This year the annual commemoration of the ‘Transfiguration’ falls on a Sunday and takes the place of the Ordinary Time reading. The moment when Jesus was ‘changed in form’ before the inner group of three disciples and seen as more than an ordinary human was a mysterious event that left them frightened or awestruck. It may be a challenge to imagine how this was, as the Gospel writers had to struggle to find words to describe their perception. Oddly though it may be easier for us who accustomed to the special effects of film and TV.
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
The book of Daniel is one of the more difficult in the Jewish Bible, partly because the Catholic version includes some sections found only in the Greek translation. It also includes literary styles popular around the few hundred years when our calendar changed to a new millennium but after passed out of fashion. The part we hear today is in the form called ‘Apocalyptic’. A comparison for our time is fantasy and science fiction, which share the same fondness for bizarre images, strange animals, heroes vs. villains in a cosmic conflict. But the essential message for the Biblical writers is that God is in control of all events, no matter how disastrous they feel. The selection today has omitted the middle part mentioning symbolic animals, and concentrated on a ‘vision’ given to Daniel which pictures the heavenly world as a royal court. God is not named, but is called an ‘Ancient One’ or ‘Ancient of Days’ – in our liturgy translation ‘one of great age’. The expression ‘one like a son of man’ can mean in the Semitic language simply ‘a human being’. ‘Son of Man’ is, however, the expression in the first three gospels which Jesus chose to refer to himself, as we hear in the last line of the Gospel today. This was a subtle reference to this powerful figure which allowed Jesus to avoid claiming to be the ‘Messiah’ – for he was not the conquering political hero many were expecting.
The description of the power and honours given in this vision has long been interpreted by Christians as the post-Resurrection Jesus, the figure of the ‘Second Coming’ when he will be seen in his divine glory by all creation. This promise relates the the final words of today’s Gospel.
Psalm 96/97:1-2, 5-6, 9
This is one of several psalms which praise God in the image of kingship, using familiar images that show that special kind of power. The verses chosen pick up some words from the previous readings, cloud, the glory, the exaltation of the Lord.
2 Peter 1:16-19
The selection clearly relates to Peter’s experience of seeing the transfigured Jesus Christ. The writer uses this to stress how it gives authority to what he has taught the Christians of his time. While this sounds like a straightforward account of the writer’s own history, biblical scholars generally agree that 2 Peter is instead one of the ‘pseudonymous’ books, written in the name of historic Apostle. The reasons given are more than can be discussed in the limits of these notes; those interested can find them in standard commentaries. (I used the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, from Jerome H. Heyrey, SJ.) The main thrust of this writer in the whole text is to insist on God’s Providence and the rightness of God’s judgements.
There is, however, a lasting message that can be drawn from the seemingly historic statement: the whole Apostolic tradition that comes down to us is a trustworthy basis for our belief in Jesus Christ, his life and his teaching.
This event is told in the first three Gospels, each with their own special emphasis. As this is Year A, we will hear Matthew. The note on timing – six days – leads an alert reader to look for what had preceded. This was Peter naming Jesus the Messiah, followed by predictions of his suffering and Resurrection (Matthew 16:13ff, Mark 8:27ff, Luke 9:18ff.) At that time, they were warned not to repeat this knowledge.
All three gospels tell of Jesus taking an ‘inner circle’ of three disciples up on a mountain, but only Luke says he went to pray. Otherwise, the story is about the disciples and does not tell us the meaning of the event for Jesus himself. Many efforts have gone into identifying the geographic mountain but since the gospels don’t name it, there seems no need for that. In Matthew, mountains occur frequently as a place of revelation. All three evangelists mention how white his garments became, but with different ways of indicating this radiance was more than natural. Mark has a daily life comparison, ‘whiter than any on earth could bleach them’. All try to make ordinary words describe something extraordinary. White garments have the sense of a heavenly dress in other parts of the Bible, as with the angels at the tomb telling of Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew is the only one of the three to say that Jesus’ face ‘shone like the sun’.
The second part of this almost- visionary experience is the appearance of two of the most important persons in the Hebrew scriptures, Moses and Elijah, but since we are not told how they were recognised by the three disciples, another element of mystery is added. They may have represented two aspects of the Jewish religions, Law (Moses) and prophecy (Elijah.) Elijah had been taken up into heaven without dying (see 2 Kings 2:1-11) and the report of Moses’ death had a little mystery about his burial, (Deuteronomy 34:6) so some think that later he too was thought to have taken specially to heaven and so could appear again. The prophecy of Malachi 4:5 said that Elijah would return before ‘the day of the Lord’ or the final judgment, so his appearance to the disciples suggested that with Jesus the final times had come. Mark and Matthew in the verses following our selection (that are not read at mass) have Jesus indicate that John the Baptist had played the role of Elijah.
Luke is the only one of the three that says Jesus, Moses and Elijah were talking of the ‘exodus’ Jesus would experience in Jerusalem, through his death and ascension. The over-shadowing cloud recalls the Sinai experiences and represents the presence of God as ‘there’ but could not seen by ordinary sight – both ‘revealing and veiling’ says J. P. Meier. Matthew adds ‘bright’ keeping up the idea of the unearthly brilliance of the whole vision. All three gospels have essentially the same words from heaven, with the addition of ‘listen to him.’ Only Matthew has them exactly the same as were heard at the Baptism of Jesus (3:17).
All three suggest the disciples were overwhelmed and their only spoken reaction was to want to do some sort of honour to the heavenly visitors. Making tents may come from the Exodus experience of living in portable tents, and carrying one tent that represented the presence of God among his people. Peter here as often in the gospels the spokesperson for the other disciples.
With coming of the cloud the disciples were ‘afraid’ or filled with awe – which is often a human reaction in the Bible to any suggestion of a heavenly presence. Only Matthew, however, tells us the disciples were so overcome that they fell on their faces and Jesus gently touched them and told them to arise.
Afterwards coming down the mountain, Jesus tells them not to report this ‘until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.’ This is a continuation of the earlier command for silence after Peter’s identification of Jesus as Messiah. No reasons are given, but the most likely reason for this is that the popular idea expected a political or even warrior hero who would establish an earthly kingdom as David had done. Jesus would spend much time teaching that for him, the Messiah’s role included suffering and death. The disciples would not be comfortable with this until after the Resurrection but this moment of Transfiguration may have been intended to help them see the glory beyond the cross.
While we do not experience such a transfigured Jesus, the words ‘Listen to him’ also apply to us.