The feast of the ‘Transfiguration’ is celebrated on 6th August and so does not frequently fall on a Sunday. As a consequence, our archive of Joan’s scripture notes does not contain a set of notes for the readings chosen for this feast. However, the Transfiguration also provides the gospel reading for the second Sunday of Lent and so we have reproduced Joan’s recent notes for the gospel reading from St Matthew for that Sunday.
Traditionally this is called the ‘Transfiguration’ from the Latin. The Greek word in the text is ‘metamorphothes’ – meaning ‘changed in form’. In the sequence of the Gospels, Peter has six days before told of Jesus acknowledged by Peter as ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ (16:13ff). Jesus then shocks his disciples by saying that it will be necessary for him to suffer and to be killed. Further, that they too must be prepared for suffering and to ‘take up their cross’. He does assure them that death is not the end and they also through their following of him, will come to the same glory (16:24-28). They are still troubled, and Peter tries to avoid what seems so against human ideas of rescue. The disciples seem not to have taken in the words that this ends in victory. Commentators on these verses today see the moment as giving them a glimpse of his true glory to reassure them about the future. Hearing it early in Lent can remind us of any difficulties we have during our penance period are aimed toward that glorious end of all suffering.
Peter, James and John, three disciples first called by Jesus, formed an inner circle in the apostles and will also be selected in Gethsemane (26:36) when his full humanity is shown and his prediction of suffering is coming true. Writing about a supernatural event strains human language, and the descriptions are more hints, a face ‘shining like the sun’ and even the clothes Jesus was wearing were gleaming. There are various possible allusions to the past with the appearance of Moses and Elijah, but Matthew does not specify any of them. Moses (who received the Torah at Sinai) may represent ‘Law’ and Elijah (the outstanding one of the ‘Former Prophets’) would then represent all prophecy. Jesus links these together in the Gospel as guides to all our actions (23:35-40.) Some note that Elijah was taken up into heaven instead of dying (2 Kings 2:11) and there was also a tradition among the rabbis that the mysterious end of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:6) meant he also was in heaven. So in that view, these guides of the past were alive and could testify to the disciples about God’s presence.
Another possibility I see is that both Moses and Elijah were given a mysterious moment of ‘seeing God’. (Moses Exodus 33:20-23, Elijah 1 Kings 19:10-13) Here on the mountain God reveals that Jesus is God’s son, and thus suggesting that to see Jesus is to see God. The accounts in three gospels of this significant moment may include all these aspects with the sense of Jesus fulfilling’ all of God’s promises of the past.
The ‘mountain’ is not identified; in Matthew, the unspecified tern ‘the mountain’ is mentioned at significant moments and mountains were also scenes of revelation in the Old Testament and became symbolic places for encountering God.
Peter, often the spokesman for the apostles, offers to build a ‘tent’ for them – the idea is of a temporary outdoor shelter like Jews made during the harvest festival of ‘Tabernacles’ or ‘Booths’. They may also recall the time of the Exodus when God came to dwell in a tent among the people while the Hebrews were journeying through the Sinai desert and there was no temple building. Peter’s offer may have thought to honour these visitors or to make their presence a lasting one.
Instead of an answer, the three are given a further experience of God’s power. During the Exodus, God’s presence was shown by a cloud (Exodus 13:21-22. 33:9-10, 24:9-18) ‘Fear’ (or it might be translated ‘overwhelming awe’) is the frequent human reaction in the Bible to any heavenly manifestation. The voice repeats the words from heaven spoken at Jesus’ baptism but adding the command, ‘Listen to him!’ These words strikingly put Jesus on a different level than Elijah and Moses – the Son as the one who speaks with the same authority as the Father rather than the previous guides who were intermediaries. The visit ends and when the disciples recover from their fright and they see no one but Jesus. Matthew is the only one of the gospel accounts to put in the gesture of Jesus touching them, which suggests the tenderness he felt for his chosen disciples.
The gospels do not tell us the effect on the three Apostles, nor spell out what we are to make of it for ourselves – this is left to our own meditation. No doubt, however, that we are to follow the command: ‘Listen to him.’
Jesus at the end tells them the story is not to be shared until after his resurrection. It might be that he does not want people to be looking for special wonders, but follow the command to listen to his message – which includes carrying their own cross. R. T. France says Jesus’ own ‘mission will be accomplished not in heavenly glory but in the normal conditions of ordinary life.’ Those conditions included suffering and death. And that is usually our present experience as well. As it was for the three disciples, however, the descriptions of God’s glory shown in Jesus the Son can be in the background of our lives, a reassurance about what is to come after all the uncertainties of our times.
Originally published for 5th March 2023
Republished with her family’s permission