The readings for Sunday, February 21, 2016, Second Sunday of Lent, Cycle C, are
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; and Luke 9:28b-36.
The liturgy places the story of the transfiguration of Jesus on the Second Sunday of the Lenten season, perhaps as a beacon of hope for Christians undergoing the rigors of Lenten fasting, abstinence, and other penitential works imposed by Church authority. The transfiguration is a preview of Jesus’ resurrection.
There are four versions of the transfiguration of Jesus — Mark, Matthew, Luke, and the Second Letter of Peter 1:16-19. Mark’s version is a foundation for Luke’s version, our concern this year. The catechesis of Luke becomes clearer if we consider Luke’s changes in Mark’s version. The usual listing of the three disciples who accompany Jesus onto the mountain is “Peter, James, and John.” Luke, as we know, was not satisfied with many of Mark’s arrangements. He writes, “Peter, John, and James.” When Luke composed the second volume of his Gospel, Acts of Apostles, the apostle John is closely associated with Simon Peter, while John’s brother James is given no notice by Luke until James’ martyrdom in Acts 12:2. Thus John has a greater role in Luke’s theology than John’s martyred brother.
Why does Jesus go up the mountain? Only Luke’s version says, “to pray.” The emphasis on Jesus’ prayer and prayer in general is more characteristic of Luke than of the other Gospel authors. Why are only Peter, James, and John chosen to be with Jesus on the mountain of transfiguration? Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, 8:51-54, the Big Three were the only disciples Jesus took with him to witness his raising a little girl back to life. Both transfiguration and resurrection of the little girl are previews of Jesus’ own resurrection. Their membership in Jesus’ intimate circle and two close brushes with resurrection fortified them to later be chief witnesses of Jesus’ own resurrection, as Peter and John certainly were according to Acts of Apostles.
Two men in glory appeared with Jesus. Luke identifies them as Moses and Elijah. On two other occasions in proximity to a glorious Jesus, Luke speaks of “two men in white,” — at Jesus’ empty tomb after his resurrection and at his ascension. It is possible that Luke intends these men in white to be the same witnesses to Jesus as the two men in glory at his transfiguration. And why not? Moses and Elijah represent the Torah (Law of Moses) and the Prophets. Luke’s purpose: to demonstrate that what is happening to Jesus agrees with the revelation of God’s plan for Jesus in Torah and Prophets. In early Christian interpretation of the Old Testament, Torah and Prophets (and the Writings) outlined every aspect of Jesus.
Mark’s version speaks unkindly of the disciples’ terror and Peter’s incoherence. Luke is gentler, “They were overcome by sleep, but now becoming fully awake they saw his glory and the two men with him.” Simon Peter, ever impulsive, always spokesperson for the disciples, has a plan. He enjoys the glory he sees and his presence in it. Why not make this situation more permanent, something like the eight days of celebration at the Jewish Feast of Tents? Even Luke notes that Peter didn’t know what he was saying. A cloud overshadows them, a sign of the presence of God. As the cloud encloses them, they receive a direct revelation. A voice from the cloud proclaims, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” The scene changes abruptly. The cloud and the voice are gone, and “Jesus was found alone.” Even the chatty Simon Peter had nothing more to say.
“Listen to him!” About what? The answer is in the Old Testament and in the context into which Luke places the transfiguration. The command to “listen to him” refers to Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses says to the Israelites, “The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like me from among you. Listen to him!” In Acts 3:23 Luke identifies Jesus as the “the prophet like Moses.” The Jews regarded Moses as the ultimate revealer. Luke says, “Not anymore!” He implies that Moses himself pointed out centuries ago that he would be surpassed by another revealer, the final one. The context of the transfiguration in Luke: earlier in the same chapter Luke listed some tough conditions required of faithful disciples of Jesus, “deny oneself, take up the cross daily, a willingness to give up one’s life for Jesus, the penalty for being ashamed of him.” Immediately after this list of tough conditions Luke places the transfiguration of Jesus. The road to glory is through the cross. “Listen to him!”