All you need to know about Magnificat
Subscribe, renew or offer a subscription
Become a Magnificat ambassador
Discover our inspiring selections
Read Magnificat online
The Transfiguration (1311)
Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1260–1318)
The Transfiguration ‘is the sacrament of the second regeneration’: our own Resurrection,” notes the Catechism of the Catholic Church (556). In this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the Lenten season offers a renewed moment to walk in the way of God’s mercy. And on the Second Sunday of Lent, the Gospel invites us to ponder how the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection, prefigured in his Transfiguration, can become the “sacrament of… our own resurrection.”This early 14 th -century predella panel depicting the Transfiguration is a stirring visual homily on this Gospel event and its meaning for the Christian life. The work is attributed to Duccio di Buoninsegna, father of Sienese painting, who is among those credited with moving Italian painting from the hieratic representations of Byzantine art to realism and representation. Completed by Duccio between 1308 and 1311, this exquisite panel was once part of the impressive Maestà altarpiece, the central panel of which depicts a large enthroned Madonna and Child surrounded by angels and saints. Other panels in the altarpiece, including this one, offer masterfully painted scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary. On completing the commission, Duccio became known for his fervent prayer to the Mother of God, asking Mary to be the cause of peace for Siena and life to Duccio, because he painted her thus.
Seeing with eyes of faith
“Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15). Jesus addresses this central question to his disciples. The same question Jesus addresses to us as well. Peter’s response is an act of faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (Mt 16:16). Peter’s faith becomes the foundation of the Church’s faith as Jesus affirms, “I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18).Christian discipleship rests on the act of faith that Jesus is the Son of God. Peter and the disciples are led to a deeper understanding of what they believe. A similar path of daily conversion of heart and mind, in the way of love, also marks the life of every Christian.When Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer greatly, be killed, and be raised on the third day, a shadow of doubt is cast over the disciples’ act of faith. Now they must see with eyes of faith what they cannot imagine or understand. So Jesus’ Transfiguration becomes a mysterious preview, a foretaste of the Lord’s future and his glorious Resurrection. It also provides a glimpse into our own transformation, our rebirth in Christ.
A high mountain apart
In the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent, Saint Luke tells us that the Transfiguration begins with Jesus leading Peter, James, and John apart to a high mountain. There he is transfigured before their astonished eyes. Mountains are places of epiphany in the Scriptures. Special manifestations of God’s covenant love, power, and glory take place on mountain heights.Duccio places the serene and majestic figure of Jesus on the highest mountain peak. A series of smaller peaks lead our eyes to Christ. His haloed face shines like the sun, and his garments radiate golden light. Clothed in brilliant robes of red and blue, the Lord is raising his right hand in a gesture of blessing. Jesus holds the Scriptures in his left hand, indicating that this epiphany reveals also the deepest meaning of the sacred texts. His feet hover slightly above the ground, while two Old Testament figures, Moses on the left and Elijah on the right, appear beside Jesus’ radiant form.Moses and Elijah direct the eyes of the Apostles—and our gaze—toward the Lord, in keeping with these prophets’ preparatory role in salvation history. Below, three haloed Apostles kneel humbly before this manifestation of Jesus’ glory. Their dramatic gestures convey amazement and wonder. Their viewpoint, from the lower half of the panel, invites us to share in their space and in their faith.Duccio places his figures in a landscape of muted colors that suggest an ethereal space. A delicate gold leaf background, characteristic of Eastern iconography, evokes the heavenly realm. One can imagine the warm glow of flickering candles, before the original altar- piece, bringing to life the figures of Jesus, Apostles, and prophets in this unified heavenly space.
Jesus, the mercy of God revealed
Why does Jesus reveal himself in transfigured form? Pope Saint Leo the Great observed that “in this Transfiguration the foremost object was to remove the offense of the cross from the heart of the disciples, and to prevent their faith being disturbed by the humiliation of his voluntary Passion by revealing to them the excellence of his hid- den dignity…. The foundation was also laid of the Church’s hope, that the whole body of Christ might realize the character of the change which it would have to receive.”During his Transfiguration, Jesus shines the radiant light of faith, hope, and love into the hearts and minds of his disciples. As Saint John Paul II wrote, “the mystery of light par excellence is the Transfiguration…. [There] the glory of the Godhead shines forth from the face of Christ as the Father commands the astonished Apostles to listen to him: (cf. Lk 9:35) and to prepare to experience with him the agony of the Passion, so as to come with him to the joy of the Resurrection and a life transfigured by the Holy Spirit” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae #21).In this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, we seek a “life transfigured by the Holy Spirit,” in the light of God’s merciful love. By renewing our faith in Jesus, the Son of God, we are given a new way of seeing the world. With the eyes of faith, the disciples will eventually understand in Jesus’ Transfiguration the mystery of his suffering, Death, and Resurrection, and will begin to experience their own participation in his Paschal Mystery.Just as the disciples are transformed by the Transfiguration, our lives are also meant to be transfigured. For as the Catechism teaches, “from now on we share in the Lord’s Resurrection through the Spirit who acts in the sacraments of the Body of Christ. The Transfiguration gives us a foretaste of Christ’s glorious coming, when he ‘will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body.’ But it also recalls that ‘it is through many persecutions that we must enter the Kingdom of God’” (CCC 556).Duccio’s serene image invites us to consider how the Lord’s Transfiguration transforms our lives. We move from seeing to contemplation, and from contemplation to worship and praise of God for his mercies that never end.
Jem SullivanWriter on art, catechesis, and the New Evangelization
To the Desert!
Briton Rivière (1840-1920)
Jesus withdraws, alone, to the heart of a rough and rocky desert. Behind him, light begins to overcome the darkness. Twilight hues merge into those of dawn: the old Law fades into the new and eternal Law to reveal the coming of the Son of God. In this spiritual battle, he prepares himself to open the final, tragic act of his earthly mission. Before entering into his public life, that is, before completely fulfilling his own sublime vocation, it was necessary that the Son of Man test his human freedom in the fire of privation. For this freedom would be put to the harshest of tests, to the ultimate sacrifice: to the point of choosing, with an ineffable groan, to say, “Father, not my will but yours be done.”
If, in Jesus, God went to the desert to remain a free man, how much more ought we to follow him there, at least each time our free will is tasked with making an important commitment. For two laws govern anyone who wishes to consecrate his life to the coming of the Kingdom of God: the law of love—”Does what I am doing advance the fulfillment of the will of the Father?”—and the law of freedom—”Does what I am doing make me dependent, a slave, keep me from being totally free to let my life be guided by the law of love?” In other words, “If, in order to completely fulfill my vocation, I have to say no to some urge, some desire, some habit, some addiction to food, drink, sex, Internet, the phone, my amusements, my work, would I be capable of doing it?” To answer this question honestly, we must imitate Jesus and retreat to the desert.
With this in mind, to gauge our level of Christian freedom, each of us can test ourselves. Not for forty days, not in the Sahara…but at home, just for a couple of days. The program? Silence, prayer, meditation, lectio divina, nature walks, religious services, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, uplifting reading about spiritual battles.… And where is this desert? First, we must totally disconnect: no more keyboards, no Internet, no screens. Then, we must avoid all distractions: no work, no home repairs, no games, no newspapers, no frivolous reading. Finally, we must feel hunger. So, only cold water and a bit of bread at noon and at night…. Courage!
Christ in the Wilderness (1898), Briton Rivière (1840-1920), Guildhall Art Gallery, London, UK. © Bridgeman Images