after Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s confession, in turn, took place on the Jewish Feast of Yom ba-Kippurim, the great feast of atonement. On this Jewish feast, for the one time in the year, the high priest solemnly pronounced the name YHWH in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. It is significant that Jesus is pronounced by Peter as the Messiah and the Son of the living God on the day that the Jews can only mention the personal and direct name of God, Yahweh. And on the day of the transfiguration, it is the divine identity of Jesus that is revealed in glory.
It is also significant to note that the transfiguration of Jesus took place on the last day of the Jewish Feast of the Booths, a commemoration that lasted for a week. This feast commemorates the journey of the Israelite people in the desert. In Hebrew, the feast is called Sukkot, which means huts, in reference to the huts or booths in which the Israelites lived during their forty years of sojourn after the exodus from Egypt. In this desert journey, the Israelites were people on the go, unable to build permanent structures but only temporary huts. The Promised Land was their final destination; the desert, as a place of journey, was only transitional.
That the transfiguration event took place on the last day of the feast of the booths, which was considered its high point and the synthesis of its inner meaning, highlights for us the journey that Jesus is undertaking at this point in his life. The mountain top experience of the transfiguration on Mt. Tabor is only transitional, although a much needed boost before embracing his passion and death. His destiny is the Cross in Jerusalem. We can understand here Jesus’ refusal to allow Peter to build three tents on the mountain in his desire to stay put and to freeze the glorious moment and not to proceed to the destiny of the cross. Just like the Israelites on the desert, Jesus and the disciples with him cannot stay permanently on the mountain of glorification; they must proceed to Jerusalem and there face the cross of passion and death.
That the transfiguration incident is a manifestation of the divinity of Jesus is further shown by some theophanic elements in the passage. As in the case of the many mountain experiences of Jesus throughout his life, Mt. Tabor serves as a locus of God’s manifestation of presence, identity and closeness. On this day on Mt. Tabor, the three closest disciples encounter the Son of God in his glory. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Mt. 17:2). According to Diane Bergant, the transformation of Jesus “before Peter, James and John is more than a vision of the future glorification of Jesus but an insight into his identity during his public life.” Jesus’ inner reality shines forth and his outer appearance is transfigured. Like Moses in the Book of Exodus (Ex. 34:35), Jesus’ face shines brightly, revealing his divine identity as the Son of God.
As in the other biblical instances, the cloud mentioned in the incident also symbolizes the presence of God. From the cloud God the Father identifies Jesus as the Son of God and lends authority to his teaching. The heavenly Father’s voice says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.” The Father’s voce and words remind us of the baptism of Jesus, wherein the divine identity of Jesus is first revealed.
The presence of two of most important figures of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, further adds to the significance of the transfiguration event of Jesus. While Matthew is silent about the matter of the discussion between Jesus and Moses and Elijah, the Lukan account of the transfiguration incident alludes to the Cross. In the gospel of Luke, we find that Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory and spoke of his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). Pope Benedict XVI, commenting on this detail, says: “Their topic of conversation is the Cross, but understood in an inclusive sense as Jesus’ Exodus: a departure from his life, a passage through the ‘Red Sea’ of the Passion, and a transition into glory – a glory, however, that forever bears the mark of Jesus’ wounds.”
Thus, we find in the transfiguration incident that the divine identity of Jesus is not only revealed in glory but also in the Cross. Jesus’ appearance is intimately connected with his passion and death. Pope Benedict XVI writes: “Jesus’ divinity belongs with his Cross – only when we put the two together do we recognize Jesus correctly. John expressed this intrinsic connectedness of the Cross and glory when he said that the Cross is Jesus’ ‘exaltation,’ and his exaltation is accomplished in no other way than in the Cross.” What the Holy Father says is confirmed by the fact that the transfiguration of Jesus takes place just before his entry triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of his passion.
Moses and Elijah are themselves representatives and witnesses of the passion. This scene of Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah does not only show that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Law and the Prophets, of the entire Old Testament and, in fact, the entire biblical tradition and revelation, it also shows that “Jesus’ passion,” according to Pope Benedict, “brings salvation that is filled with the glory of God; that the Passion is transformed into light, into freedom and joy.”
At this point in the life journey of Jesus, he has been making predictions of his passion and death. Right after Peter’s confession, Jesus makes it clear that the Son of must undergo his passion and death. Peter and the disciples cannot understand and take this. They resist that the Messiah and the Son of God can and must suffer passion and death to bring salvation. The voice of the Father, addressing the disciples, appeals to them to listen to Jesus, to listen to what he has been telling them all along.
Peter, James and John are overwhelmed by the immensity of the transfiguration incident. They fall prostrate and are very afraid. But Jesus assures them, “Rise and do not be afraid.”
Jesus needs this cosmic disclosure of his divine identity as the beloved Son of God before he faces his passion and death in Jerusalem. It is just like a spiritual shot in the arm, so that assured of his grounding in the love of the Father, he can courageously and faithfully embrace the will of the Father for the salvation of the world.
The transfiguration is a prayer event and it shows to us what happens when Jesus is united with his Father. There is an interpenetration of his being with the Father, and, as a result, his being becomes pure light. His true identity is revealed and he is able to face and embrace the mission entrusted to him by the Father.
If the true divine identity of the Son of God is revealed on the cross, the true identity of a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is also seen in his or her faithful and loving carrying of his or her own cross and in participation in the Cross of Jesus. This feast reminds us that we too can only be truly transformed by encountering the Lord, in prayer and in the events of our lives marked by the Cross. It is only by denying ourselves and taking up our crosses that we become disciples or imitators of Christ, reflections of Jesus. Jesus can only shine in and through us when we ourselves become truly conformed to him and transformed into his likeness.
Dasmarinas Village, Santuario de San Antonio, Manila Polo Club