Sunday of Week 2 of Lent (Year A)

Genesis 12:1-4; 2 Timothy 1:8-10; Matthew 17:1-9

In order to understand today’s Gospel, we need to put it into context.  Peter had just, in the name of the other disciples, recognised their Teacher, Jesus, as the expected Messiah of Israel.  “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  It was a climactic moment in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples.

But this was immediately followed by Jesus clearly telling them exactly what being Messiah was going to mean for him.  Far from being a mighty warrior-king who would crush all the enemies of God’s people, he was going to be rejected by the leaders of his own people, arrested, tried, condemned, tortured and eventually executed – not by them, but by the very hated enemies they expected the Messiah to overthrow.

This was too much for Peter (undoubtedly speaking in the name of all his companions) and he objected strongly.  In turn, he was severely scolded for obstructing God’s way of doing things.  Even more, Jesus had said that if anyone wanted to be his follower, then they would have to be prepared to walk the same road of rejection, oppression, and even death.

Morale boost
All of this must have seemed like a large bucket of cold water landing on the heads of the disciples. What Jesus had said was totally against all they had ever heard about the expected Messiah.  It is in this perhaps depressed mood that today’s experience takes place.

To give a boost to their morale, to help them see that the way of Jesus would lead to victory and triumph, Jesus takes Peter, James and John to a high mountain.  They are the inner circle of the Twelve, and are found with Jesus at other times of crucial importance, like at the raising of Jairus’ daughter and during his agony in the garden.

This happened “six days” after the declaration of Jesus as Messiah.  It is perhaps a reminder that it was after six days that God called Moses into the cloud of glory on Mount Sinai.  Also in biblical times, revelations often took place on mountain tops.  There has been much speculation about which mountain in Palestine was the ‘Mount of the Transfiguration’, but it does not really matter.  It is the divine significance of a mountain, any mountain, that is being emphasised.

As the disciples watched, Jesus was suddenly transformed (Greek, metamorphoo, a rare word in the New Testament, from which our English word ‘metamorphosis’ comes). 

His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzlingly white.

Again it reminds one of the radiance on Moses’ face after he came down from the mountain where he had spoken face to face with God.

Then, suddenly, Moses and Elijah are seen talking with Jesus.  Their presence is very significant as they represent the two great traditions of the Old Testament: Moses personified the Law of God’s people, and Elijah, the traditions of the great prophets.

Their presence and their talking with Jesus indicate their total endorsement of all that Jesus is doing, and also of all that he will experience in the days to come.  Jesus is the natural continuation of their Jewish tradition and is fully part of it.  Therefore, the disciples need have no misgivings about anything they have heard from Jesus about his coming destiny.

A good place to be
Peter, with his usual impulsiveness, enthusiastically suggests building three tents or shrines for Jesus, Moses and Elijah so they could stay on the mountain.  It was a wonderful place to be just then.  Often, when things are good, we would like them to stay that way forever.  Unfortunately, life is seldom like that and we have to move on.  When we are in the cinema watching a film, we can’t shout to the projection room and say, “Stop the movie right there!  I like this bit.”  Life moves on.  It is true of Jesus and it is true of his followers.  We have to keep moving forward, and come to terms with the happenings in our lives.  In the First Reading, Abram too is told to leave his country and his family home, and go to where God will lead him.  God is telling us the same every day of our lives.

As Peter spoke a “bright cloud” covered them.  It was no ordinary cloud, but a luminous cloud.  It both concealed the unbearable brightness and revealed the very presence of God himself (again, it reminds one of the cloud which covered Mount Sinai when Moses spoke with God there).

From the cloud comes a voice, the voice, of course, of God himself:

This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!

These are the exact words spoken at the baptism of Jesus.  Again, they are an endorsement of Jesus and of all that he will experience, including his rejection by his people and his suffering and death on the way to life and victory.

“Listen to him”
This is directed at Peter and the others. To listen to Jesus is:

– to hear what he says,
– to accept what he says,
– to make it one’s own,
– to identify with it fully.

So far, the disciples have not been doing this.  They have been hearing, but not accepting.

Only Jesus
At the sound of God’s voice, the disciples prostrate themselves on the ground, terrified.  They hear the gentle voice of Jesus,

Get up [rise up] and do not be afraid.

Jesus words point to resurrection to a new life and the abolition of fear and anxiety. They look up and see Jesus standing there alone; the Father is gone, Moses and Elijah are gone.

From now on they will see “only” Jesus but, after this experience, they know that he is not alone, that he has the full backing of his Father and of the Jewish tradition of the Law and the Prophets.  They were learning the lesson that, though Jesus the Messiah would be rejected, suffer and die at the hands of his own people and their enemies, glory and victory would follow.

They were learning that, if they wanted to be truly his followers, they must accept this fully, and that they themselves must be ready to go the same way.  If they stay with Jesus, victory, his victory, will be theirs too.  If they stay with Jesus, they will have nothing to fear.

Back with the people
Then they came down from the mountain.  Being with Jesus means not staying up on a mountain. Being on the mountain was a wonderful experience.  “It is good for us to be here,” said Peter.  But Jesus came down from the mountain to be with the people in their pains and sorrows, in their fears and anxieties, in their sicknesses and disabilities, in their sinfulness…

Jesus’ other name in Matthew’s Gospel is Emmanuel, God with us.  Jesus’ place is to be with his people, and his followers have to do the same.  It is nice to spend quiet days at a lovely retreat house deep in the countryside.  It is nice to have a really good Mass with good homily, lovely choir, candles and incense.  But most of the time our Christian life is to be spent sharing in the joys and sorrows of our brothers and sisters.  We are to be the salt of the earth,  the leaven in the dough, the candle on the lamp stand, helping people to know, understand and experience the love of their God for them.

Most of the time we meet Jesus especially in those in need: the hungry and thirsty (in every sense of the word), the sick and disabled, those in prison. 

As often as you do or do not do it to one of these the least of my brothers, you do or do not do it to me.

We are to find Jesus in them and they are to find Jesus in us.

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