I am embarrassed to be late with today’s post, as I wanted to talk about the event described in last Sunday’s Gospel [Second Sunday of Lent, March 12-13], the “Transfiguration of Jesus” on the mountaintop, particularly with an eye toward the interpretations offered by the feminist theologians in Luke 1-9. However, Reid and Matthews are in general agreement with their male counterparts on the richness and interpretations of this text, which is strategically placed in Chapter 9. The Transfiguration or “changing” of Jesus on the mountaintop in the presence of the three disciples is one of the special narratives that appears in some form in the three synoptic Gospels [and possibly in the Epistle 2 Peter 1: 16-18]. When a text or event is mentioned uniformly across the Gospels and the other New Testament writings, it is said to meet a high score of historical probability under the principle of “multiple attestation.”
However, the best we can say with historical certainty is that a mystical event took place. The Gospels describe the Transfiguration in different ways and with different people, in different narrative sequences, and with different impacts. Reid/Matthews categorize how scholars have tried to account for what might have happened, and I will quote them in ascending order of probability.
Third, and least probable, “Some others think it was not a supernatural experience but an experience of a mountaintop sunrise illuminating Jesus or a night storm with lightning and thunder that that the disciples interpret as a divine manifestation.” [p. 287] This is not as offbeat as it seems. Jesus revealed his power over nature when he calmed a storm and saved the fearful disciples. John’s Gospel [John 12: 28-29] has this account in a different setting shortly before the Last Supper: Jesus exclaims before the crowds, “Father, glorify Your name!” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it had thundered. Others said that an angel had spoken to Him. In response, Jesus said, “This voice was not for My benefit, but yours.…” John may be citing the historical tradition in a different place for somewhat different purposes, but there are significant differences, too, in the Johannine account.
The second possibility—and this was taught to me in the early 1970’s—is that this Gospel text from Luke actually describes an event after the Resurrection, when Jesus had risen from the dead and the disciples were in a considerable state of confusion and even despair. [p. 287] Consider the sad state of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday, which only Luke describes, where Jesus is changed and not recognized till the bread is broken at dinner. And then there is this to consider: if the three disciples actually beheld the changing of Jesus, the presence of Moses and Elijah, the enveloping cloud, and the very voice of God affirming his beloved Son, during the active ministry of Jesus, how does this square with the disastrous performance of these three men—notably Peter—at the events following the Last Supper of a few months later, when all the disciples abandoned Jesus? But hold the thought until we have looked at the first one.
The first option is actually the “default sermon” of many preachers, and I heard it many times as a youth. In fact, Luke’s narrative of the Transfiguration was read every Second Sunday of Lent at least as far back as 1570 when Pope Pius V reformed the Roman Missal after the Council of Trent. Pastorally speaking, when the faithful of the Church were encouraged to observe a strict fast and abstinence, this reading from Luke 9 served as something of a morale boost, a taste of the glory that was to come if we remained faithful to carrying our cross. [Alas, in my church this weekend the diocese was observing “safe havens from pornography.” At my Mass, that was filtered down in the sermon to “Nowadays we have the internet. People sin on the internet. If you sin on the internet, you need to go to confession.” I am not lying.]
The traditional Lenten placement of Luke’s Transfiguration narrative is probably not too far from what Luke had in mind. Chapter 9 of his Gospel is very pivotal in his full narrative. Consider everything that transpires in this chapter:
Luke 9: 1-17 The Mission of the Twelve
Luke 9: 7 Herod is “perplexed” about Jesus, recalls fate of John the Baptist
Luke 9:10 “Apostles” return full of joy over their first missionary venture
Luke 9: 12-17 Jesus feeds the five thousand miraculously
Luke 9: 18-27 Peter’s Confession and the Nature of Discipleship
Luke 9: 18-21 Peter confesses “You are the Messiah of God”
Luke 9: 21-22 Jesus predicts his suffering and death in Jerusalem
Luke 9: 23-27 Jesus states that his chosen must take up their cross daily if they are to save their lives as his faithful ones.
Luke 9: 28-36 The Transfiguration of Jesus
Luke 9: 37-50 The Misunderstanding of the Disciples
Disciples fail at exorcism attempt, argue about who is greatest among them.
Luke 9: 51-62 Jesus’ Departure for Jerusalem. He “sets his face” for Jerusalem and final showdown with Jewish authorities.
If you study this outline long enough, you may conclude the event of the Transfiguration could be removed and the narrative of Chapter 9 would still have a logical flow, perhaps even a more coherent one. For Luke has encapsulated the rocky road of Jesus’ mission and the formation of his followers. Having sent his newly named “apostles” [messengers] on their first missionary journey, they return flushed with victory. They have worked signs, but they have not yet asked anyone to take up a cross and die. They do not yet grasp the full cost of discipleship. While they are on the road winning superficial victories, Jesus learns that he is now under Herod’s scrutiny and may face a similar fate to the Baptist’s imprisonment and beheading.
Jesus must now begin the harder work of explaining “the cost of discipleship,” and it will be high. Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Messiah of God,” but without the connection to the Prophet Isaiah and “The Suffering Servant” motif. It is after Peter’s confession that Jesus predicts his own death, as if to explain to Peter that the cross is the destiny of both the Messiah and his followers. Interestingly, Luke is the first evangelist to use the adjective daily in the context of the cross, as in “take up your cross daily” and follow me.” Writing around 80 A.D. when the Church was taking on a universal setting, Luke had to render the call of Jesus as an acute challenge to those who were not undergoing immediate persecution; Mark’s earlier Gospel had simply exhorted disciples to take up the cross, period.
It is in this context that Luke inserts the Transfiguration. I encourage you to reflect upon it again even if you attended Mass this past weekend. Some things to note: Jesus ascends the mountain to pray, not to orchestrate a mystical event. Jesus prays at several major moments of decision in Luke’s Gospel. He is at prayer in the Jordan River when the Holy Spirit descends upon him; he prays deeply in the Garden of Olives before his arrest and crucifixion. The disciples, by contrast, sleep. The word “sleep” in the Scripture sometimes carries the connotation of “asleep at the switch;” this was certainly true of the Apostles on Holy Thursday night, for example.
Luke emphasizes sight: the appearance of Jesus’ face is changed, his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear “in glory” and talk to Jesus “about his departure,” i.e., his plan to leave for Jerusalem and his final confrontation with his enemies in the Temple. Luke makes a point to tell his readers that the three disciples “saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” But seeing is not necessarily understanding. For as Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were discussing the necessity of the final journey to Jerusalem and its urgency, Peter proposes the construction of three “dwellings” presumably to preserve the joyous intensity of the moment. But there is work to be done, a mission to be fulfilled, and the endorsement of the Father to be conferred. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This is the second time that the Father has embraced his Son so dramatically; the first was Jesus’ Baptism.
It is disconcerting that after such a powerful experience, the disciples and his followers become embroiled in embarrassing missteps. The crowds want more miracles. The disciples are jockeying for position. They jealously call out another man expelling demons in Jesus’ name, perhaps stealing something of their own thunder. They do not hear a second warning from Jesus that he must go up to Jerusalem “and be delivered into human hands.” We are reminded of last weekend’s Gospel where Jesus rebukes the devil three times. Luke’s text adds the ominous indication that after this desert encounter, the devil left him “for a time.” Now the devil—the power of evil—is digging in for a pitched battle. For Jesus, there is no more time for the victorious skirmishes in the countryside. The time has come to carry to battle to Jerusalem, and there to render the one eternal sign for all time, the sacrifice of himself on the cross and his Father’s loving intervention on Easter.