George F. Riley, O.S.A.
Saint Thomas Monastery
Gn 15:5-12, 17-18
Ps 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14.
Phil 3:17—4:1 or Phil 3:20—4:1
On Good Friday, April 5, 1520, the great artist Raphael died. During the obsequies of this thirty-seven-year-old artist, his last painting, The Transfiguration, stood as a testimony to his genius. This painting, later finished by Raphael’s pupils, now stands in the Vatican museum. Copies can be found throughout the world.
With profound insight, the artist includes two contrasting events. The top half depicts the Transfiguration scene with the glorious figures of Christ, Moses and Elijah. In the lower half, we have a representation of the boy possessed by the devil. Besides giving us an artistic masterpiece, Raphael teaches us a profound spiritual and psychological truth, namely, human nature is capable of opposite extremes. It can descend to the depths of diabolical possession. It can climb the sublime heights of transfiguration with Christ.
The Transfiguration is first of all a manifestation of the divinity of Christ. Coming as it did shortly after Christ had foretold His passion and death, the Transfiguration served as a strengthening of the faith of Peter, James and John. It also prepared them for the ordeal of Gethsemane by giving them a foretaste of the heavenly delight which both Christ and we, his followers, are capable of attaining through heroic suffering.
Second, the Transfiguration prefigures the everlasting enthronement of Christ, as announced to Mary by the Angel Gabriel: “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
Third, the Transfiguration teaches us that glory and suffering are not incompatible. In fact, the enthronement of Christ would not take place until He had suffered and died. This is the topic of the conversation between Moses and Elijah referred to in St. Luke’s account of the event: “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:30-31). Moses and Elijah were the only ones in the Old Testament to have seen God, a fitting qualification to participate in a vision in which they recognized God in the person of Christ, thereby giving evidence to Christ’s divinity.
In our day, the media proclaim all too blatantly the excesses, the crimes, the depravities of man. When we add to these misfortunes physical deformities, sickness, mental illness, and spiritual blindness, it is difficult not to become depressed and discouraged. However, we must not despair of human nature. Obviously, we all do tend towards sin and self-deception. It is equally true that because man is created to the very image of God, human nature is capable of rising to heroic heights of altruism and holiness. We must not look only at the bottom of Raphael’s picture which shows us the boy possessed by the devil. We must also look up to the top part of the picture which depicts Christ transfigured in glory with Moses and Elijah.
During the dark days of His passion and death, Christ wanted his disciples to remember this glorious event of His Transfiguration. So during our dark days, Christ wants us to remember His Transfiguration and to look forward to our own glorious transfiguration at our personal resurrection. When we learn the lesson of Christ’s Transfiguration and see that our own human nature can be similarly honored and elevated, then we too can say with the same fervor as St. Peter, “Master, it is good that we are here” (Luke 9:33).