A reflection on the readings for March 5th, 2023, the Second Sunday of Lent.
In today’s Gospel, we recall the Transfiguration, one of five major milestones in the gospel narrative about the life of Jesus, including his Baptism, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. St. Thomas Aquinas considered the Transfiguration to be “the greatest miracle” because it showed the perfection of life in heaven. It is such an important mystery in the life of Jesus that when Pope John Paul II introduced the Luminous Mysteries to the Rosary in 2002, he included the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration is a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. While the purpose of the Baptism of Jesus was to lead Him to His public ministry, the purpose of the Transfiguration is to reveal that He came to this world to die and rise. And do that, he must go to Jerusalem.
In Matthew 16:15-16, Jesus asks the Apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” After this confession of Peter, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Matthew 16:21).
The Apostles had left everything to follow Jesus and He had just told them He would be killed. They must have been upset and needed reassurance. Jesus did not let them down. The German theologian, Albert Schweizer sums up the Transfiguration aptly, “God’s answer to the announcement of the passion.” Jesus offered them a glimpse of His true glory through the Transfiguration.
What does the Transfiguration reveal about Jesus? We see that as much as He is the Glorious God of the mountain, He is also the God of the plains and valleys–the mundane and the ordinary. The Transfigured Messiah is also the human Jesus who walked with them on dusty roads, whose mother was familiar to the other disciples, and who they had seen grow hungry, tired, and frustrated.
The event reveals that He is the unifying figure of the Old and New Testaments. Moses and Elijah appear and converse with Him, signifying the old. Jesus stands for the new time. The God who had intervened in human history through Moses and Elijah has now fully integrated Himself into the ordinary lives of people through Jesus.
Recall that Peter wanted to put up three tents. The tent symbolizes the remarkable communion between heaven and earth represented by Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. In the Transfiguration, heaven and earth are united and come together in Jesus. Heaven is fully present in the extraordinary simplicity of Jesus.
As they were speaking, a bright cloud came upon the disciples. The cloud symbolizes the shekinah glory, the very presence of God. The human, everyday Jesus is the Transfigured Christ, who becomes the very presence of God on the mountain. He is the Shekinah in the dusty lives of people.
The apostles hear the voice of the Father, exhorting them to listen to His beloved Son. From now on, the only authoritative voice that they will listen to is the voice of Jesus. God becomes completely audible through the voice of the human Jesus.
When they heard the voice of God the disciples fell on their faces, partly out of fear and partly out of worship. Jesus comes and touches them, saying not to be afraid. The same transfigured Jesus, God in all His Glory, touched them now with His human hands. This is the same person who walked with them, talked with them, told them stories, and performed miracles. He is not an illusion or just a figment of their imaginations. The divine Jesus is the one who is touching them with His human hands.
When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. Moses and Elijah have completed their part in history; they yield to Jesus. From now on, the only person before them on the mountain is Jesus alone. The ordinary, dusty Jesus becomes the center of history.
He was not only present on the mountaintop. He came down with them to the plains. He comes down to be the God of mundane events: driving, cooking, cleaning, or dealing with difficult spouses and children. He transfigured for a short time. But He walked with them and talked with them for a much longer time on the dusty roads, down the hillside, in the valleys and plains. The Glorious God of the mountain prefers the ordinary.
He prefers the ordinary and the plains so much that the first thing he would do after coming down the mountain is to encounter the young boy, possessed by an evil spirit (Matthew 17:14-17). He prefers the mundane and the ordinary struggles so much that the first thing He tells the crowd is to bring the boy to Him.
St. Gregory Palamas said about the Transfiguration, “Jesus did not become what he was not already, but appeared to the disciples as he was, opening their eyes, giving sight to those who were blind.” A sermon that stayed at the top of the mountain, as Peter wanted, would be unrealistic. People don’t live on the mountain. They live in the valley where the boy lives, where pain and suffering are daily realities.
The God of the mountains comes down to the plains and the valleys, and then climbs the last mountain–Calvary. Rather than escaping with his heavenly visitors to glory, Jesus remains with them in the ordinary places to complete his journey to Jerusalem.
Image Credit: Le possédé au pied du Thabor (The Possessed Boy at the Foot of Mount Tabor) by James Tissot. Public domain, accessed at the Brooklyn Museum.
Discuss this article!
Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.
Fr. Fredrick Devaraj comes from India. He was a member of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, the Redemptorists of Bangalore Province. Now he is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri, serving at St. Alban Roe Catholic Church.