2nd Sunday of Lent Year: B
Gen 22.1-2, 9-18; Ps115 (116); Rom 8.31-37; Mk 9.2-10
From Peak to Peak
The seniors among us certainly recall that amazing story over half a century ago. May 29, 1953. A New Zealand beekeeper named Edmund Hillary and a Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, were the first ever to reach Everest's summit. Here was a mountain - unreachable, tantalizing, fearsome, deadly - that had defeated 15 previous expeditions. Some of the planet's strongest climbers had perished on its slopes. For many, Everest represented the last of the earth's great challenges. The North Pole had been reached in 1909; the South Pole in 1911. But Everest, often called the Third Pole, had defied all human efforts - reaching its summit seemed beyond mere mortals. Now success! And heightening the impact even further was the delicious coincidence of their arrival just before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the dramatic announcement of their triumph on the morning of the coronation. It was literally a "mountaintop experience." The mountaintop experience of which we read in today’s gospel a moment ago has Jesus and his three closest apostles - Peter, James, and John - going up on a high mountain and the miraculous transformation undergone by Jesus showing his heavenly glory to his disciples.
The word transfiguration means a change in form or appearance. Biologists call it metamorphosis (derived from the Greek word metamorphoomai used in Matthew’s gospel), to describe the change that occurs when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. As children we might have curiously watched the process of the caterpillar turning into a chrysalis and then bursting into a beautiful Monarch butterfly. Fr. Anthony De Mello tells the story of such a metamorphosis in the prayer life of an old man. “I was a revolutionary when I was young and all my prayer to God was: ‘Lord, give me the grace to change the world.’ As I approached middle age and realized that half of my life was gone without changing a single soul, I changed my prayer to: ‘Lord, give me the grace to change all those who come in contact with me; just my family and friends and I shall be satisfied.’ Now that I am old and my days are numbered, I have begun to see how foolish I have been. My one prayer now is: ’Lord, give me the grace to change myself.’ If I had prayed for this right from the start, I should not have wasted my life.”
"He took with him Peter, James and John"
From the group of disciples Jesus chose 3, whom according to Mark's Gospel were present at the resurrection of Jairus' daughter (Mk 5.37) and will be close to Jesus in Gethsemane (Mk 14.33). These are 2 significant moments because in the first episode the 3 disciples become witnesses to the divine power which Jesus revealed by resurrecting a dead person, a sign of eschatological power which will be realized in the resurrection of all believers. In the second event the 3 disciples are witnesses to the supreme hour in which Jesus, the Son of God (Mk 14.36) and "Son of Man was given over to the hands of sinners" (Mk 14.41). Analogically it may be considered that the restriction of the immediate witnesses to these 3 disciples underline that the Transfiguration is a culminating event of Jesus' revelation and the mystery of his death and Resurrection.
"He Brought them up a high Mountain…"
The topographical data is important for its message. Besides the symbolic resonance of the adjective "high", Mark records elsewhere the motif of mountains which help interpret this verse. In 3.13 the mountain is the place where Jesus reveals himself as the founder and leader of the community by choosing some disciples, "making them" the Twelve and giving them the eschatological power to announce the Gospel and to cast out demons. In 6.46 the mountain is the place where Jesus after having multiplied the bread and before walking on the Sea of Galilee, went to pray; two revelatory events in the presence of the disciples. In 13.3 the mountain is the place where Jesus, alone with his disciples, reveals the signs of the eschatological coming of the Son of Man. The mountain of the Transfiguration thus appears to be an element which accentuates the aspect of messianic revelation with reference to the community in which the 3 disciples represent.
Mountain of Revelations
The place of the Transfiguration away from the public, found near to places where some significantly messianic miracles were worked (1.40-45; 5.21-43; 7.31-37; 8.22-26) and the prohibitions to divulge these miracles (5.37.40 cf. 5.43; 7.33 cf. 7.36; 8.23 cf. 8.26; the Transfiguration 9.2 cf. 9.9), becomes clear in the light of Mark's characteristic theme by which "that which he kept hidden from the masses came to be revealed to his disciples, the nucleus of the future messianic community."
"He was transfigured ..."
The verb used by the evangelist is also found in Romans 12.2 and in II Cor 3.18. It indicates a spiritual change. Here in this context however it treats of a visible transformation. The context shows that it is not a metamorphosis of the Hellenistic type whereby Jesus acquired a nature of another living thing or of another person or had taken on a disguise. Jesus does not appear to be a divine being who took over a human body, nor was found to be in an unrecognizable form (cf. Mk 16.12 and Lk 24.16). On Mt Tabor the disciples had no trouble in recognizing him; his personal and physical reality did not undergo mutation. The evangelist does not speak of the type of transfiguration undergone by Jesus. He speaks only of a unique and heavenly candour of the clothes. From this one may consider that "it treats of a transformation to a heavenly condition which matched the resplendent whiteness of the clothes." Moreover according to the connection between 9.1 and 9.9, to see the Kingdom of God come in glorious power is to see Jesus transfigured. It speaks of a transfiguration in which Jesus assumes the splendour of the eschatological Glory in the might of the divine power of the Kingdom.
