March 12th, 2017: Second Sunday in Lent, Year A: Matthew 17:1-9.
Few incidents in the gospels are so difficult to speak about as the one we celebrate today. Like Jesus’ resurrection, of which we have no description at all (the gospels describe only the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Lord), the Transfiguration is a mystery. Not that we can understand nothing about it; but that we can understand will always be less than the whole. The Transfiguration yields its secret only if we respect its mystery. The gospel writers do so by describing it in symbols. There are least six:
C the high mountain;
C the appearance of Moses and Elijah;
C the three booths which Peter wants to erect;
C the cloud;
C the heavenly voice;
C the dazzling whiteness of Jesus’ clothes and face.
In the thought-world of the Bible, mountains symbolize remoteness from ordinary worldly affairs, and nearness to God. Moses received the Ten Command-ments atop
Elijah staged his dramatic contest with the false prophets of Baal on Mt. Sinai .
In Mark’s gospel Jesus ascended a mountain to call his twelve apostles (Mk
3:13). And in John he withdraws to a mountain to pray following the feeding of
the five thousand in the wilderness (Jn 6:15). Mt. Carmel
Moses and Elijah, the two greatest heroes of Jesus’ people, symbolize the special relationship of the people to God. Together they point to Jesus as the one who fulfils all his people’s hopes and expectations. Jesus is greater than either of them, greater than Moses and Elijah together.
The three booths or tents which Peter wants to erect are reminiscent of the Jewish Feast of Booths, a joyful autumn celebration that recalled the time when God’s people lived in tents during their desert wanderings. The feast of Booths also looks forward to the joy of the end-time when God will visit his people and complete the blessings promised in the covenant he made with Moses in the wilderness.
The cloud is the most striking symbol of all. Repeatedly in Holy Scripture the cloud symbolizes God’s presence. During their desert wanderings God’s people were led onward by a cloud.
was enveloped in a cloud when Moses received the Ten Commandments. A cloud
received the risen Lord at his Ascension.
The voice from the cloud repeats the words heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, on whom my favor rests.” Here, however, the words are addressed not to Jesus, but to his disciples. The concluding words, “Listen to him,” remind us of Moses’ prophecy: “The Lord your God will raise up a prophet from among you like myself, and you shall listen to him” (Dt. 18:15).
The Transfiguration is a mystery because, though it happened in time, it opens a window onto a world beyond time. For a brief moment, there on the mountain, the veil between time and eternity, between earth and heaven, is lifted. Jesus’ friends catch a glimpse of the invisible, spiritual world of God. The concluding words, “Listen to him,” express the significance of the mystery for Jesus’ friends: not only for the three on the mountain with him, but for all the friends of Jesus, ourselves included.
We, the friends and followers of Jesus Christ, are the company of those who listen to his words. Jesus does not grant to us, any more than he granted to Peter, James, and John, the continuous vision of his glory. We live not on the mountaintop of great spiritual experiences, but in the valley of life’s ordinary duties. There we do not look for dazzling visions from beyond. Instead we listen for Jesus’ voice.
Jesus speaks to us in many ways: in the Scriptures, in the teaching of his Church, through the circumstances of daily life. He speaks to us in the promptings of conscience, and in the needs of those whom we encounter along life’s way. In the world to come, it will be different. There we shall see the Lord. In this world, however, we live by faith, and not by sight.
For a moment, before the descent of the cloud, the three friends of Jesus saw their friend and Master transformed beyond anything they could have imagined. It was as if his humanity had no limits. The Transfiguration is a manifestation of Christ’s divinity, from a moment breaking through the veil of his humanity. But it is more. It also shows us our potential to become divine.
If the goal of the spiritual life is to grow in likeness to God, then the more we progress, the more we participate in God’s own life. When our journey reaches its end, and we have been stripped of all the obstacles to holiness, God’s life will become our life, and we shall be one with God. Then our earthly pilgrimage beneath an often overcast sky will yield to the uninterrupted vision of God’s glory. We too shall shine with an unearthly light — the light that shines from the face of Jesus Christ: our Master, our Savior, our Redeemer — but also our passionate lover, and our best friend. We shall have reached our true homeland, the heavenly city which (as we read in Revelation) needs neither sun nor moon, “for the glory of God gives it light, and the lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21.23).
Now, however, is the time not for seeing, but for hearing. We listen for the Father’s voice and heed his command, as he speaks to us the words first uttered to those three friends of Jesus on the mountain two thousand years ago:
“This is my beloved Son, on whom my favor rests. Listen to him.”