Sacred Mysteries: Spoken from the bright cloud on the mountain

An ancient insight into the Transfiguration suggests that God the Father eternally begets God the Son by speaking the Word

Jesus transfigured, accompanied by Elijah and Moses, as depicted in a 12th-century portable mosaic icon, now in the Louvre Credit:

At the Transfiguration (which is marked today), when Jesus’s three disciples, Peter, James and John, saw on a mountain his face and clothes bright and shining and the figures of Moses and Elijah with him, there is a mention of a voice from heaven: “This is my beloved Son.”

In his methodical way, St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae, registers an objection here. Haven’t we already been told about a voice saying this at the Baptism of Jesus, yet God doesn’t repeat himself? On the contrary, he answers, the voice was of God the Father uttering eternally the only-begotten and co-eternal Word. Jesus, the Word of God, is not created, but is begotten by being at all times spoken by the Father.

Here Thomas insists that on the mountain not only Jesus is revealed as God, but so are the other two persons of the Holy Trinity: God the Father in the voice, and God the Holy Spirit in the bright cloud from which the voice issues.

At the same time, the theologian is careful to assert that the body of Jesus which shines in glory is not an imaginary one (such as an angel, which is a spirit with no body, might rig up in order to be visible to human beings). That, he says, was where the Manichaean sect (who thought matter evil) went wrong.

No, Jesus’s body was a real human body. Yet you might expect it to be bright with glory from the first moment of God becoming a man, since the glory of God would “overflow”. Moreover, the glory of Jesus’s soul (also united with God and enjoying the vision of God called the beatific vision) would overflow too. It seems obvious to Thomas that God’s glory would be visible as a kind of bright clarity.

Yet, he argues, Jesus took on human flesh and with it in fact assumed the frailties of humanity, being subject to death, hunger, thirst, tiredness and temptation. That being the case, his divine glory did not show. It was a parallel condition to the ability to walk on water: this might be expected of a glorified body, Thomas thinks, which possesses the quality of agility. But during his earthly life, until his resurrection from the dead, Jesus did not display the qualities of a glorified body. So his walking on the water was miraculous. In a parallel way the refulgence of Jesus’s body at the Transfiguration was miraculous, transitory, like sun lighting up the air.

St Thomas was discussing this within a recognised tradition. It bridged the East and West; 500 years before him, one of the great sermons of St John of Damascus had been on the Transfiguration, which Thomas quotes.

Even earlier, in the fourth century, St Ephraim the Syrian, in his surefire poetic way, applied apposite points to the two biblical figures, Moses and Elijah, who appeared beside Jesus. Moses, he said, divided the sea for the people to walk in the middle of the waves; Peter raised a tent for the building of the Church. Elijah mounted to heaven in the chariot of fire and John, at the Last Supper, leant on the breast of Jesus the flame. The mountain became a type of the Church, and on it Jesus united the two covenants, old and new, which the Church received.

St Augustine of Hippo, young when Ephraim was old, on the Mediterranean coast of Africa far west of Ephraim’s Syria in Asia Minor, imagined in a sermon Jesus speaking to Peter when it was time for them to go back down the mountain: “Come down, to labour in the earth,” he said. “The Life came down, that he might be slain; the Bread came down, that he might hunger; the Way came down, that life might be wearied in the way; the Fountain came down, that he might thirst; and would you refuse to labour?”