Year A: Second Sunday of Lent

The Transfiguration of Jesus

Matthew 17: 1-9

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents* here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways do you listen to Jesus ? Can you give specific examples?
  2. Can you name a specific “Mountain Top” experience (i.e. a close moment, an encounter with God) in your life and the illumination or (grace) that may have come afterward? Did it change you, if so how?
  3. As he did with Peter, James and John, Jesus is always pointing us “down the mountain” out of the comfort zone and toward the realities of life and true discipleship. What “discipleship activities” are you pursuing in your life right now?
  4. What aspect of the Christian journey is most difficult for you?

Biblical Context

Matthew 17: 1-19
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

The Gospels situate the story of the Transfiguration just after the incident in which Jesus invited his disciples to tell him who they thought he was and his explanation that as God’s anointed one, he was going to suffer. Now, six days later, Jesus brings his three core disciples to a new experience of him, one that counterbalances any dread they might have had, given what he taught them about his fate.

Matthew and Mark specify that the Transfiguration happened six days after the above mentioned events. Among the possible explanations for underlining the time, one train of thought suggests that it may reflect on the seven days of creation so that this experience was a Sabbath encounter with God par-excellence. Other obvious allusions to the six days and other details of the story are Moses’ six-day experience on the mountain of God, the cloud of God’s glory which covered the mountain and how Moses’ face glowed from his encounter with God (Exodus 24 and 34). While many things can be inferred from all of that, at the very least we are aware that the evangelists wanted to be sure that their listeners could see Jesus’ transfiguration in the light of their salvation history. The Transfiguration recalled God’s previous visits. Moses and Elijah as Jesus’ companions placed him firmly in the line of the Hebrew Scriptures with two of the greatest prophets, two whose demise was mysterious, to say the least. (According to Deuteronomy 34:6, Moses was buried by unknown people in an unknown place and according to 2 Kings, 2:11, Elijah departed from earth in a fiery chariot.) In other places Matthew has said specifically this was to fulfill the prophecy, in this case, the details speak for themselves.

More than showing Jesus’ roots in Israel’s tradition, the Transfiguration was a new revelation of Jesus’ identity. The three men with whom Jesus chose to share this experience had been with him for some time. They had seen his deeds of power and had heard his preaching. They had walked with him and presumably tried to imitate him in his relationship with God and his way of being with others. They had allowed Peter to speak for them in naming him the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and they had heard Jesus’ corrective to Peter’s rejection of his coming suffering. Understood in the light of Jesus’ passion predictions, the Transfiguration was a revelation that divine glory didn’t mean what the disciples thought it did in terms of worldly success. Jesus was going to suffer shamefully. At the same time, suffering and death were not, as they thought, signs of failure and lack of divine blessing. The Transfiguration, an event described in Matthew, Mark and Luke, might well be understood as a demonstration of what John’s Gospel described as Jesus’ glory on the cross.

Obviously, the disciples didn’t comprehend their mountaintop experience. Peter offered to build shelters. But before he could make a move, God’s voice pierced the clouds saying everything they needed to know: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” That was exactly the same message the heavenly voice had spoken at the time of Jesus’ baptism — then directly to him, now to the disciples, except for the three additional words: “Listen to him.”

The Big Picture

By: Pat Marrin

Lent focuses on the journey from baptism to glory. The baptized receive the promise of glory when they are incorporated into Christ, but that promise must developed, be lived and nourished by the Eucharist and come to maturity in the life of each disciple. We cannot pass from promise to glory without passing through the paradox of Jesus’ suffering and death.

Today’s Gospel account of the Transfiguration tells us how this was accomplished for Jesus, and how it will also take place for us.

As Jesus travels to Jerusalem his disciples are clueless about what will happen there. To their limited view, Jesus is surely on the cusp of victory. Glory is within their grasp. What they have not grasped yet is that to get to glory Jesus will have to suffer rejection and death.

He takes Peter, James and John up a mountain to pray. What they witness is like the end of the story appearing in the middle. The paradox of his apparent defeat and death is illuminated to reveal its hidden meaning. Moses and Elijah frame Jesus in glory to affirm that by his death he is fulfilling the law and the prophets. As God’s Son, he is leading the exodus from the slavery of sin to the freedom of new life. 

This profound theology lies at the heart of the Gospels. By his sacrificial death, Jesus saves us while we were still sinners and loves us when we were unlovable. In essence, by his life, death and resurrection Jesus reveals that the face of divine mercy is greater than any evil and more powerful than death itself. It cannot be otherwise, because God is love. No one, even the greatest sinner, can escape the fire of divine love, because it is the source of everything God has created and sustains in existence. Even if we turn away from God, God never ceases to love us and pursue us.

Peter, James and John will not grasp this mystery until they themselves need it. They will fail Jesus in his hour of need, denying and abandoning him when he is seized, tortured and executed. Their sin is the greatest sin of all, to turn away from an intimate friend to save themselves. In the abject misery of their guilt and grief, they will finally understand the depth of Jesus’ love for them. When the risen Christ restores them to his love, they will become apostles, able to tell others the good news they themselves have received in full measure.

We, too, must learn by experience the shocking secret of God’s unconditional love, a mystery so deep it defies our own limited understanding of mercy. Glory is the capacity to love not just our friends, but also our enemies.

Our limited standards of justice and love must be thrown open to encompass the limitless patience and compassion of God. The logic of the law cannot define God’s love for sinners. Therefore, our baptismal journey, to be complete, must break our hearts and expand our minds again and again until we are as generous as the heavenly Father Jesus revealed.

As we continue our Lenten journey, Jesus is eager to teach us. Even when we grasp the cost of discipleship and falter, he touches us and says, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” He is always with us, for we belong to him in baptism and we are on our way with him to the glory of his resurrection.