A practical color for transfiguration
Jesus, in dazzling white, was transfigured in glory on the mountaintop
March 12, 2006 -- Second Sunday of Lent
By Fr. Michael Stubbs
As a priest, I usually wear basic black. That works well, except when I eat a donut with powdered sugar, or write on the chalkboard. Then the white dust shows on my black suit. Some colors are more practical than others.
White is a color which also easily shows dirt. Can you imagine walking the dusty roads of Galilee dressed in a white robe? Most clothing at the time of Jesus was dyed brown or blue, or simply left its natural color. That is why the white robes mentioned in Sunday's gospel reading, Mark 9: 2-10, stand out so dramatically.
The gospel reading describes the Transfiguration, when Jesus climbs up the mountain with three disciples and appears transfigured in glory. Part of Jesus' transformation involves his clothing. "His clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them."
The phrase "no fuller on earth" suggests that a heavenly fuller has been at work here. This is not the bright desert sun whose glare makes Jesus' clothes suddenly look white. This is a miracle, reflecting God's power to transform.
The white color of the robes also looks forward to another scene in Mark's gospel. "On entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were utterly amazed." (Mark 16:5) This is the only other place where Mark's gospel mentions the color white and once again that color describes clothing. In this case, the young man wearing the white clothing is an angel, stationed at the empty tomb of Jesus, risen from the dead.
The Transfiguration of Jesus anticipates his Resurrection. The glory revealed on the mountaintop affords the disciples Peter, James and John a glimpse of the even greater glory yet to come. In Mark's gospel, the white color of the robes serves as a small but significant detail in painting these pictures of otherworldly splendor.
The white color of the robes also recalls other Biblical passages showing heavenly scenes: "Thrones were set up and the Ancient One took his throne. His clothing was snow bright." (Daniel 7:9) "Surrounding the throne I saw twenty-four other thrones on which twenty-four elders sat, dressed in white garments and with golden thrones on their heads." (Revelation 4:4) The white color, so impractical for clothing on earth, apparently poses no problem in heaven.
The white robes in these passages also point to a white robe currently used in our Church. It is the baptismal robe. Immediately after baptism, it is traditional to clothe the newly baptized person in a white robe. Originally, this was a practical measure, since the ceremony of baptism required nakedness. The person needed to be clothed to be presented to the community. But that would not require the robe to be white.
The color white of the baptismal robe refers back to the Transfiguration of Jesus and to his Resurrection. Just as Jesus was transfigured in glory on the mountaintop, so also we are transformed by the sacrament of Baptism. And that transformation looks forward to the glory of the Resurrection.
"You have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven."
(Fr. Stubbs, a priest of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, has a master's degree in theology from Harvard.)