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Every year on the second Sunday of Lent, we are offered the subject of Jesus’ transfiguration. The message of this passage is not immediately clear and easy to grasp because it is transmitted with a symbolic language and images that require an explanation.
The scene is set in a secluded place, on a high mountain where Jesus led three of his disciples (v. 2). They will be witnesses of his agony in Gethsemane (Mk 14:33). Mark stresses the fact that “they were alone.”
Jesus acts as the rabbi who, when they wanted to reveal a secret or convey a very important teaching, used to retreat with the disciples in an isolated place, away from prying ears, to avoid being heard by those who were not able to understand or might misunderstand.
Also on Sinai the word of God was not directly addressed to all the people. Moses went up to God, for the first time alone (Ex 19:2f). Then he took with him three remarkable persons: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu (Ex 24:1). The place of the manifestations of the Lord was not accessible to all. They were required necessary dispositions and great sanctity to approach the Lord.
The fact that Jesus reserved his revelation to some disciples and that he eventually told them not to disclose it (vv. 9-10) indicates they were given a share of a very significant experience but still too high to be implemented by all.
The revelation was made on “a high mountain” (v. 2) that the Christian tradition has identified with Tabor, the mountain covered with pines, oaks and terebinth, that crops up, isolated in the middle of the extensive plain of Esdraelon. Since ancient times, on its top was an altar where sacrifices were offered to the pagan gods. Today the site invites to meditation, reflection, prayer and pilgrims who visit it feel almost naturally inclined to raise their gaze and thought to God.
No matter how evocative this experience can be, it should be noted that the gospel text does not speak of Tabor, but of “a high mountain.” This expression has clear biblical references. The manifestations of the Lord and the great encounter of man with God in the Bible are located on the mountain. Moses (Ex 24:15ff) and Elijah (1 Kgs 19:8), the same characters that appear during the transfiguration, have received their revelations on the mountain. More than a physical place, the mountain is the time in which the intimacy with God reaches its climax. It is that sublime experience that the mystics call union of the soul with God, the one in which the person, almost dissolving in his Lord, feels identified with his thoughts, feelings, words and actions.
Jesus leaves the plains where men often follow principles that are contrary to those of God and leads a few disciples “to the top.” He wants to move them away from the thoughts and beliefs of men to introduce them in the innermost thoughts of the Father, in His inscrutable designs on the messiah. Luke is even more explicit when he refers the theme of Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah. He says that these, who appeared in their glory, spoke with him of the gift of life that Jesus was going to do (Lk 9:31). This is the shocking revelation that some of the disciples, not all, will one day receive from heaven.
“The white clothes” (v. 3) outwardly manifest the identity of Jesus. The color white was the symbol of God’s world; it was a sign of celebration and joy. It was said that in the kingdom of God, the elect would wear white robes which “send sparks like rays of the sun.” In Revelation the image is resumed: the elect in heaven appear to the seer “clothed in white” (Rev 7:13).
“Moses and Elijah” (v. 4) are two famous characters in the history of Israel. The first is the mediator which God used to free his people and to give them “the Torah,” the Law. He is introduced into the scene of the Transfiguration to testify that Jesus is the prophet Moses announced when, before dying, he promised to the Israelites, “The Lord will raise up for you a prophet like myself from among the people, from your brothers, to whom you shall listen” (Deut 18:15).
The invitation to listen to him, which is at the end of the story (v. 7), confirms it. Elijah, in turn, is the first of the prophets who had been taken to heaven (2 Kgs 2:11-12). It was thought that he would return before the coming of the Messiah. In the scene of the Transfiguration, he also enters as witness. He declares, on behalf of all the prophets, that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.
“The tents too” (v. 5) that Peter wants to build have a symbolic meaning.
At the end of each year, at the end of the harvest season, the Feast of Tabernacles is celebrated in Israel. It lasted an entire week. Booths were built to commemorate the years in the wilderness, to call to mind the works done by the Lord in the past. This feast, however, was also an invitation to look “toward the future.” The prophet Zechariah had announced that at the coming of the Messiah, all the nations of the earth would be gathered together in Jerusalem to celebrate together the Feast of the Tabernacles (Zech 14:16-19). Referring to this oracle, the rabbis described the time of the Messiah as a perennial “feast of booths.” Asking to build three tents, Peter refers to this symbolic meaning of the booths. He believes that now is the time of God’s kingdom, the time for rest and perennial celebration promised by the prophets. He did not understand the true meaning of the scene he is witnessing. He continues to cultivate the illusion that it is possible to enter the kingdom of God without going through the gift of life. Mark tells us: “He did not know what to say; they were overcome with awe” (v. 6).
“Fear” does not mean fear in the face of danger. It is difficult, indeed, to imagine the disciples contemporarily ecstatic with joy (v. 5) and upset by terror (v. 6). When the Bible speaks of fear in front of a manifestation of the Lord it refers to marvel, wonder that captures anyone who enters in contact with God’s world.
“The cloud and the shadow” are images very common in the Old Testament. They are used to indicate the presence of God. The Lord appears to Moses in a “dense cloud” (Ex 19:9). A cloud accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness (Ex 40:34-39) and covers the tent where Moses met the Lord (Ex 33:9-11). It is the sign of God’s presence.
At the end of the scene of the transfiguration, from the cloud came a voice: it is the interpretation that God gives to the whole scene (v. 7).
After explaining the various symbols, let us try to make “a summary of the message” that the extraordinary experience of the three disciples wants to communicate to us.
The account of the Transfiguration takes exactly the center of the Gospel of Mark. From the beginning, the disciples asked the question about the identity of Jesus (Mk 1:27; 4:41; 6:2-3) and, to a certain extent, they also began to realize that he was the Messiah. However, they were still confused. They shared the prevailing opinion among the people that the Messiah would be a king able to establish, in a miraculous and immediate way, the kingdom of God on earth.
