When Jesus took his disciples for a hike up Mt Tabor, they had no idea what they were about to experience. As they reached the summit, suddenly they saw Him not only as their beloved Teacher, but as the Lord of Glory. “His face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (Matthew 17:2). What had happened?
Jesus went through a “metamorphosis” (the Greek word we translate as “transfiguration”), which means literally a change of form. Jesus was for all eternity in the form of God, but at the Incarnation took the form of man (see Philippians 2:5-11). Now on Mt Tabor, He revealed to his disciples something of his eternal form of God through his human form. His humanity and divinity are inseparable, but He could reveal or conceal his divine glory as He willed.
The disciples needed to be strengthened in their awareness of Jesus’ divinity, because their faith would be put to the ultimate test when they would see his human form torn and bleeding and nailed to the Cross—what St Paul described in the passage cited above as “being obedient unto death, death on a cross.” But there is much more to Christ’s transfiguration than the manifestation of his divinity, as astounding as that is.
His incarnation, the incredible union of the Uncreated with the created, made it possible for material creation to bear and manifest divine grace and glory. This is what makes the whole sacramental system possible: the matter of bread and wine is transfigured unto the body and blood of Christ; water and oil become communicators of the grace of the Holy Spirit. And since we see that it was through his humanity that the divine glory was manifested, the message to us is that it is possible for divinity to permeate and ineffably exalt humanity—that would be you and me.
We are called to a personal transfiguration—not the visible, blinding divine glory that stunned the first apostles, but to an inner, though no less real, transformation of mind and spirit (see Romans 12:2 and 2Cor. 3:18, where the Greek “metamorphosis” is used; usually it is translated as “transformed” or “changed”). We are called, beyond all merely human possibility, to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2Peter 1:4).
One author says that as the radiant angels in heaven reflect the divine glory to one another, we on earth are also supposed to reflect that same glory in a spiritual manner. He says that this is the special vocation of monks, who are called to give their whole life to this inner transfiguration, for the sake of shining the face of Christ on a sin-darkened world, but
So let us go up the mountain and begin our transfiguration through the mercy and grace of the Lord. “Today all mankind begins to reflect the divine splendor of the transfiguration of the Lord, and in every heart is this exultant refrain: Christ is transfigured for the salvation of all!” (hymn for the pre-feast).