2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: The Transfiguration (Mt 17:1-8)
1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone. 2There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light. 3Suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to them; they were talking with him. 4Then Peter spoke to Jesus. “Lord,” he said, “it is wonderful for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5He was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow, and from the cloud there came a voice which said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.” 6When they heard this, the disciples fell on their faces, overcome with fear. 7But Jesus came up and touched them. “Stand up,” he said, “do not be afraid.” 8And when they raised their eyes they saw no one but only Jesus.
2. 1- Explanation
After Peter proclaimed his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus began to predict to his disciples, making three announcements: that he would go up to Jerusalem where he was to suffer, and die, and that on the third day he would rise again. Knowing how weak the disciples would be when faced with the “cup of suffering” he was destined to drink, he let them experience a taste of glory: the Transfiguration, anticipating the Resurrection. What does it mean then that his face shone like the sun, and that his clothes became as white as the light? It is the image of Jesus in the glory of his Resurrection. Why did the Transfiguration take place? Indeed, this event happened to strengthen the disciples who were to see him crucified, dead and buried, so that their faith would not be shaken. Jesus chose to share this great secret event with Peter, James and John. They had witnessed the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:22-43) and they were to accompany Jesus to his Passion in the Garden of Olives. There is a hierarchical order in the Church that must be respected. Climbing to the mountain takes on a theological meaning, beyond the mere geographical one: it is the mountain of revelation, the holy mountain, that of the new Jerusalem, where all peoples will gather at the end of time. The presence of Moses and Elijah recalls the Old Testament prophecies of the Passion of Christ, his death and Resurrection. Moses represents the Torah, the Law, and Elijah represents the prophets. In the Old Testament, we read that neither had a physical grave and it was widely believed that both were taken up into Heaven as a reward for the earthly service, Elijah being seen to be taken up in a “fiery chariot”.
Peter’s idea of setting up three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah is an allusion to the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkot (Lev 23:33-43), which was celebrated at the time. The Feast is a remembrance of how the shining presence of God travelled with His people through the desert when they dwelt in tents/tabernacles; and it looks forward to the coming of the Messiah, when the presence of God will once again dwell with Israel. The irony here is that most Jews did not recognise that He, in the Person of the Son, had already come amongst them. In Scripture, a cloud is usually an indication of the veiled presence of God, and here – as at the conception of Jesus – in the bright cloud the disciples are overshadowed by God the Holy Spirit, with the Father’s voice being heard from its midst. Just as when the Father’s voice was first heard when Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, the same words are heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved” (a Jewish term signifying one’s first-born and heir), confirming Jesus’ mission, but the essential call here is “Listen to him!”, to the disciples and to all of us. The agitation and fear of the disciples experienced at the end of this passage indicate a natural human reaction in the presence of a theophany, a vision of God.
2. 2- Summary and Practice
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 556) explains this event in the life of Jesus as follows:
“On the threshold of the public life: the baptism; on the threshold of the Passover: the Transfiguration. Jesus’ baptism proclaimed ‘the mystery of the first regeneration’, namely, our Baptism; the Transfiguration “is the sacrament of the second regeneration”: our own Resurrection. 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, ‘it is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God’.”
This scene of the Transfiguration invites us to listen to God’s voice as it continues to be heard in the world around us, and within us, calling us to imitate Christ in our lives. The Transfiguration is also an invitation to contemplate the duality of death and the resurrection, as well as glory and humiliation. It is always a temptation for the disciple to remain on the’ mountaintop’, instead of having to go back down into a world of troubles. Thus, we know that when we experience the joy of transfiguration in our lives, we will understand that we must also prepare ourselves to live the way of the Cross. Because true joy is only perfected through the imitation of Christ. On the day of our Cross and death let us recall the days of light and grace.