Luke 9:28b-36 USCCB Link to all three readings
Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep,
but becoming fully awake,
they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus,
“Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But he did not know what he was saying.
While he was still speaking,
a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
They fell silent and did not at that time
tell anyone what they had seen.
The ninth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel succeeds a series of dramatic and memorable miracles in the Lukan narrative: the expulsion of demons from a struggling victim and into a herd of suicidal swine, the request of the synagogue leader Jairus that Jesus heal his sick daughter (who had in fact died), and the healing of the fearful woman suffering from a hemorrhage over many years. Chapter 9 will have its own dramas, but as Joel Green writes, in this chapter the emphasis will turn to issues of Christology (the identity and nature of Christ) and Discipleship. In Chapter 9 the personal characteristics of the disciples and their active functioning in the mission will come to the fore. (Green, 351ff)
Chapter 9 will feature the announcement of the disciples’ mission (9:1-11), the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes (9:12-17), and Peter’s confession of faith and Jesus’ teaching on discipleship (9:18-27). It is interesting that the last sentence of Jesus’ teaching reads as follows: “But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God.” In the very next sentence we begin this Sunday’s reading, Luke 9:28b-36, a moment of direct divine revelation witnessed by Peter, James, and John.
These three disciples have already seen quite a bit of Jesus’ glory, and they were singled out to witness Jesus raise Jairus’ daughter back to life. Peter has been moved to confess his faith in Jesus as “the Messiah of God” a few sentences previous. But full understanding of Jesus still eludes them, even if their hearts are generally in the right place. Our Sunday text, known as “The Transfiguration,” ties together the purpose of Jesus’ mission with his Jewish roots and his ultimate destiny. That this event is reported in all four Gospels (the law of “multiple attestation”) gives the Church high confidence in its historical credence.
Green explains that the Transfiguration is best understood in the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the Exodus. Moses was called to the top of Mount Sinai where he beheld God, with the impact being that he would have to cover his face when he returned because of its radiance. The Exodus journey was a deliverance from Egyptian bondage to a promised land, a journey that prefigured Jesus’ saving journey to his death and resurrection. It is not surprising that later in Chapter 9, Jesus “sets his face for Jerusalem” to complete his own exodus and enter into the glory of his Father.
It is often overlooked that this episode begins with Jesus’ invitation to the three disciples to join him on the mountaintop to pray. A lot of ink has been spilled about why these three disciples are so intimately involved in the action of chapters 8 and 9, but a very simple answer may be that they have been selected as students of the first seminar on faith and discipleship. Jesus is literally showing them what he does—he prays. In Luke’s narrative Jesus’ prayer is intense and is sometimes the precursor of a divine manifestation. This was true at the time of Jesus’ baptism when during his prayer his Father affirmed him before all of the Baptist’s witnesses.
It is during the prayer that Jesus’ face is changed. The Greek text uses the term metamorphosis here, and later to describe the resurrected Jesus. In Hebrew anthropology the outer face is an expression of the inner man; the intensity of Jesus’ prayer allows his disciples to see the inner nature of the man they have been following and assisting. It is a true epiphany or theophany to use Biblical terms.
It is this manifestation of Jesus’ nature that constitutes the highlight of the event. The appearances of Moses and Elijah serve as visual connectors to the Hebrew heritage of faith: Moses the deliverer/law giver, and Elijah as the preaching/suffering prophet. Luke describes this three-way conversation with detail: they talked about Jesus’ own exodus and all that he would accomplish in Jerusalem. This sentence embodies an essential but elusive truth: that all that would happen to Jesus in Jerusalem, i.e., his ignominious passion and death upon the cross, was preordained in God’s plan, of a weave with Abraham (see Sunday’s first reading), Moses, and the prophets. This is not the last time Jesus would have a conversation like this; in Luke 24 Jesus spends the better part of a day making the same point to the two men on the road to Emmaus, who are shattered by the scandal of the cross.
Waking from sleep, Peter attempts to prolong the moment, so to speak, by suggesting the construction of three tents or booths. This is a reference to the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot today) which marked God’s provisioning of the exiles in the desert and the hope of eschatological or future glory. Luke credits Peter with a good sense of Hebrew symbolism, but his sarcastic assessment that Peter “did not know what he was saying” is a rebuke to the fact that Peter slept through the prayer of Jesus or to the fact that Peter continued to call to Jesus as “Master” when the reader knows that Jesus has just revealed his divine nature and his plan…as Peter snored away. If this was a graduate school of discipleship, Peter got the “gentleman’s C.”
The miraculous cloud continues the epiphany of God, and it enfolds the disciples as if to take them way. Their fear or awe is the typical Lukan response to divine interventions, such as with Zechariah and Mary earlier in the narrative. Green notes that up to this point in Luke’s narrative only demons have orally identified Jesus correctly; here on the mountain God the Father gives the most powerful identification possible, with the stern command that Peter, James, and John (and all disciples and readers to follow) “listen to Him.”
After this remarkable experience, Luke reports that Jesus was “found alone.” From now on Jesus himself carries the fullness of his heritage and his Father’s everlasting truth. The disciples are silent. Like the two men in Emmaus, it is only after the Resurrection and the Pentecost events that all the pieces of the puzzle will fall together for them.