by Br Julian McDonald cfc
From the cloud there came a voice which said: “This is my beloved Son; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.”…Jesus gave them this order: “Tell no one about this vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.” Matthew 17, 1-9
There must be something quite important about this story of the transfiguration of Jesus for no other reason than that it is put before us twice each year – during Lent and on the annual celebration of the Transfiguration. What message is so important that there is a need to have us deliberately reflect on it twice a year?
Occasionally, most of us have moments when we feel close to God, experiences that remain etched indelibly in our memories. They are few and far between, but they help us to deal with disappointing and hurtful experiences when they come our way, remembering that God is always with us, even when life looks bleak. Psychologists refer to our uplifting “God moments” as peak experiences.
Today’s gospel story of the mountaintop experience we now call the Transfiguration is Matthew’s rewrite of a story that was passed on to him. It’s also his way of trying to make sense of that story. What Matthew has put together operates as a parable, even though he does not call it a that. This story is loaded with symbols. There’s a mountaintop, because it was on mountaintops that prophets and other holy people encountered God. There’s a face, shining brightly, calling to mind Moses’ meeting with God on Mt Sinai. There’s a voice from heaven. Included are the great champions of the Jewish Law, Elijah and Moses. Where there are symbols, there’s an invitation to explore them for their meaning. The characters of parables like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan represent much more than the individuals involved in the story. They stand for actions that we are all capable of doing, and they act as mirrors into which we are invited to look. For example, in the characters who ignore the man who was beaten and robbed in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we can see something of ourselves. In the same way, the story of the transfiguration carries a message for us to reflect on. Just in case we missed that message on the second Sunday of Lent this year, we are invited to ponder it again this week.
We have to remember that Matthew was writing for a community that was experiencing rejection and persecution because of its adherence to Jesus and all he had taught. Peter, James and John were names well-known to Matthew’s community, and the story of their intense religious experience on the mountaintop when they were given an assurance that God was really with them was meant to remind Matthew’s community that God was with them as truly as he was with Peter James and John. The inclusion of Moses and Elijah, giants of faith in the history of God’s love for their people, is a double reassurance that God was with them and would continue to be with them. The voice from heaven urging the apostles to hold tight to what Jesus taught them, followed immediately by an unexpected reference to the death and resurrection that awaited him, was intended to be a call not to lose hope, even when things looked bleak and hopeless. That was the message of this parable for Matthew’s community, and that’s the message for us, too, as we struggle to stay faithful to Jesus and his Gospel in a world that is gripped by fear and confusion, in a Church that looks to be faltering and whose morale has been seriously dented.
There is a message for us, too, in the stunned response by Peter, James and John to what they had experienced. They could hardly be blamed for wanting to linger on the mountaintop after such a revelation? There were plenty of examples in their tradition of others building monuments and altars at places of divine encounter. But perhaps there was more than that to their wanting to linger. As they had accompanied Jesus in his ministry, they had seen an endless trail of human brokenness and need, and could anticipate that there would be more to come. Staying where they were would give them some respite from the heartbreaking human longing that awaited them back down the mountain.
Aren’t there times when we find ourselves wanting to distance ourselves from a world whose needs are unable to be addressed, a world gripped by fear, battered by frequent acts of terrorism, and overwhelmed by wars, racial conflict, starvation and disease? While our urge may well be to retreat from strife like this, we also know that it is often only the privileged who have the means to do that. Right now, we know that there are millions of refugees fleeing the civil strife that has descended upon countries like Syria and South Sudan. We know, too, that many of them are being turned away by nations and governments unwilling to respond to their plight.
However, it seems to me that the disciples’ desire to stay on the mountain came from their thinking that what they had experienced was the pinnacle of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus. But Jesus was quick to make it clear to them that God’s ultimate revelation was still to come – in Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. That is how God’s love and power would be put on full display – not in self-importance, not in glory or dazzling whiteness, but in self-emptying, in standing in solidary with the forgotten, the down-trodden, the poor and the suffering. Maybe, that is why the only thing Jesus said in this whole story was an instruction to the disciples not to tell anyone about their mountaintop experience until after his resurrection – so that others wouldn’t make the same mistake. And that’s precisely why Matthew sandwiches this transfiguration story between two predictions of Jesus’ passion and death, along with a reminder that the cross will be a part of the life of everyone who wants to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
Jesus put to one side the brilliance and exhilaration of the transfiguration, and headed down the mountain to listen to the pleas of a man whose son, gripped by mental illness, was repeatedly endangering his life by throwing himself into the fire or into the water. He rejected personal privilege, nailing it to the cross for the sake of the needy, the forgotten and the dispossessed, indeed, for every one of us as well. While his transfiguration on the mountaintop was intended for his disciples and for us to be a reminder not to lose hope, no matter how bleak life may become, Jesus made it clear that lasting transfiguration would come for us and our world through his cross and ultimate resurrection. In laying aside privilege and special treatment, he reminds us to do the same for the sake of others and the good of our world. In today’s gospel story, that message is reinforced by the voice of God: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
And let’s not forget that there are many other transfiguration moments in our lives as we respond to Jesus’ invitation to reach out to others in love: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” (Victor Hugo, Les Miserables)