This belief emerges from the words of Peter, who wants to put up three tents. He believes that the kingdom of God has come. To be participants it is not necessary to pass through death.
In a particularly significant moment of their lives, the three privileged disciples were introduced by Jesus into God’s thoughts. They have enjoyed an enlightenment that made them understand the true identity of the Master and the goal of his journey. He would not be the awaited glorious king but a messiah opposed, persecuted and killed. However, his ultimate fate would not have been the tomb, but the fullness of life.
The transfiguration was an extraordinary spiritual experience in which Jesus tried to convince them that only those who give their lives for the sake of love fully realized it.
One cannot get into the kingdom of God through shortcuts as Peter would have wanted to do. It is necessary for every disciple to boldly assume the provision of the Master, and agree to give life. Was the experience of the mountain enough to make the three disciples assimilate this truth?
The concluding remark of the Evangelist: “They kept this to themselves, although they discussed with one another what ‘to rise from the dead’ could mean.” This leaves us to understand that they were stunned, not convinced, of the revelation received.
It is clear that they failed to understand that Jesus was going to give life. God was revealing all his glory, all his love for man. Only the light of Easter and the experiences with the Risen Lord will open wide their eyes.
Last Sunday, although the Gospel was very short, it offered a number of images and concepts that allowed us to approach Lent with a clear idea of the path we are going to follow. This Sunday is also extremely rich, enabling us to discover hidden nuances of past celebrations and glimpse the end and purpose of Jesus’ mission. Just in case we are frightened by Lenten penance, Jesus’ shining face will provide us with a bit of solace. As on other Sundays, I will limit my task to giving you some hints to grasp the content of the texts, for they are too dense to be developed in full.
The “hurried” tone at the beginning of the Gospel must already sound familiar. It is typical of Mark to be in a hurry and to take for granted that his readers know the context of his stories. Besides, the lectionary has omitted the first words of the passage, although they are extremely important: “After six days…,” or “Six days later…” (9: 2). The reader cannot but ask “After what?” Of course, the answer is, just after Jesus had announced his death and resurrection as the way he would fulfill his Messianic vocation. The disciples did not understand the message, for their attention was focused only on the hard side of the announcement: Jesus’ passion and death. Peter was the one who dared reject Jesus’ plans openly: “he took him aside and began to rebuke him” (8:32). The truth is, nobody could understand that the Messiah, the heir to David’s throne, who would set his people free from Roman domination, should undergo what Jesus had announced. “If that is the future of our leader, what will happen to us? What will our own future be?” The most optimistic words for their feelings could be disconcertment and disappointment.
The Transfiguration is a moment of relief and solace, for the disciples did not seem to have heard or understood the phrase “rise after three days.” The three disciples invited to witness that vision were those closest to Jesus, those who were with him in Jairus’ house and saw what happened to the girl (Mark 5:35-43). But neither that sign nor this made them stronger in faith or fidelity. When put to the test in Gethsemane, they were not able to stay awake and pray with Jesus (14:32-42). For us, who know the entire story, the parallel with Jesus’ baptism is obvious, and the presence of Elijah and Moses, together with the voice of the Father, ratified Jesus as his “beloved Son.” We might expect the three disciples to have experienced something deeper than the dazzling images. Not at all. They were so terrified that we may doubt if they understood the command: “Listen to him.”
This Sunday’s liturgy takes us a step further in our understanding of our Lenten preparation for Easter. It makes us see, once again, that the way in which we look at the history of salvation always falls short of its full meaning. The Transfiguration is just a glimpse of the real end of the “path to Jerusalem,” the resurrection of the Lord, a glory that cannot be attained but by obedience, “listening” to the Father’s will manifested in him. So when the disciples (not only the Twelve, but we, who are bidden to take our cross and follow Jesus), will have to face “anguish, or distress, or persecution, …or the sword,” we know that nothing will separate us from the love God shown when he handed his beloved Son over for us, the One who died, was raised and intercedes for us
After so many details, a few simple but hard to answer questions for our Meditatio. Quite often non-believers criticize us Christians for insisting too much on sin, guilt, penance and atonement, as though our faith were a series of commands and prohibitions destined to make our lives unhappy. And we must admit that we sometimes offer a gloomy image of ourselves. To what extent does that image represent our lack of perspective about the Paschal mystery, the real center of our faith? Is Lent just a time of “mortification” instead of an occasion to prepare ourselves to celebrate the risen Christ?
You must have noticed I have not mentioned the passage from Genesis. We can find a number of interpretations to make Abraham’s test and his obedience seem acceptable. You can find them quite easily on the web. But allow me a question that makes me feel deeply uneasy: are we conscious of the consequences that our legitimate decisions, made “in conscience,” can have on the lives of other people? Do we ever dare look, with a critical approach, on some of our convictions, so easily identified with God’s will?
Pray for those who find themselves in situations of darkness and distress because of their fidelity to Jesus and the Gospel: that they may experience a glimpse of the Paschal light to help them on their way.
Let us pray for the Church or community we belong to: that we may be messengers of the joy of Easter, even if we take this time of Lent as a period devoted to convert ourselves to the Lord by “almsgiving, prayer and fasting.”
As you have seen, the passage of the Transfiguration is directly related to Jesus’ announcement of his passion and resurrection. I suggest some “extension” to the readings of today’s liturgy. Read again Mark 8:27-38 and Romans 8:28-39. You may find in those passages a comforting approach to understand “the cost of discipleship,” which is not a simple path of renouncement but an exercise of confidence in God’s limitless love for us.
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón,