Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Transfiguration. All three the synoptic Gospels include this occurence on Mount Tabor. St. Luke writes:
Now about eight days after this had been said, he took with him Peter, John and James and went up the mountain to pray. And it happened that, as he was praying, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became sparkling white. And suddenly there were two men talking to him; they were Moses and Elijah appearing in glory, and they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions were heavy with sleep, but they woke up and saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As these were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what he was saying.
As he was saying this, a cloud came and covered them with shadow; and when they went into the cloud the disciples were afraid. And a voice came from the cloud saying, ‘This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.’
And after the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. The disciples kept silence and, at that time, told no one what they had seen.
Gospel of Luke 9: 28-36
This is not the only time that Jesus changes His appearance, but it is the only time before His death on the cross. After the Resurrection, there are multiple instances where He physically appeared to the Apostles (they could touch Him and they ate breakfast together, for example), and where they did not immediately recognise Him. The best example is perhaps the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Only when their fellow traveler broke the bread and said the blessing at the dinner table, did they recognise Jesus.
So the Transfiguration can perhaps be seen as a foretaste of what was to come. After His death and resurrection, Jesus gained a new body, and that, by the way, lies at the basis of the Catholic belief in the bodily resurrection at the end of time. My parish priest mused today that perhaps this was also a means of support for the Apostles, who would be scattered in the days surrounding the crucifixion, and who would suffer greatly. But Jesus showed them here that on the other side of the pain and suffering, beauty and glory lies.
The presence of Moses and Elijah, the Law and the prophets, and of course God’s cloud who descends upon the mountain (not unlike how He accompanied the people of Israel out of Egypt – Moses would not have been surprised), firmly places Christ in the history of salvation, in both the Old and New covenants. Not that he didn’t have this place before all this, but we, being both us and the Apostles, need to become aware of it.