SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT – FEBRUARY 24, 2002 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The account of the transfiguration of Jesus stands out in Matthew’s Gospel; it is a unique epiphany between the revelations described in the account of Jesus’ birth and infancy and those that follow upon his resurrection. A host of biblical symbols are gathered. It takes place on a mountain, where God traditionally reveals himself; a bright cloud appears as in OT epiphanies; a voice is heard from heaven; the two greatest figures of the Old Testament are present, Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets; Jesus is transfigured, transformed. There could be no doubt in the minds of a Jewish reader of Matthew’s Gospel that a major encounter with God, a major revelation by God, is occurring.
The event appears as a unique revelation of who Jesus is, of how one day he will appear, when he returns in triumph. It is as if, Matthew, having just reported the first prediction of the passion and death of Jesus, feels it necessary to pull back the veil that hides the full reality of what was happening in Jesus of Nazareth, to reveal who he is, and who he will be. It is surely no accident that the three disciples chosen to receive this revelation, Peter, James and John, are the same three who will be the only witnesses of Jesus’ agony in the Garden, where the mystery of his suffering and death will be revealed as his obedient self-surrender to the will of his Father.
Matthew has set out for us here in highly stylized literary and theological form what St. Paul says much more simply in the second reading we have heard, where he speaks of “the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” The destruction of death and the restoration of life will be one of the most common refrains we will hear through the seasons of Lent and Easter. It is not a phrase that we should let slip past us without notice or reflection. It is no small thing to claim that death has been destroyed, death, the last great enemy, as St. Paul called it. And if death has truly been destroyed, then a new light is shone upon the life we live before we die, some of resurrection’s glory already lights up our lives, and we can have our own experience of transfiguration, anticipating immortality, eternal life, as the NT says almost everywhere, something we already experience and enjoy even now.
The three disciples who witnessed the agony of Jesus and, in anticipation, the glory of his resurrection represent us today. The scriptural readings invite us to enter more fully into the mystery of Lent and Easter, which is Christ’s mystery, yes, but the mystery of our lives, too.
Second Sunday in Lent – February 20, 2005 – Blessed Sacrament
In St. Matthew’s Gospel a recurrent theme is to show Jesus as the new Moses. Matthew’s account of the infancy of Jesus draws parallels with the birth and infancy of Moses; Matthew divides his book into five great speeches of Jesus, paralleling the five books of Moses that begin the Bible. And we see the same theme dominating Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus.
In all of three accounts of the transfiguration, theological motifs dominate. It is, of course, an absolutely unique event in the public ministry of Jesus; no other event has anything like this dramatic character. Some scholars have argued that it is a transposed resurrection-account, that is, that a resurrection-appearance of Jesus has been moved back into the story of Jesus’ ministry. The great difficulty of this lies in the fact that the account of the transfiguration exceeds in drama and mysterious character even the accounts of the resurrection, which are rather pale by comparison, almost everyday in character. It is better to take the transfiguration for what it is: a revelation of the true character and significance of Jesus of Nazareth.
Certain features of it are familiar to anyone who knows the Bible. Jesus brings three of his disciples with him up a mountain (the same disciples, by the way, who will witness his agony in the garden–Peter, James and John see both the glory and the abasement). Mountains in the Bible, of course, are where divine revelations take place. A cloud overshadows them, also a common biblical sign of the presence of God; we remember that Moses on Mt. Sinai entered the cloud for six days. Jesus’ face shines like the sun, and we remember that Moses when he returned to his people from the cloud, Moses’ face shone, and that Jesus in this very Gospel has already said that in the Kingdom “the righteous shall shine like the sun” and that in the Book of Revelation, in the first vision of the risen and triumphant Christ, it is said that “his face was like the sun shining at full strength.” The two greatest figures of the Old Testament appear with Jesus, Moses and Elijah, representing the center of the Old Covenant: the Law and the Prophets.
And then from the cloud comes a voice repeating what had been said at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased: Listen to him.” The words make one think of three OT passages: Psalm 2: an enthronement psalm in which God says to the king: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” Then there is the first of the songs of the Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one, in whom my soul delights.” And finally there is God’s promise to Moses that one day he would raise up a prophet like Moses, and that to him the people of Israel are to listen. The voice at the transfiguration, then–“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased: Listen to him.” Jesus is thus authorized as the Son of God, as the Servant of Yahweh, as the new Moses.
You can see, then, that the passage is packed through with biblical and theological meaning; it is not an event that one can simply watch passively, as if it were on a video-tape. We are invited to enter into the event, and in particular to obey the last words from the cloud: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased: Listen to him.” Listen to him because one greater than Moses and Elijah is here: this is a prophet, yes, but more than a prophet; this is the one who is Son of God in a unique way; this is the Messiah: Listen to him.
