Commentary on Genesis 15:5-12,17-18, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 9:28b-36
WE ARE FACED in today’s readings with a paradox of our Christian faith – we belong here and we do not belong here. It is in this world and through this world that we are to find our God. Yet, this is not our permanent home; we are pilgrims on a journey to a more permanent dwelling place, a place of total union with our God of Truth and Love.
That is the goal of living and we need to keep it constantly before our eyes. It is so easy to get obsessed with things on the way: our career, our financial security, the education of our children, the house we want in some desirable area... These are mere stepping stones to a life beyond. We must not, like Lot’s wife, look back nostalgically at the past and become petrified into stone. Life, as one writer put it, is like watching a movie in a cinema. One cannot cry out: “Stop! I want to stay in this scene!” No, the movie goes on. And life goes on. And it is important to know where it is headed.
Both the First Reading and the Gospel speak of striking interventions by God in people’s lives. Let us take the Gospel first.
A moment of truth
Luke today gives the story of the Transfiguration, a story that can be found also in Mark and Matthew. It is important to be aware of where it comes in the Gospel account.
Just before this, Peter, in the name of his fellow-disciples, had made the dramatic acknowledgement that Jesus, their teacher, was the Messiah, the Christ, the Saviour King expected by Israel. It must have been an awesome and heady moment for them all to realise that they, among all their fellow-countrymen, should be privileged to be his chosen companions. One can imagine how they began to have visions of power and glory because of this relationship (not altogether unlike rebels on the run who suddenly find their leader is now president of the country).
But almost immediately afterwards, they are brought very rudely down to earth. Jesus begins to instruct them about what it will mean to be companions of the Messiah. There will be no great palaces, there will be no prestigious offices. On the contrary, things will from that very moment seem to go very wrong. The Messiah, their Jesus, will become a hunted figure, hunted not by foreigners but by the rulers of his own people. He will be arrested, tried, tortured and eventually executed.
This was not the expected scenario for the Messiah’s appearance on the world’s stage and it quite clearly left the disciples in a state of shock and total incomprehension. It just did not make sense and Peter, surely reflecting the feelings of his companions, objected strongly. In return, he got a good scolding, “Get behind me, Satan!”
A privileged experience
It is in this context that the scene in today’s Gospel takes place. Three of Jesus’ most intimate disciples are brought to “the mountain”. We do not know which mountain but, in general, mountains in Scripture are holy places, places where God is especially felt to be present. Although traditionally Mount Tabor is identified as the mountain in question, it really does not matter. Here Peter, James and John have an experience of Jesus totally transformed in his appearance. The light of God shines through him.
Suddenly he is accompanied by Moses and Elijah, two pillars of the Hebrew Testament, representing the Law and the Prophets, the whole Jewish tradition. Luke says they spoke with Jesus of his coming experiences in Jerusalem. What is obviously implied is that Moses and Elijah fully recognised what would happen to Jesus as totally in conformity with the tradition they represented.
The disciples, however, are still not fully understanding what is happening; they were “heavy with sleep” (as they would be later in the Garden) but just managed to keep awake (which they failed to do in the Garden). (Their sleep is paralleled by the experience of Abram in the First Reading.)
As Moses and Elijah seemed to go away, Peter – impetuous as ever – blurted out: “Master, it is wonderful for us to be here! So let us make three tents [shrines], one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” The Gospel comments that Peter did not know what he was saying. Clearly, this scene was not for keeps. It was wonderful for them to be there but there was another world, another reality awaiting their Master – and them also.
Then, even as Peter spoke, a cloud came and covered them with a shadow and “the disciples were afraid”. Naturally! This was no morning mist. They recognised the cloud immediately as the close presence of God himself. And they heard God speak from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.” First, there was the support of Moses and Elijah and now Jesus gets the solemn endorsement of the Father himself.
“Listen to him.” They are being told to remember the words Jesus just told them about the Messiah, who would be rejected, suffer and die shamefully. If they cannot understand and accept those words, they do not know the real Jesus, they cannot be his disciples. As Jesus will say later, “A grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies.” The suffering and death of Jesus are the seeds of new life for all of us.
After the “voice” had spoken, they found themselves with Jesus alone, the same “ordinary” Jesus they always knew. But they kept silent. They had nothing to say but much still to learn and to understand about the Person and the Way of Jesus. What they needed was the gift of faith and total trust in Jesus and in God.
There are some parallels in the experience of Abram. Abram (later to be called Abraham) had been asked to leave his homeland and to go and live in a strange place. If he did so, he was promised a great future for his family and descendants. Without any further guarantees, Abram sets out. His readiness to put his trust in God’s word became legendary in the tradition of Israel and is echoed again in the New Testament. “Abram put his faith in the Lord, who counted this as making him justified,” that is, putting him right with God.
But, although ready to do what God asked of him, Abram asked for some confirmation. He was told to make an offering of some animals and to cut the animals in half, putting one half on each side. At sunset, as Abram fell into a deep sleep and as the sun set and darkness came on, a blazing furnace and a firebrand (signs of God’s presence) came between the divided offerings. From this experience Abram knew his trust in God was justified. He never lived to see the day when his descendants were as numerous as the stars but if only he could see now how his God is worshipped “from the rising of the sun to its setting” (Third Eucharistic Prayer) by countless people in every corner of our planet.
There is still one thing we need to consider and that is how these Lenten readings are to touch our own lives. The key linking the First Reading and the Gospel is the passage from the Letter to the Philippians in the Second Reading.
The transformation or transfiguration of Jesus that the disciples experienced was not simply something they were to see and experience as happening to him alone. It was also an invitation for them to undergo a transformation and transfiguration of their own.
Paul says in today’s reading, “For us, our homeland is in heaven”, that is, the goal and destination of our life is to be one with God. There is no other goal. “And from heaven [i.e. from God] comes the Saviour we are waiting for, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body. He will do that by the same power with which he can subdue the whole universe”.
How is that transformation or transfiguration to take place? By listening to Jesus, listening to all that he invites us to be and to do, however much it may seem to go against the conventions we were brought up on. It means especially listening to those words which caused such difficulty for Peter and his companions and integrating them into my own vision of life. It means having a total trust in walking his Way, a total trust that only his Way brings me into full union with God, the source of all Truth, Love, Happiness and Peace.