The Transfiguration and Accessory Joy
Fr. Scott Haynes
In St. Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, we learn that Our Lord’s face “shone as the sun and his garments became white as snow. And Peter said, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here.’” Indeed, the vision of Christ in glory was a marvel to behold. But the Transfiguration was not a complete vision of Christ in heavenly glory, as we will one day behold in the “beatific vision,” but a temporary transfiguration of Christ’s external appearance which gave Peter, James and John a peek at Christ’s greater glory.
The transfiguration provided an anticipatory vision of what the powerful coming of God’s kingdom will be. The disciples, who had only known him as a man, now had a greater realization of the deity of Christ, though they could not fully comprehend it. The glory of the Transfiguration gave them the temporary reassurance they needed after hearing the disturbing news of his forthcoming passion and death.
Although both Matthew (17:1-13) and Luke (9:28-36) speak of light shining from Our Lord’s face, Mark mentions only the clothing of the Lord: “His garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). The clothes we wear reflect bodily form. However, our clothes are not our body. There exists a reality which has the form of Christ’s body, but is not his physical body: it is the Church, his Mystical Body. In the clothing of the transfigured Lord, we behold an image of the Church, the beloved Spouse whom Christ the Bridegroom desires to present to himself as “a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27).
St. Augustine of Hippo says that the Transfiguration was predicted in the Psalms: “Thou art clothed with light as with a garment. Who stretchest out the heaven like a pavilion” (Psalm 103:2). The renowned Bishop of Hippo taught us that, “Christ took the Church for his garment; because in him she became light, she who before was darkness in herself, as the Apostle teaches: ‘For you were heretofore darkness, but now light in the Lord. Walk then as children of the light’” (Patrologia Latina 37, 1352).
God’s goodness resounds throughout all creation, and brings the children of his kingdom great joy. Thus, in heaven, we will not only have perfect joy in the vision of God, but also a special kind of joy called “accessory joy.” St. Teresa of Avila, the great Spanish mystic, was privileged to behold one hand of the risen Christ in a sacred vision (The Life of St. Teresa of Avila, Chapter XXIX). So beautiful was the sight that she fell into a divine ecstasy. If this be true of one hand of the Savior glorified, what joy awaits when we see the fullness of his divinity, not filtered through the lens of an eye—as at the Transfiguration of our Lord—but directly infused into our human intellect by Almighty God! In the beatific vision, God directly infuses into the human mind his Presence, which obtains so much joy as to exclude the possibility of choosing anything outside of God.
About seven hundred years ago, a theological crisis arose regarding the doctrine of life in heaven. To resolve the crisis, Pope Benedict XII issued Benedictus Deus (1336), on matters eschatological, addressing the four last things: heaven, hell, death, and judgement. Pope Benedict XII said: “Since the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, the souls in heaven have seen, and do see, the divine essence with an intuitive and even face-to-face vision, without interposition of any creature … Rather, the divine essence immediately manifests itself to them plainly, clearly, and openly.” Understand that no human eye will be needed to see God in heaven. Rather, to the citizens of that happy estate, God immediately and directly reveals himself. Moreover, this direct manifestation of God into the intellect of the blessed is accompanied by so much joy as to make it impossible for those in heaven to choose anything outside of God.
The saints lack no good because they possess the source of all good, who is God. So they have no desire for anything other than God, and his holy will. Put another way, no one in heaven is able to sin. In heaven, the principle joy is the beatific vision, the vision of God seen “face-to-face.” Yet, the Church also teaches that accessory joy will be obtained from other creatures, but only in so much as they are possessed in God. So, in heaven, family members and friends will recognize each other, and receive joy in their continued friendship in Christ. Moreover, the saints and angels will provide other sources of accessory joy, not just in their friendship, but in their simple presence.
While on this earth, St Francis of Assisi, just for a moment, heard an angel playing a violin, and he nearly died of joy. St. Francis de Sales tells us that as the song of a nightingale far surpasses that of any other bird, so the voice of the Blessed Virgin Mary delights the happy soul in heaven, more than any angel and all the saints together.
The Gospel has shown us the Transfiguration of our Savior. It was not the beatific vision—although it gives us a hint of it. In this, there is a correlation with the Holy Eucharist. Christ is truly present in the Holy Eucharist—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Christ made that clear in John 6. But in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, he chooses to veil himself under the appearance of bread and wine. Why? So that we can exercise the virtue of faith. Does not Scripture say: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed” (John 20:29)?
In the Transfiguration we behold the face of Christ, shining like the sun, and we are given the courage to persevere through our hardships, our humiliations. The Transfiguration teaches us that bearing all of our crosses with joy will yield fruit in heaven, because if we suffer with Christ, we shall be glorified with him forever. In the Transfiguration, Christ calls us to a deepening conversion. Like Peter, James, and John we must turn our minds away from the passing pleasures of this world, towards the everlasting realities of heaven. Amen.