Sunday reflection: Matthew 17:1–9
posted at 11:01 am on March 12, 2017 by Ed Morrissey
This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 17:1–9:
Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
The last couple of weekends have given us the opportunity to spend time with our granddaughters, which is of course exactly how we love to spend our time. The way we spend time with them has changed over the years. Now they bring homework as well as play with the games and toys we have stocked up at our house, and as always love to watch some fun shows on TV with us. We took them out to dinner and a movie, and the next morning we recounted all of our favorite parts of The Lego Batman Movie (which was terrific, by the way.)
We miss the playful toddler years, but those have been eclipsed by even more ways to relate to each other They both have reached the age where they enjoy hearing tales of family in the past that don’t necessarily involve themselves. We now tell stories about their parents, ourselves, our parents, and other family stories of the past. It’s easy to overdo this with grandchildren, but they do have a curiosity about the ways in which they have come into the world, and their past.
Just like all of us, we want that arc of the family narrative told in a way that explains everything — to realize that we are part of a past, present, and future that both encompasses and surpasses us. Those stories and narratives can make us feel small and insignificant at times, but also connect us to a larger story that gives us meaning and purpose. We understand through these stories that we are not alone, and that we will have our own time to lead.
Today’s readings give us that same opportunity to see the vast scope of God’s plan of salvation. We start in Genesis, after the fall of Adam and Eve, the flood and Noah, and the Tower of Babel when humanity still refused to return to the Lord. In this passage, we hear how the Lord called Abram to serve by traveling far from the land of his birth, putting his trust in the Lord. Unlike many others, Abram remained faithful to God, and eventually was blessed to be the father of a great nation in which we all eventually join — our first ancestor in faith, and the beginning of our familiar narrative. The scriptures then unfold much as tales we tell of our own more recent families — triumphs, foibles, resistance and disobedience, all told in a tale of love.
The Transfiguration, however, provides the narrative familial arc all in one event. Jesus goes with His disciples to the top of Mount Tabor — no easy stroll, as we discovered in our pilgrimage to the Holy Land a few years ago. Tabor towers over the surrounding countryside, and even with modern roads requires no small effort to get to the summit. We went up in vans along the narrow modern road, a hair-raising experience given the boldness of the drivers and the steep drops from the shoulderless roadway. One has reason to offer blessings after reaching the top.
This was in its own way a kind of family outing. Jesus does not bring a crowd with Him to Tabor, and not even all of the Twelve. The three disciples named in this passage have a special significance later in the history of the Church, and with its ties to prior history. Peter would lead the Church after Jesus’ resurrection, and make important decisions on the nature of the familial relationships within the Church and with the Gentiles. James would lead the Church in Jerusalem and proselytize to the Israelites there. John, the visionary, would outlive all of them and write one of the four canonical Gospels as well as Revelation, which would explain the unity of the family of God in the next world.
For now, though, the disciples do not have any preparation for what they see next: a vision of the risen Christ to come, conversing with Moses and Elijah, the two great prophets of Israel before Jesus and John the Baptist. Moses set the nation of Israel on the path to the Promised Land and gave the law to the people, and Elijah was the herald of the coming of the Messiah — the fulfillment of the prophets. Their appearance with Jesus not just as images but as living beings in a divinized state overawed the disciples. Peter first offered to build tents, but then all three fell prostrate when they heard the voice of God name Jesus as His Son, and ordered them to follow Him.
This leaves us much to unpack, of course, and this event has many different meanings and interpretations. But surely the disciples saw in the Transfiguration the arc of the salvation narrative. Jesus’ arrival did not come as an arbitrary event, but an unfolding of a familial line that connected the present to the past as an unbroken line. In this, the disciples could also see their connection to this past and present for the future, and how they would bear the burden of carrying that connection to others in the future.
That certainly would have been enough to overawe anyone. On top of that, though, the presence of Moses and Elijah as living beings demonstrated the eternal nature of these connections. During the chats we’ve had over the last week or so with our granddaughters, we talked about family members who have passed away, such as my father-in-law and our grandparents, telling stories that make us laugh and remember them in love. In the Transfiguration, the disciples realize that death and time do not end those connections at all, and that we all have the promise of being reunited with those who have gone before us for those who live for the Lord.
Paul reminds Timothy of that in his second epistle. Paul instructs his friend to bear the hardship of serving the Lord with the eternal in mind. “He saved us and called us to a holy life,” Paul writes, to serve “our savior Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.” The Transfiguration provides an explicit example of this, connecting the entire arc of the plan for salvation in one vision that also demonstrates an eternal life with Christ at the center. Jesus’ Gospel brings this vision to all of us, allowing us to see our past, present, and future outside of time as a destiny that allows us to live in the light of God forever.
For now, of course, we live in the moment, and pass along whatever knowledge we can of these matters to those who will come after us. Like the stories we tell about family to our granddaughters, our scriptures remind us of God’s love and care for us, and the Transfiguration reminds us that we live in the moment, but that we live for eternity.
The front-page image is “The Transfiguration of Christ” by Titian, 1560-65.
“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.