Jesus takes His closest friends up a mountain to pray, an action packed with meaning for Jews. Why?
By Gayle Somers
Gospel (Read Mt 17:1-9)
The meaning of today’s Gospel reading, known to us as the Transfiguration, is greatly enriched if we understand the context in which it appears, both within Matthew’s Gospel and the larger story of salvation history. Time spent on this will bear good fruit. (Note: Transfiguration implies a revelation of the true nature of a person or object. Transformation implies a remaking of the nature of a person or object. Jesus was transfigured, whereas we are transformed in Him. As St. Paul tells us, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another.” 2 Cor 3:18)
In Matthew 16, after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the apostles get a nasty shock. Jesus tells them that He is destined for suffering and death. When Peter resists, Jesus sharply rebukes him (“Get behind Me, Satan!” in 16:23) for thinking as men do about suffering, not as God does. To men, this kind of suffering for the powerful Son of God would mean weakness, impotence, and failure. Jesus wants to teach the apostles that His suffering and death will be the path to glory. He has even more disturbing news, too. “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (16:24). A call to discipleship is a call out of self to follow Jesus, to share His sufferings, no matter what the cost. As disturbing as all this might be, Jesus assures the apostles that suffering and death won’t be the end. “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (16:28).
Six days after this conversation, “Jesus took with Him Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves” (17:1). Thus begins the episode in today’s reading, when these three apostles see Jesus as they have never seen Him before—radiating divine light and talking with Moses and Elijah, the only men in the Old Testament ever to talk with God on a mountain and representing the Law and the Prophets. Interestingly, there were prophecies about the “reappearance” of both these men in the Scriptures (see Deut. 18:15; Malachi 4:5). The apostles received a privileged revelation of Jesus’ divinity within His humanity, because both His face (divinity) and His garments (humanity) “shone like the sun.” Here was the fulfillment of Jesus prophecy that “some standing here” would behold the glory of the Son of Man in His kingdom. Here, too, was the proof that whatever suffering lay ahead for Jesus, it did not come out of weakness. It was suffering He freely chose.
This revelation came in the context of a foundational event in Israel’s history—God’s covenant with His people on Mt. Sinai after their exodus from slavery in Egypt. There He gave Moses and the people the Ten Commandments (or “Ten Words,” as they were often called in Israel), and He came down on the mountain and spoke to the people out of a fiery cloud of smoke. His Voice terrified them so much that Moses had to reassure them: “Do not fear, for God has come…that the fear of Him may be before your eyes, that you may not sin” (Ex. 20:20). Why was sinning to be avoided? It was a bondage worse than slavery in Egypt. The “Ten Words” were a path out of sin for the people. The fireworks on Mt. Sinai were a severe mercy to them, as Moses explained so well. Later, Moses took three friends up the mountain with him to commune with God. Moses spent so much time conversing with God in the fiery cloud that his face shone with light when he returned to the camp below.
None of this history was lost on Peter. Why does he suggest building three tents (or “booths”)? Luke’s Gospel tells us that Moses and Elijah were talking to Jesus about His departure (“exodus” in Greek). The people of Israel remembered their exodus out of Egypt, as well as the giving of the Law on Sinai, in the Feast of Tabernacles (or “Booths”): “You shall dwell in booths (tents) for seven days…that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 23:42-43). No wonder that when Peter heard of Jesus’ exodus, he wanted to build tents and preserve this moment a little longer!
Jesus’ new exodus was not a departure from Jerusalem, however, nor was it to be restricted to the people of Israel. He was to defeat God’s enemy, Satan (not Pharaoh), to lead all men out of bondage to sin (which is the bondage to self) and death, and to take them on a journey to their true home, Heaven. God’s Voice from the cloud declared, “This is My Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” Jesus is the New Moses, as well as the new Law. God’s “Ten Words” become His One Word: Jesus. We only hear God the Father speak twice in the whole New Testament, at Jesus’ baptism and here. Both times He speaks only of Jesus. God, the Father, says to us: “Listen to Him.” Likewise, Mary, His Mother, as she did at Cana, says to us: “Do whatever He tells you.”
When the apostles heard God speaking from the cloud, they were frightened and fell to the ground, always an appropriate response to God’s Voice. Jesus touched them and said, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” They had been told of the suffering that lay ahead, both for Jesus and themselves. They had seen the glory that lay ahead, too, a glory they were destined to share, just as Moses and Elijah did. They were humbled and brought low, but Jesus called them, with His touch, to begin their journey with Him without fear. Their own transformation had begun.
Possible response: Lord, help me to see that the glory Your suffering gained is meant for me, too—both the suffering and the glory. I often hope for one without the other.
First Reading (Read Dan 7:9-10, 13-14)
God gave to Daniel, a prophet who lived in Babylon during Israel’s exile, a vision of the future. In it, he sees “one like a Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven.” He describes the Son of man’s celestial ascension to a throne before “the Ancient One.” He receives an eternal kingship, over all people, nations, and languages. Recall that Pilate wondered if Jesus was “King of the Jews,” a question Jesus never directly answered, because He was to be king over all, not just the Jewish nation.
We cannot miss the fact that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy. In the Transfiguration, the three apostles were given a preview of this glorious fulfillment. After Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, He ascended into heaven (as kings ascend to their thrones) “in the clouds” and, one day, as the angels told the apostles who watched Him disappear, “This Jesus, Who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go” (Acts 1:11). The reign of Christ began when the Crown of Thorns was placed on His head; it was revealed in power to the apostles at His Ascension, and it will be fully realized in glory at His Second Coming. Jesus rules now: “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, His kingship shall not be destroyed.”
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me remember that power in Your kingdom is the power of the Gospel to change hearts and lives, so that we can be like You.
Psalm (Read Ps 97:1-2, 5-6, 9)
Just as the Transfiguration gave the three apostles a vision of Jesus’ true nature (both human and divine), this psalm gives us a vision of His true reign: “The Lord is king, the Most High, over all the earth.” It brings together Daniel’s prophecy of one “like a Son of man” receiving an eternal kingdom and the Gospel that shows us, briefly, Jesus as that king, “exalted above all other gods.” On Mt. Tabor, only Peter, James, and John witnessed His glory. The psalmist tells us that one day, “all peoples” will see His glory. We have to wonder if, when the apostles rose up off the ground at Jesus’ urging and saw Him once again as the itinerant rabbi, did they ask themselves, “Why can’t He always be as He was when the Father spoke from the cloud?” When we read this psalm about the reign of the Lord, do we also wonder why He doesn’t melt the mountains “like wax” and reveal Himself to everyone as “the Most High over all the earth” now?
The apostles had to believe Jesus knew what He was doing. So do we.
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read 2 Pet 1:16-19)
In these verses, St. Peter reflects on the episode described in our Gospel reading. He assures us that the Gospel preached by the apostles after the Ascension was not “cleverly devised myths” about “the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He can make that statement because he and the others “had been eyewitnesses of His majesty.” He elaborates on this: “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with Him on the holy mountain.” St. Peter recognizes (and wants us to, as well) that his eyewitness testimony about Jesus is “altogether reliable” and that we “will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in [our] hearts.” What a beautiful confidence we can have in his apostolic witness. Surely his words are appropriate for us on this Feast of the Transfiguration–an invitation to ponder the Word of God today most thoughtfully and lovingly.
Possible response: St. Peter, pray for us in the Church to have joyous confidence in the truth of the Gospel Jesus handed down to us through you and to resolve to live it more fully.