Second Sunday of Lent, Year C – February 21, 2016
Today’s Gospel presents us with the Transfiguration of the Lord, one of the New Testament’s most mysterious and awesome visions related to us in the three synoptic Gospels (Mark 9:2-8; Matthew 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36).
Luke’s version of the Transfiguration is found in Chapter 9 in a collection of incidents that focuses on the identity of Jesus. The whole chapter centers on the question that Herod asks in this Gospel: “Who then is this about whom I hear such things?” (9:9).
In subsequent episodes, Luke reveals to the reader various answers to Herod’s question. Jesus is one in whom God’s power is present and who provides for the needs of God’s people (9:10-17). Peter declares Jesus to be “the Messiah of God” (9:18-21). Jesus says he is the suffering Son of Man (22:43-45). Jesus is the Master to be followed, even to death (9:23-27). Finally, Jesus is God’s son, his Chosen One (9:28-36), as revealed in today’s majestic scene of the Transfiguration.
Luke joins Matthew and Mark in placing this story immediately after the first prediction of the passion, a position that gives the Transfiguration a strategic importance parallel to Jesus’ baptism (3:21-22). After submitting to the baptism of preparation and before beginning his public ministry, Jesus received heaven’s confirmation as Son of God. Situated shortly after the first announcement of the passion, death, and resurrection, the scene of Jesus’ Transfiguration provides the heavenly confirmation to Jesus’ declaration that his suffering will end in glory (9:32).
The six days, the high mountain, the radiance of Jesus’ face, and the cloud, are all in the story of Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16; 24:15-18; 34:29-35). The “mountain” is the regular place of prayer in Luke (cf. 6:12; 22:39-41). Elijah and Moses represent the Old Testament law and the prophets. According to Jewish tradition, they did not die, but went directly to heaven. The “tabernacles” or tents suggest the Festival of Booths.
Luke identifies the subject of the mountaintop conversation as the “exodus” (v. 31) of Jesus, a reference to his death, resurrection, and ascension that will take place in Jerusalem, the city of destiny (9:51). The mention of exodus also calls to mind the Israelite Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. At the end of this episode, the heavenly voice, with words similar to those spoken at Jesus’ baptism identify him as the one to be listened to now (9:35).
Background of the Transfiguration story
Luke’s Transfiguration is told in a most striking fashion so as to call to mind several passages of the Old Testament. Let us recall another mountaintop revelation of God in Exodus 24:12-18. In that story, the “glory of the Lord covered the mountain and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.”
The account of the Exodus theophany shares many details with the transfiguration story: the mountain, the cloud, six days (Mark 9:2; Luke has eight), Moses, the voice, the glory. In addition, the shining of Moses’ face after being in the presence of God (Exodus 34:29-35) surely influenced today’s Gospel and helps to place the transfiguration in the context of revelatory events.
Following the days and nights of temptation in the desert wilderness, and preceding the blackness of Golgotha, the glorious rays of the transfiguration burst forth in today’s Gospel. One thing is clear on Mount Tabor: Jesus and his three disciples have a profound experience of God’s presence. It has been said that the destiny of every Christian is written between two mountains: from Calvary to the mountain of the Transfiguration. When we look closely at today’s Gospel, we find some affirmation and hope for our own Lenten journey. Each of us needs a dose of glory, to get us through our own terrifying nights.
The Geography of Luke’s Transfiguration story
Geography sheds light on our understanding of the Transfiguration event. We need to situate Mount Tabor in relation to Dabboriyeh and Nain, two nearby villages to the mountain. In Chapter 7 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus raises the widow’s son in the little village of Nain, just opposite Mount Tabor. Jesus struggles with the death of the widow’s only son and his fame spreads throughout the countryside. Through the miracle, Jesus broke through boundaries by touching the dead boy and restoring him to life.
Then immediately after Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, Jesus and the disciples descend the mountain to a little town at the foot of the mountain. Though not named in the New Testament, that town is called today Dabboriyeh in Arabic, after the legendary prophetess and judge Deborah in the Old Testament book of Judges. As Jesus draws near the village, a man from the crowd runs forth to describe the epileptic condition of his only son. Once again Jesus struggles with human suffering and sadness; he rebukes the unclean spirit, heals the boy, giving him back to his father (9:42).
The Transfiguration event takes place between Nain and Dabborriyeh, almost like a moment of transition and breakthrough during Jesus’ journey up to Jerusalem. The raising of the widow’s son and the healing of the epileptic boy bracket the whole Tabor experience. The Apostles’ desire to remain atop the mountain illustrates the great temptation to want to stay put; to avoid the difficulties, risks, controversies and challenges of life. Just when they would prefer to remain secluded, far from the madding crowds, distant from the risks of touching the dead, immune from the ritual impurity, free from battling with the demons, Jesus leads them down the mountain of vision to confront more demons and bring God’s gratuitous healing to all those who suffer.
The lessons of the mountaintop
What do the apostles learn on the mountaintop? They peered deeply into the identity of Jesus and understood better his divine mission from heaven. The Mount Tabor experience is necessary in the midst of the journey up to Jerusalem, for it strengthened Jesus and the apostles and helps us, also, to gain the necessary perspective, vision and strength required for our Christian lives and discipleship.
Of the Transfiguration experience we might ask ourselves: Why did God hide all the glory on Tabor, where no one other then Peter, James and John could witness? Why didn’t God save it for the cross? Before light flows over us, we need to go through darkness. The transfiguration teaches us that God’s brilliant life included death, and there is no way around it — only through it. It also reminds us that the terrifying darkness can be radiant and dazzling.
Our own Tabor moments
Looking back over the past year, let us try to identify some “Tabor” moments in our own journeys. Who was with us during those moments? Why were such moments important? What made us afraid on the mountain? Why was it good to be there? What frightens us about going down from the mountain of the vision? Who or what is waiting for us at the foot of the mountain? What part of our journey speaks the most to us and sends us forth with renewed vision? What is that new vision? How can we become compassionately hopeful people in the midst of the transitions and breakthroughs of our life?
On this second Sunday of Lent, let us look upon the Transfiguration as the presence of Christ, which takes charge of everything in us and transfigures even that which disturbs us about ourselves. God penetrates those hardened, incredulous, even disquieting regions within us, about which we really do not know what to do. God penetrates them with radiant light, with the life of his Spirit, and gives them God’s own face.
This week let us be counted among those who listen to Christ’s Word and are transfigured by it. As we come down from the mountain of vision, let us pray the beautiful words of Blessed and soon-to-be Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who was inspired by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman to formulate this prayer for her community:
Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go.
Flood my soul with Your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly
That all my life may only be a radiance of Yours.
Shine through me and be so in me that every soul
I come in contact with may feel Your presence in my soul.
Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus!
Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as You shine,
So to shine as to be a light to others;
The light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be mine:
It will be You shining on others through me.
Let me thus praise You in the way You love best:
By shining on those around me.
Let me preach You without preaching,
Not by words, but by my example,
By the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do,
The evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You.
[The readings for the Second Sunday of Lent are: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1 or 3:20-4:1; and Luke 9:28b-36]