In all three of the synoptic Gospels, the account of the transfiguration closely follows upon Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and death, a prediction that, every time it is repeated by him, is met by incomprehension and disbelief by the disciples. What he was predicting was a contradiction of what they had begun to hope: that he was the Messiah. The transfiguration serves as a revelation that the horrible fate that Jesus would encounter did not contradict what was the truth about him, that he was God’s Son, the Messiah, the prophet to whom all should listen.
And, of course, its placement in the first half of Lent is meant to serve a similar purpose for us today: if the Lenten discipline, our own share in the suffering and self-denial of Christ, can seem difficult and burdensome, well the account of the transfiguration reminds us that Easter lies ahead. And we may then remember also that St. Paul used the verb “transfigure” to describe our gradual transformation into the image of Christ that is being effected by the Holy Spirit. Which focuses everything on the deep meaning of Lent which is that of renewing the baptism by which we died to sin and were raised into a new life. Our own transfiguration is at stake in Lent and in the celebration of the passion and resurrection of Christ. If to follow Jesus is to walk toward Calvary, it is also to have before us, the other side of the cross, the peace, joy and freedom of Easter.
Second Sunday in Lent – February 17, 2008
The account of the Transfiguration is one of the most remarkable in the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Nothing quite like it is found, even in the resurrection-appearances of Jesus. These three works show Jesus, for all the wonder of his preaching and for all the wonders of his works, as a man, a Jew among Jews, at home in first-century Palestine. They show how the contrast between his ordinariness and the extraordinary character of his works and of his preaching and of the demands they make upon those who hear him prompts the question, “Who is this?” in various forms: Is this not the son of Joseph? Who is this who speaks with such authority? Who but God can forgive sins?
In the verses that precede the passage we heard today, Jesus had himself asked his disciples: “What are people saying about me?” And then had urged it upon his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had spoken in the name of all: “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” This represented a kind of turning-point in the Gospel-narrative, because Jesus then began to predict his rejection by the people, his suffering, and his death, which in turn provoked Peter into refusing this kind of a Messiah, which led Jesus to rebuke Peter as a Satan, a great Adversary, the Tempter, trying to deflect Jesus from the path he knew he had to walk. Then follows our passage about the Transfiguration.
Thus placed in context, the story serves to confirm the authority of Jesus, and, in Matthew’s Gospel this is done by associating him with Moses. Once again Jesus is on a mountain, like Moses. Moses himself, along with Elijah, lends him his authority. Like Moses, Jesus is physically transformed by the presence of God. And the account ends with the voice from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him,” words that recall the prophecy Moses himself gave: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you: you must listen to him” (Deut 18:15) The whole account is filled with biblical imagery and associations, all of it serving to transform, transfigure the ordinary: it is God’s revelation of the truth of what was happening in the words and deeds of this ordinary Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.
The scene ends, of course, by pointing forward, toward the last act of this drama: the disciples are forbidden to talk about what they had seen “until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The momentary glimmer of the Transfiguration anticipates the enduring brilliance of Easter, bright enough to illumine even the valley of the shadow of death through which Jesus had still to walk. In the Gospel the account plays the same role that it does when it is read every year near the beginning of Lent: it is a reminder that our Lenten journey also heads for Easter. Easter is the final vindication of the Father’s words: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
“Listen to him.” The words are addressed to us today: “Listen to him.” Perhaps we should remember them at Mass each time we see the reader approach the lectern or pulpit for the biblical reading; perhaps we could say to ourselves: “Christ is about to speak. Listen to him!” Listen as he speaks through Moses and Elijah and the other prophets; listen to him as he speaks in the Apostles; listen to him especially as the Gospels recount what he said and what he did. But Christ does not speak only in the liturgy and in the Bible. St. Augustine was convinced that God also speaks to us inwardly–to our minds, our hearts, our consciences. But if he could say: “The word of God is never silent,” he also had to add: “but it is not always heard.” It was heard, Augustine said, only by consciences, hearts and minds prepared to hear him. Being prepared to hear him I think means expecting to hear him, wanting to hear him, listening for his voice, and being willing to follow wherever it may lead. It means, to allude to the Psalm-verse often heard during Lent, not hardening your heart if today you hear his voice.
There is an old question: Does a tree falling in the forest make a sound if there is no one there to hear it? And the answer, of course, is No, it doesn’t. There are the physical disturbances of the air that we call sound-waves, but for them to make a sound, an ear is necessary. Well, something like that seems to be true of Christ also: the words he spoke, the word he was, the word he is, requires that the ears of our hearts and minds be open, ready, expectant. Across twenty centuries what Christ was, what he said, what he did, continues to disturb the air and, as Augustine said in another sermon, “If you are listening, Christ continues to speak.” If you are listening…