The Transfiguration is a significant feast that is obscured by its mid-summer date. We frequently move it to the nearest Sunday to give it its deserved prominence. There are similarities between the Transfiguration of Jesus and his baptism. In both events, the Holy Spirit is visibly present. In baptism, the Spirit descends in the form of a dove. In the Transfiguration, the Spirit alters the appearance of Jesus, and descends in the form of a cloud. In both events, the Father speaks, declaring Jesus to be his beloved Son. These two events present the clearest New Testament pictures of the Trinity.
Both events are witnessed by recognized prophets. John the Baptist was present at the baptism as the prophet who declared to Israel that Jesus is the Messiah. In the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah are present to bear witness that the cross fulfills the law and the prophets. Both events mark a transition. Baptism was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry of calling Israel to repent. The Transfiguration marks a change in direction. Now, Jesus is headed for the cross.
The feature of the story that best explains it is hidden in the language. Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus and spoke of what the King James Version translates as “his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.” The Greek word being translated as “decease” in this passage is literally “exodus.”
With Moses present and talking about an exodus, the meaning becomes clear. The death of Jesus on the cross will be the new exodus. In the first exodus, the blood of the Passover Lamb saved the people from death in Egypt; then Moses led Israel out of slavery through the Red Sea to freedom. Jesus is the Passover Lamb, whose blood will conquer death. And Jesus, the New Moses, will lead Israel to freedom through his death and resurrection.
The freedom that God’s people experience through this new exodus is expressed by St. Peter in the epistle. Peter used the same word used to describe his own death—“decease” or “exodus”—that was used to describe the death of Jesus. In the light of the cross, St. Peter saw his own death as a passage to a place of greater freedom.
Since there is so much misunderstanding about the nature of life after death, it is important to clarify exactly what St. Peter is saying, and not saying, about it. He describes his death as “putting off this my tabernacle.” A tabernacle is a tent, a temporary dwelling place. It corresponds to the tent God dwelt in during Israel’s years of wilderness wandering. When Israel reached the Promised Land, God eventually dwelt in the temple, which was a permanent structure. Thus, Peter will put off his temporary dwelling through his death/exodus, with the hope that God will give him a permanent dwelling, a new and glorified body.
The meaning of this is explained by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4:
For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.
St. Peter did not hope for a purely “spiritual” existence as a result of his exodus. Rather, he put off his temporary dwelling in the hope that God would give him a permanent habitation in the Resurrection.
This follows the pattern established by Jesus. Jesus died on Good Friday. He put off his mortal body, his earthly tent, and his spirit went to the place where departed spirit go. On the third day, his spirit was reunited with his body and his body was transformed and glorified. He received his “habitation which is from heaven.” So, Peter would put off his mortal body, his tent. He would go to the place where the departed faithful go (to be “with Christ” “In paradise”—Philippians 1:23, Luke 23:43) to wait for the day of resurrection, when he will be given a new and glorified body, a house not made with hands.
Like Christ, we will die. We will put off this tent.. Like Christ, we will rise. We will be given a new, immortal habitation from heaven. For Jesus, the intermediate state of existence, the time between putting off the earthly tent and receiving the habitation from heaven, consisted of parts of three days; or a day and half if we are timing it on a watch. The intermediate state for us in elongated. The departed faithful now live in the intermediate state. Having put off the tent of their temporary existence, they live in expectation of the day when “the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible” (1 Corinthians 15:52).
The Transfiguration teaches us that death is a necessary part of our progress towards resurrection. Jesus received a taste of the future glory to sustain him through the suffering that was necessary to attain to that future state. In the same way, our experience of union with God in Christ through the Spirit in this life is a temporary taste of future glory that is meant to sustain us through own, necessary share of the cross.
The great temptation—which Jesus faced in the wilderness and we face constantly in life—is to hold on to the temporary as though it were permanent; to seek complete fulfillment here and now; to act as through this world and what it has to offer is the goal of life. When we give into that temptation, we sacrifice the future hope for the promise of present glory—and we end up losing both.
This is why the world is afraid of suffering and death. The illusion of the world is that we can build a permanent city here. Death is the constant reminder that this is a lie. Thus, the world attempts to stay perpetually young, avoid the reality of death and eliminate all pain. Authentic Christian faith does not promise that we will not age, suffer or die. It promises us that our suffering and death have been redeemed by Christ. They are part of our own pathway to glory.
This does not diminish life in this world. It makes it better. As Jesus said, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). It is only when we let go; it is only when we stop clinging to the temporary as through it were permanent, that we are able to enjoy the temporary for what it is: a taste, a glimpse, a shadow of the future, eternal glory that lies on the other side of our own cross and exodus.