by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light…From the cloud came a voice that said: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Matthew 17: 1-9
As we try to make meaning of this Sunday’s gospel-reading which gives an account of the extraordinary event to which we refer as the transfiguration of Jesus, I suggest we stop to review the criticism that has been levelled at Peter, one of the principal participants in the story that Matthew presents. Through the centuries, preachers and commentators on the Gospels have labelled Peter as impetuous, ill-disciplined and rushing in to make suggestions with little or no thought. In chapter 16 of his Gospel, Matthew recounts how Jesus had asked his disciples what people were saying about him: “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he put this question to his disciples: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’” (Matthew 16: 13) After hearing some of their responses, Jesus turned to the disciples themselves and asked: “But who do you say I am?’ Without hesitating, Peter spoke out and identified Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. And Jesus praised him for his insight and rapid response, before proceeding to inform Peter of the responsibilities that awaited him and to predict the violent death towards which he himself was headed. Peter objected by stating that a dead Messiah would be of no help to anybody. For his trouble, he was sharply reprimanded by Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.” (Matthew 16: 23)
While Peter may have been subdued by the reprimand, his protest was eminently sound, clearly expressing the concern of a man who had come to respect and admire the Jesus he had chosen to follow. Moreover, Peter had not been schooled in thinking the way God thinks and had learned that God did not approve of anyone’s resorting to violence as an acceptable method of settling disagreements. Jesus had also made it clear that tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation paved the way for living in harmony with one another and that getting even, seeking retribution and pursuing revenge were foreign to the way of God. Contemplating the thought that Jesus would be the victim of violence plotted by leaders of the religious tradition to which they all belonged was inconceivable. No wonder Peter protested the way he did, even as he was aware of the fact that Jesus, too, knew that violence and evil were plotted, planned and perpetrated by people whose comfort was threatened by the values and message that Jesus proclaimed. Evil can still be inflicted on people who live with integrity, courage and respect for others. Inflicting violence on anyone can never be excused or justified, even if the one for whom that violence is designed knows in his or her heart that it is well-nigh inevitable
Jesus had, indeed, asked his disciples how they and the general population saw him. He was encouraged by the fact that Peter had recognised that he was the Messiah. The Transfiguration event was a divine articulation of Jesus’ true identity – fully human and truly divine. But it was not a process of identification by theological thesis but rather through the light of revelation. The Transfiguration revealed Jesus as the light of the world.
That revelation was so powerfully spectacular that the writers of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) searched for metaphors to describe it. In today’s gospel-reading we hear Matthew state that the face of the transformed Jesus shone like the sun and his clothes were dazzlingly white. Luke says that the light experienced by Peter, James and John was like a flash of lightning and Mark claimed that Jesus’ clothes were whiter than the strongest, known bleach could make them. In today’s second reading, Peter describes his personal experience as one of “majestic glory” (2 Peter 1: 17). Matthew was, indeed, presenting Jesus as the light of the world.
What happened on that mountainside was so surprising to Peter, James and John that they were clearly stunned. Accordingly, they responded like stunned people. James and John were left speechless, and Peter began to babble confusingly about setting up some kind of monument to mark the event. That’s typical of us all when we experience overwhelming shock or surprise – we don’t know what to say. But despite their confusion, all three heard the same voice of God from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.” There’s a message for all of us here. While we rarely, if ever, experience mountainside, transfiguration events, every day holds for us a surprise of one kind or another. God does touch us in fairly ordinary ways. So, let’s be open to each day’s surprise whether it comes to us in sorrow, in laughter, in some unexpected kindness or in blinding light. Such events can open in our hearts a space into which we can welcome new-found friends and old acquaintances and celebrate with them our shared humanity.
If we are the kind of people who rush to speak before we think, we might remember that in God’s presence, mediated to us through ordinary people, there is no need for us to do or say anything but to simply listen. If we are the type who goes into a flap or who is prone to panic, all we need do is to stop and listen. If we imagine that we are out of place, not meant to be where we are, all that is required of us is to pause and listen.
The first message of this account of the transfiguration of Jesus is that this one-time carpenter from Galilee, pursuing the call of an itinerant preacher is the Christ of God, the light of the world, fully human and truly divine. Secondly, to listen to him is to allow ourselves to be enlightened by him and to come to know him. Knowing him, will change forever how we live, how we face the reality of life’s burdens, disappointments and hurts and how we will begin to see what awaits us beyond the grave.
The starting point is to be open and ready to hear the invitation of God to stop and listen to God’s Son who surprises us every day of our lives.