SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT
USCCB Link to all three readings
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."
As in the case last Sunday with the Temptation narrative, this Sunday’s Gospel reading, the Transfiguration, has a long history of observance on the Second Sunday of Lent, with St. Matthew’s text the assigned annual reading until 1970 when the three-year cycle was initiated.
When I first addressed this text as a student in 1972 there was considerable mystery surrounding this text in terms of its meaning and setting. As the USCCB website acknowledges in its own commentary, some Scripture scholars believe that the experience on the mountain is a post-Resurrection event read backward into the pre-Good Friday narrative. That is not the consensus belief, but this account which appears in the three synoptic Gospels is as mysterious as any.
For reasons not clear to me, the Sunday selected text is missing the first three words from Matthew 17:1, “after six days,” even though the phrase appears in the USCCB’s own online Bible, the 2011 NABRE or New American Bible Revised Edition. One might ask, why the fuss over three missing words? The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1991) makes the connection between the missing text and Exodus 24: “After Moses had gone up [to Sinai] a cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled upon Mount Sinai. The cloud covered it for six days, and on the seventh day he called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.” From another source, our in-house scholar, Dr. France writes that the omitted phrase is “an unusual precise time-connection in Matthew, which suggests a deliberate linking of the two pericopae [segments] 16:24-28 and 17:1-8….” (p. 641)
To follow France’s analysis, what did happen in 6:24-28 that opens the door to understanding Sunday’s text? The preceding text is a lesson on discipleship offered by Jesus to his close followers. He speaks of the Son of Man coming with his angels in the Father’s glory, “repaying everyone according to his conduct.” (16:27) Then he adds this saying, “Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (16:28) Then, six days later, Jesus selects only some disciples, Peter, James, and John, to witness Jesus transfigured or changed into glory as he will appear universally at the end of time.
Peter, James, and John are participating in the glorious future while struggling with an angst-ridden present. We sometimes say that a catastrophe like a massive earthquake has taken on “biblical proportions,” in that the catastrophe is of a magnitude to compare it with the chaos of the last days: a present moment that connects us to the ultimate end. This is the base meaning of “apocalyptic literature.” Sunday’s reading has a heavy apocalyptic tone. For a scholarly understanding of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, see the Lutheran scholar David E. Aune’s lengthy essay “Understanding Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic” (2005).
France writes that the only comparable event in Matthew’s Gospel occurs at the Baptism of Jesus, where the visible glory of God and the descent of the Holy Spirit are accompanied to the exact words of the Transfiguration: “This is my beloved son….” Three things are conveyed on Sunday’s mountain: Jesus is more than merely a human teacher; (2) his association with Moses and Elijah demonstrate his messianic role; and (3) the voice from heaven declares his identity as the Son of God. This mountain event is directed to the three disciples; they are not merely witnesses to a private communion between Jesus and his Father. In fact, when the Father speaks, he is addressing himself to them, not Jesus. If there is any doubt that the three disciples are at the center of this piece, Jesus charges them to keep the vision quiet for the moment but to proclaim it later, after the Resurrection, a time when there will be great confusion among just about everyone. Matthew actually records how the guards at the tomb were bribed and told to report that the disciples had stolen the body.
This Gospel, then, can be absorbed in two distinct settings. In its textual form, Sunday’s reading describes the Transfiguration as an apocalyptic event for the three intimate disciples as they absorbed more of Jesus’ teachings on the cost of discipleship. We are now well along in Matthew’s Gospel (the Transfiguration opens Chapter 17) and the looming specter of the Jerusalem showdown must have weighed heavily upon their shoulders.
But then there is the setting of the composition, a half-century later. There is general agreement that Matthew’s entire Gospel was directed to his own local church, in a setting where the relationship of Jewish/Christian believers who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and Jews who looked upon their former compatriots as traitors was taking on the tenor of an “ugly family feud” as the NJBC puts it. Some form of the Birkat ha-Minim (or curse of heretics) was composed around 80 A.D. and Christian Jews were read out of their former families in faith.
It seems fitting, then, that Matthew would include in his Gospel a text that would restore the dignity of the Jewish roots of Christian converts by the inclusion of Moses and Elijah in this dramatic divine apparition of Jesus’ identity. And, this glory which shone forth from Jesus with such intensity that the disciples could hardly stand it would come as strong encouragement to remain faithful disciples, hopeful of the day when that glory would be theirs.