The Transfiguration & the Promised Land

Transfiguration by Duccio di Buoninsegna (detail)


“The Transfiguration reminds us that the Cross will not have the final word.”


Both the Eastern and Western Churches have celebrated the feast of the Transfiguration on this day for centuries, and celebration in Jerusalem dates back to the fifth century. We are exactly forty days from the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Before His Apostles experience the Cross, Jesus gives them the consolation of witnessing His glory. 

Jesus brings Peter, James, and John with Him up to a high place. There, as Peter tells us in the second reading, they witness Jesus in His full glory. They hear the Father proclaiming Jesus’ sonship, reiterating what Peter has recently professed (Mt. 16:16). The Apostles have spent almost three years journeying with this Incarnate Son of God. Now He allows them a glimpse of His true glory that has been limited by His human nature.

In all the synoptic Gospels, the account of the Transfiguration follows Peter’s confession of faith and marks a shift in tone. After this experience, Jesus will turn his face toward Jerusalem and continue his predications of the Passion (Luke 9:51). They cannot stay on the hill of glory. They must descend so that Jesus might ascend a new hill, Calvary. There is no glory without the Cross.

Pope Leo the Great speaks of this when he writes about Peter’s request to build tents and remain. He wrote, “But to this proposal the Lord made no answer, signifying that what he wanted was not indeed wicked, but contrary to the Divine order: since the world could not be saved, except by Christ’s death, and by the Lord’s example the faithful were called upon to believe that, although there ought not to be any doubt about the promises of happiness, yet we should understand that amidst the trials of this life we must ask for the power of endurance rather than the glory, because the joyousness of reigning cannot precede the times of suffering.”

We have the same reaction as Peter when the Lord gives us consolations. Can’t we just stay here? And while the Lord does want us to be happy, we know our ultimate happiness is found in the next life. That will only come after we endure the Cross. The Transfiguration is a reminder of this. God calls us sons too, by virtue of our baptism: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed” (1 John 3:2). The Father calls us His beloved; but just as that did not spare Jesus from the Cross, it will not spare us, either.

The Transfiguration reminds us that the Cross will not have the final word. The glory that the Apostles witnessed on Mount Tabor will be ours in heaven. The “joyousness of reigning” as Leo called it, will follow “the times of suffering.” We will encounter the Cross, and we too, as sons, must take it up. But we have the consolation that glory awaits. The Promised Land awaits.

In last week’s post, we examined Jesus as the New Moses. Here, too, we see a continuation of this same theme. Like Moses, Jesus ascends a mountain or high place to converse with God. Like Moses’ face shone with a brightness after speaking with God, Jesus’ face and his entire appearance change. Unlike Moses, however, He shows Himself to be God Himself. God the Father confirms this identity.

Moses and Elijah also appear, revealing Him as the fulfillment of not just the New Moses, but the entire Law and the Prophets. In fact, Mount Tabor, the mountain traditionally held to be the Mount of Transfiguration, is located between Mount Carmel, where Elijah calls down the glory of the Lord to defeat the false prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 18) and Mount Nebo, where Moses died overlooking the Promised Land (Dt 34:1).

Moses took the Israelites all the way to the edge of Promised Land, but he was unable to enter. 

“On that very day the Lord said to Moses, ‘Ascend this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo in the land of Moab facing Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites as a possession. Then you shall die on the mountain you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and there was gathered to his people, because … you did not manifest my holiness among the Israelites. You may indeed see the land from a distance, but you shall not enter that land which I am giving to the Israelites” (Dt 32:48-52).

Moses did not enter the Promised Land that day. Punished for sin, he suffers, waiting. Jesus would fulfill the promise. On this day, at the Transfiguration, Moses enters the Promised Land. Jesus brings him in.

Jesus is waiting to bring us to the Promised Land – the true Promised Land, Heaven. Our participation in the divine sonship means the crosses of this life are not wasted. If we allow ourselves to be transformed into Christ, Calvary can be transformed into Tabor. Nebo can be transformed into Tabor. Suffering can be transformed into life.


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College, and the Diocese of Nashville. She is currently a full-time Catholic speaker and writer. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her nine nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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