Transfiguration’s Lesson

The readings for Sunday, March 12, 2017, Second Sunday of Lent, Cycle A, are
Genesis 12:1-4a; 2 Timothy 1:8b-10; and Matthew 17:1-9.

One of three versions of the transfiguration of Jesus, from Mark or Matthew or Luke, is always the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Lent. This year is Matthew’s turn. Matthew begins, “Jesus took aside Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.”

In Gethsemane Jesus also separated these three from the others to watch with him while he prayed to his Father to escape the cross. Through their seeing Jesus in glory at the transfiguration, Jesus prepared them for seeing him in degradation, flat on his face on the ground, begging his Father to escape the cross. But they fell asleep in Gethsemane, then abandoned him. Seeing Jesus in glory did not take effect on them until he rose from the dead. Simon Peter later will write in the second letter attributed to him.

Matthew continues, “He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” The Greek verb translated as “transfigured” is the source of the English noun metamorphosis, meaning an abrupt change into another form. One thinks of the contrast between the worm in the cocoon and the beautiful butterfly that emerges from it. Thus the butterfly became a symbol of the resurrection just as Jesus’ transfiguration became a symbol of his resurrection.  The whiteness of garments was a standard Old and New Testament way of describing a heavenly apparition. In the Book of Revelation white is the color of Jesus’ hair when he appears in glory. In a vision of heaven, the author of Revelation sees Christian martyrs all in white. They are described as those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” White is a biblical metaphor for heavenly glory.

Next upon the scene — two distinguished predecessors of Jesus, Moses and Elijah, both prophets of God just as Jesus was, though he was more. A biblical prophet is a spokesperson for God, and this describes Jesus’ role and the purpose for which he was sent from the Father. The most important symbolism in the appearance of Moses and Elijah is this — they represent Torah and Prophets, the two major divisions of the Hebrew Old Testament. The presence of these two proclaims that all that is written in Torah and Prophets is in accord with what is about to happen to Jesus in Jerusalem.

Someone on this mountain has to react to this stupendous event. Simon Peter, the successful businessman who knew how to get things done, always the spokesperson for the apostles, the disciples, the Church, is the first to react. He is enjoying the sight of Jesus in glory. He wants that glory to endure. Perhaps he was thinking of the Jewish feast of Tents or Booths — a joyful  celebration lasting eight days and commemorating the Israelites in their tents at Mt. Sinai, also called Mt. Horeb. Both Moses and Elijah experienced God on that mountain. Now they were present at the transfiguration. So Peter has a plan, “Here’s what we will do, Lord. If you agree, we will put up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” But a cloud intervenes, “From the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.’”

A direct revelation from God! Why this revelation at this point? Jesus had just spoken to his disciples about what was to happen to him in Jerusalem — arrest, trial, torture, execution — and something his disciples could not understand at this time — Jesus would rise from the dead on the third day after his death and burial.  They could not accept any of this. That is why the voice had to say, “You better listen to what he has been telling you!” They had not been listening because they did not want to hear. Whenever Jesus spoke to them of his passion and death, they reacted foolishly.

The first time: Peter pulled Jesus aside and reprimanded him. Bad move! He got his come-uppance from Jesus. The second time brought only sadness and confusion. The third time: the sons of Zebedee, through their mother, asked Jesus for the first places in his kingdom. They still thought he would set up a kingdom in Jerusalem and they wanted the two most important jobs in that kingdom. Then the other ten began arguing among themselves until Jesus warned them that his mission was not to rule an earthly kingdom, but to serve and give his life for others. Their reaction to the whole scene: They fell to the ground in great fear. When they looked up again, they saw only Jesus. The glory was gone. The cross lay ahead. “Listen to him!” Cross now. Glory later.