In this weekend’s liturgical readings, we have the account of the Transfiguration as written in the Gospel According to Matthew (17:1-9).
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’
When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, ‘Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’
When telling a friend yesterday that I would be writing about Jesus’ Transfiguration, he chided me a bit and hoped I would reaffirm and stress it was an historic event. “Actually,” I said “when considering biblical belief, biblical events, and historical events we need to make some important distinctions….” He then muttered something about the “dangers of liberal theology.”
In any event, here, as a contemporary believer, is how I understand the Transfiguration…..
In the accounts of the Transfiguration, Jesus is suddenly changed and becomes a radiantly divinized Son of God, up on a mountain. The Synoptic Gospels describe it (Matthew 17:1–9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28–36) and 2 Peter 1:16–18 refers to it.
The content of the narrative is richly symbolic with people and imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures, as we saw last week, when John baptized Jesus. Once again the three-level universe with God up in heaven, and speaking in a cloud. Jesus takes three key disciples up high in the mountains — getting as close as possible to God’s heavenly dwelling place. Moses you recall did the same thing when God gave him the Ten Commandments.
Then the wondrous vision occurs. Moses appears. He brought God’s people the law and led them up to the Promised Land. Now in this visionary experience, the radiant Jesus, standing with the old Moses, becomes the New Moses. God says: “This is my son. Listen to him.” Jesus is the new law-giver. And then of course we have an appearance of Elijah. Last week we saw that John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord, was an Elijah figure. Now we have the old Elijah, standing next to the Lord who has come at last. For Moses and Elijah, standing with Jesus, the great day has arrived. Up on the mountain of the Transfiguration, all messianic expectations of the Hebrew Scriptures are summed up and completed with the radiant Jesus.
As recorded in the Gospels, the Transfiguration becomes a deeply symbolic preview and a powerful faith affirmation of the Post-Resurrection Jesus. An important piece of Resurrection catechesis.
When editing their final versions of the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel writers felt their audiences needed some support and moral encouragement, as they began to contemplate Jesus’ sufferings and death. Yes I call it a catechetical moment: a reaffirmation of faith in Jesus raised from the dead….before the Gospel accounts become so heavily laden with suffering, rejection, pain, and death. (It is like saying: “don’t worry, in the end it will all come out OK for Jesus.”) A deeply symbolic visionary experience and a powerful re-affirmation of the Easter faith of historic people back then….as well as for us today.
So my friend asked me yesterday: “was it an historic event?” Actually I reminded him that in the Hebrew biblical tradition there was little interest in the fact of an historic situation. Those early believers were concerned about the meaning behind what happened. Their tradition — passed on of course to early Christian believers — is one of story telling. They combined history, allegory, and symbols to communicate their experiences. Asking “did it really happen?” is the kind of question that comes from a Western mind-set, not the Ancient Near East culture of Jesus and his followers. For that biblical faith culture, the main question was “what is the meaning in these things.”
I would suggest the Transfiguration is a powerfully symbolic testimony to the faith experiences of Jesus’ early followers. And they were really historic men and women.
As contemporary believers, we need to appreciate that biblical language (in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the Christian Scriptures) is not the same thing as our scientific factual language. We are at times too empirical. We need to understand that faith truths are expressed in a variety of ways.
We will see later this Lent that the details of Jesus’ passion are not strictly-speaking literal history. We must ask: “what is the meaning of these things?” They are devout interpretations of the end of Jesus’ life. Testimonies of faith: showing evidence of creative growth and development over the years, as biblical authors began to fill in the blanks, in imaginative ways, and with a judicious use of the Hebrew Scriptures.
My belief? Yes. I believe we are on a journey with Jesus-raised-from-the-dead. He reveals God to us. He reveals authentic humanity to us. He is “Lord,” “Son of God,” and our brother.
As I told my old friend, our faith has nothing to do with being a progressive or a conservative Catholic. And it is not some kind of sugar-coated piety. It is anchored in real life, with all its ups and downs…..
Perhaps during these forty days, we can best read a narrative like that of the Transfiguration and then calmly reflect what it means to be a traveller with Jesus in 2014.
I often think about the faith experience of the disciples, on the road to Emmaus. They didn’t recognize the Lord at first. When he disappeared, they commented: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us and opening the Scriptures to us?”
We continue on our Lenten journey.