Catholics use a lot of big words. Sometimes they can be confusing or intimidating, but they have rich meaning and symbolism. It’s like our Catholic Mass – it looks like a lot of hocus-pocus to non-Catholics, but it’s filled with richness, tradition, symbolism, and grace.
Two of the “big” Catholic words that are often confused even among Catholics are Transfiguration and Transubstantiation. They sound similar but have very different meanings.
What is the Transfiguration?
The Transfiguration refers to that spectacular moment when our Lord appeared in all his glory to the Apostles Peter, James, and John.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
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.
While he was still speaking,
a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. (Lk 9:28-36)
We call this the Transfiguration because at that moment on the Mount of Transfiguration, our Lord’s appearance changed completely and the apostles were blessed to see him in all his glory. He was transfigured – changed in appearance – before their very eyes.
I’ve often asked myself why Jesus chose to take only three of his apostles up to the mountain with him. Even more, why those three? Three apostles saw for themselves Jesus’ glory; the rest had to wait for the appropriate time to hear about it and they were left to believe based on the others’ accounts.
The three who accompanied Jesus were given a weighty responsibility. They were to keep hush about what they had seen and at the same time carry within themselves the understanding of Jesus’ true greatness.
St. Ephraim said, “He took (Peter, James, and John) up to the mountain, that He might show them His kingdom before they witnessed His suffering and death…so that…they might understand that he was not crucified…because of his own powerlessness, but because it had please Him of His goodness to suffer for the salvation of the world.”
Peter, James, and John had seen Jesus’s Transfiguration. They knew what he was capable of. Yet, when the events leading up to the Crucifixion began to unfold, two of them abandoned our Lord and one of them remained. We hear little about James during the Passion, but we know that Peter, the “Rock” on which Jesus would build his Church and who swore he would die with Jesus, ended up denying three times that he even knew him and then disappeared into the periphery when things heated up. John alone held steady, finally standing at the Foot of the Cross as Jesus hung dying.
The Transfiguration is much more than a way-cool Bible story; it’s a message and mission for us in these present times. Our Catholic faith is a true privilege, much like the privilege Peter, James, and John had in going up the mountain to witness in awe the Transfiguration. Our challenge is to maintain that same awe throughout our lives and to remain convicted of Jesus’ glory even when our faith is tested, as the apostles’ faith was tested. The only way we can ever hope to stand strong is through a life of deep prayer, humility, and dependence on the sacraments.
What, then, is Transubstantiation?
In one sense, the Transfiguration and Transubstantiation have a commonality. In both Jesus appears in all his glory to human beings. In the case of the Transfiguration, our Lord revealed himself as he truly is without the visibility of his human form. In Transubstantiation, our Lord reveals himself and makes himself available to us in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity during Mass.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation. (CCC, 1376)
The Big Difference
As with the Transfiguration, those who have not seen are called to believe. We don’t see the actual Transubstantiation take place in terms of any change of physical appearance. We experience it spiritually and know that the bread and wine that are on the altar have become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ because this is what Jesus promised us. This is at the same time a singular and communal privilege and also a weighty responsibility. Just as Peter, James, and John were chosen to witness the Transfiguration, those who attend Holy Mass are chosen to witness the Transubstantiation. Just as the apostles had the gift of seeing our Lord transfigured before their eyes, we have the gift of participating and partaking of the Eucharist. The big difference is that we’re not expected to keep hush about it, but rather to openly witness and draw others to the miracle that takes place on our Catholic altars every time a priest offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord annually on August 6. The Collect from the Mass for the day provides a beautiful reflection for the feast.
O God, who in the glorious Transfiguration of your Only Begotten Son confirmed the mysteries of faith by the witness of the Fathers and wonderfully prefigured our full adoption to sonship, grant, we pray, to your servants, that, listening to the voice of your beloved Son, we may marriage to become co-heirs with him. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit one God, forever and ever. Amen
Image: Titian, Annunciation Wikimedia Commons