“There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light.”
Why do we have this Gospel this Sunday? We always do; it’s a fixture. Last Sunday’s Gospel makes good Lenten sense: Jesus goes into the desert for 40 days. So do the long Gospels we’ll hear the next three Sundays: the meeting with the Samaritan woman, the cure of the Man born blind, the raising of Lazarus. Their resonances and connections are clear. But, left to ourselves, would we ever have chosen today’s? Yet, it has been there for at least 1500 years. It was there long before a feast of the Transfiguration appeared on 6th August.
So, why? What does it offer?
What did it give Peter, James and John? Why did Jesus take them up a high mountain where they could be alone? That he did so, that something extraordinary happened on that mountain, that they experienced what’s called a theophany – like Moses by the burning bush or Moses and Elijah on Mt Sinai – seems certain enough. The episode is embedded in early Christian tradition, occurs in three of the four Gospels, and comes again in the 2nd Letter of St Peter. It is credible.
So again, why? Why then – the three disciples? Why now – us?
Here’s a first thought. Just six days before Jesus had asked his disciples who people said he was, who they thought he was. And Simon Peter “spoke up”: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” We might think: Well done, Peter; you got the right answer; you’ve passed your theory test. No. More was happening here. Peter, like Abraham leaving his own world in the 1st reading, was taking a great step. Peter the fisherman was throwing himself into the sea of faith, with courage, insight, trust. And six days later, Jesus takes him and his two fellow fishermen up a mountain, another different place, and was transfigured before them. Jesus unveils his Christhood and his divine Sonship. Yes, Peter, I am who you say. I am the Christ. I am the fulfilment of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). And the voice from the cloud, the voice of the Father, comes like an echo: Yes, Peter, “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him!” Here’s the heavenly endorsement of the earthly profession. So, why this Gospel? Perhaps here’s a first answer: to confirm from above Peter and his friends’ faith, to confirm our faith. Faith “comes by hearing”, but sometimes it turns to “seeing”, like here. And we can sense its truth.
Here’s another thought. “You are the Christ”’ said Peter. And then, the Gospel continues: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” We remember Peter’s reaction. Peter, says the Gospel, “took” Jesus and began to put him right. Ah! The wrong way round. Jesus, in turn, lets him have it: ‘”Get behind me, Satan”. Then he tells his disciples that if they are to follow him, they must deny themselves and take up their cross. They must in some sense lose their lives. Peter must have been in bits by this point. He didn’t seem to hear the other things Jesus was saying: “I will be raised on the third day…here is how you save your life…the Son of man will come in his glory.” This passed Peter by. The human psyche is far better at finding reasons for fear than reasons for hope. We are more naturally purveyors of bad news than good news. The unknown kingdom in our lives isn’t sadness; it’s joy. So, six days later, Jesus “takes” Peter and friends – the right way round – and gives them a preview of the beauty of the Resurrection and the Coming in glory. “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” Jesus is the face of the Father and his clothes – says a long tradition – are us, his Church, the people who cling to his body and will be glorified too; indeed already are. So, here’s perhaps a second answer: this Gospel is here for our hope. In each of us, there’s a dark inner gravity which pulls us back down to nothingness. Jesus takes them and us up a mountain, upwards not downwards. To a place where they could be alone, away from the constant low noise of human negativity, a place where they could see beyond the immediate, a further horizon. It’s akin to the vision at the end of the Book of Revelation when John is carried away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and shown the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, radiant with his glory (cf. Rev. 21:10-11).
Hope doesn’t cancel the Cross. It takes it up knowing it is the way to Resurrection. Hope integrates, accepts life’s suffering, but looks beyond it. Despite the Transfiguration, Peter did stumble at the scandal of the Cross and deny his Master. But he wept when the Face turned towards him and three days later gathered up his tunic and ran with John to an empty tomb. Is that why this Gospel is here? “Don’t be afraid”, Jesus tells his disciples as things return to normal. It’s the meaning of that whole episode.
“There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light.” This face, this humanity therefore, born of Mary, first formed in her womb, now transfigured. These clothes perhaps woven for him by her, now bright with the glory of God. Humanity not burned up by divinity. Receiving a God who’s not out to thwart us, not in competition, a God who fulfils and doesn’t abolish, a Lover of beauty longing to beautify us. So, looking for reasons, can’t we add love to faith and hope? So, let the Lord now take us up the mountain of his Eucharist, where he fills bread and wine with his Glory and us with his glorified Body and Blood? Amen.