"Elijah appeared to them with Moses…"
The meaning of the presence of these two renowned heavenly figures who represent the Prophets and the Law next to Jesus, most probably is that the times are fulfilled in Jesus and that Jesus is the Messiah. It is unique that Mark names Elijah first, but it is difficult to give an explanation for this. It appears that Mark stressed the function of these 2 persons with regard to the disciples. Jesus in himself blends the spirit of the Law and the Prophets and shows to his disciples concretely through the action of LOVE.
"Master, it is good for us to be here..."
Peter, having experienced this heavenly event, expressed his joy and proposed to keep Jesus and the 2 heavenly figures as long as possible. Various authors see in these words of Peter an allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. Ex 23.16; Lev 23.27-34; Dt 16.13). But if this were to be true, then Peter ought to have had proposed the building of tents also for the disciples. This feast in the time of Jesus was linked to the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
"He did not know what to say…
There was fear, awe among the disciples. In this way, the evangelist appears to allude to the incapacity of the disciples to understand both the tragic and glorious events; of the mystery; and indirectly that the glory of Jesus transfigured is intimately linked to the glory which Jesus will obtain through the power of his Death and Resurrection. "It is the Glory which corresponds to the Passion and Death and that death brings with it the glorious Resurrection. The Transfiguration of Jesus was not meant to make a paradise out of the mountain; it was to stimulate, to fortify each step in the journey towards the Passion. The Christological revelation is oriented towards an ecclesiological understanding for a community placed in the journey which leads the Passion."
"And a Cloud came, Covering them in Shadow"
The way this is expressed indicates that the action of the cloud is meant to protect and guide the frightened disciples from the event. This meaning seems to be reinforced by the fact that the cloud elsewhere in the Old Testament indicates the coming of God in his manifestation to his people in the Exodus (Ex 40.35; Num 9.18,22; 10.34). The function of the cloud was to guide and protect the people in their journey in the desert (Ex 33.9-10; Num 11.25; 12.5). Perhaps it can allude also to the eschatological cloud which covers the elected people as found in Is 4.5. The cloud can therefore indicate the benevolent action of God on the disciples called to follow Jesus in the journey towards the Cross.
"There came a Voice from the Cloud..”
The association between the cloud and the voice is found in biblical literature (Ex 16.10; 19.19; 24.16; Num 17.7) as well as ancient Jewish literature (Num 21.6; Gen 22.10). It treats of a voice within a theophanic or revelatory framework which proclaims a divine oracle. Peter had practically equated Jesus with Elijah and Moses. The voice instead made the distinction very clear.
The statement of the divine sonship recalls without doubt the declaration which the evangelist had referred to at the moment of Jesus' baptism in Mk 1.11. There the divine oracle was addressed to Jesus, here however it is addressed to the disciples and through them, to the community and the crowds. Indeed with the command to listen to Jesus, the voice indirectly presents Jesus as the prophet whom all the people must listen to (cf. Acts 3.22 & Dt 18.15). It is a unique command valid for all time.
The "Messianic Secret"
It is written "As they came down from the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They observed the warning faithfully, though among themselves they discussed what "rising from the dead" could mean." In the descent from the mountain, Jesus spoke to his 3 disciples about what happened on the mountain and gave them an order. This is the well-known "messianic secret" (cf. 1.34; 3.12 and especially 8.30) followed immediately by the incomprehension of the disciples regarding the announcement of the Son of Man's Passion and Resurrection (cf. 8.32-33; 9.31).
The Dazzling Mystery
I have cited at the beginning a liturgical text summarizing the mystical theology and the existential spirituality which the event of the Transfiguration had inspired the Church. I now conclude with a liturgical text which seems to have as its basis the same fundamental text. It is found in the Preface of the Feast of the Transfiguration according to the Ambrosian Missal; "Christ revealed his glory before the witnesses pre-chosen by Him and in the poverty of our common nature He shone an incomparable light. Thus He prepared his disciples to bear the scandal of the Cross, anticipating in the Transfiguration the marvelous destiny of the entire Church, His Spouse and His Body; called to share in the fate of its Head and Lord".
Transfiguration in our daily life is accomplished through our sufferings, pain and sorrows. This also refers to all our daily joys and moments of triumphs. We need to take our daily challenges in our hand as coming from God and face them with a resolution of Christ who said to his disciples that he should suffer and die in Jerusalem. Ultimately we are all transfigured in our body, in our mind and in our heart before we meet our Lord on the last judgment day.
Fr. Rudolf V. D’Souza OCD
Vancouver - Canada