Sunday reflection: Luke 9:28b–36
posted at 11:31 am on February 21, 2016 by Ed Morrissey
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 9:28b–36:
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.
What is the nature of transfiguration? As believers in the Lord, we all hope to be transfigured into worthiness of eternal life with God, but as this passage shows, we are by nature unprepared for its ramifications. In an earlier reflection on a parallel Gospel reading in Matthew 17:1-9, I described our visit to Mount Tabor and the effort it took to reach the top. Even Peter, who would one day have the keys to the Kingdom placed in his hands by Jesus Himself, was unprepared for the revealed truth of divine life. Rather than fully participate in the moment, Peter looked for some service to perform that would have necessarily taken him away from it in a trek to find the materials to erect the tents for the homage to the glory of Jesus’ divinity. Matthew’s Gospel has Peter interrupted while making the suggestion, but Luke explicitly writes that Peter “did not know what he was saying.”
However, we know that the disciples at this stage had not been fully prepared for the revelation of Jesus’ divinity. Jesus would tell them as much all the way through the Passion and after the Resurrection. Peter’s reaction on Mount Tabor is blameless; he had not been gifted with the Holy Spirit, and had to struggle through the shock of this scene, and the fear and awe it would have produced. His heart still sought out the glory of the Lord, even so. Peter had not yet been transfigured by the Holy Spirit, but he had submitted himself to God to prepare for that transfiguration — even if Peter may not yet have understood its nature or scope.
That concept of transfiguration runs through all of our readings today. In Genesis 15, Abram hears the call of the Lord, and a promise that his descendants will be brought out from this land in uncountable numbers to become a nation of its own. “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession,” Abram hears. Abram, soon to become Abraham, trusts in the Lord and offers a sacrifice of his livestock — an act that could have had severe consequences to a man in that region and those times. This gives a promise of a first exodus — that of Abraham being brought out of a foreign nation to a status of favor in the Lord and a homeland for His people.
Let’s shift our eyes from Peter to the conversation that took place between Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. In Matthew, all we know is that a conversation took place. In Luke, however, we find out that the two prophets discussed an “exodus that [Jesus] was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” At this time, the nature of the Messiah had been understood to mean that the Lord’s anointed would reestablish the Davidic kingdom as a world power, with Jerusalem as its seat. There was not a sense that God’s people would exit Jerusalem, but would return in strength and drive the Romans and other occupiers out for good.
An exodus from Jerusalem would transfigure not just the nature of the city, but also the very foundation of faith in the Lord. At that time, the Hebraic faith centered on the Temple, much as it did in the time of Jeremiah. Those practices had once again turned the temple into a kind of idol in itself; rather than live by the word of the Lord, the people instead assumed that the Lord would not allow the temple to fall. Jesus’ teachings at the temple emphasized this, warning that His glory would withstand destruction while the buildings themselves would fall. Jesus mourned over the fate of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-9) shortly after chasing the moneychangers from the temple (Matthew 21):
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’
Instead of gathering the people in Jerusalem, Jesus has come to begin an exodus that will transfigure the world, and change the nature of Jerusalem forever.
But transfigurations and exoduses are necessary — and serve the Lord. In a sense, the promise given to Abraham was of an exodus, from Ur to the Promised Land. The Exodus of Moses rescued Abraham’s nation of Israel from Egypt and brought them at last to that land, a nation created to serve the Lord and act as priests on behalf of the world. What would have this exodus been? This passage clearly points to the exodus as the founding of the Church and its Great Commission to finally fulfill the Lord’s mission for Israel — to spread the Word to all corners of the Earth, and to transfigure fallen humanity to prepare for salvation.
Paul writes about this transfiguration and its consequences in his letter to the Philippians. While those who conduct themselves as “enemies of the Cross” are “occupied with earthly things,” Paul exhorts his church in Philippi to remain faithful to Christ and His salvation.
Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their “shame.” … But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.
In this passage, Paul speaks explicitly about a transfiguration, changing “our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.” That act will raise us to eternal Trinitarian life, becoming sons and daughters of the Lord. As Christians, we are in the world, but not of it; “our citizenship is in heaven,” and our treasure there as well. That requires us to form ourselves in preparation for that transfiguration, that ultimate act of adoption — to join the exodus from sin into eternal love and redemption.
We may not have prepared ourselves perfectly. In fact, we may still only have a dim sense of what that will entail. When confronted by this on Mount Tabor, Peter may have not fully understood what was unfolding. But he knew enough to honor it and, imperfectly perhaps, try to reach for its meaning and participate in it. We who have a broader knowledge and the gift of the Holy Spirit should have a clearer understanding, and follow Paul’s wisdom.
The exodus has occurred, is occurring, and will be occurring. All we need to do is join it, and prepare ourselves for that transfiguration.