Sunday reflection: Matthew 17:1–9
This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 17:1–9:
Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John, 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.”
Seeing is believing. This aphorism is so obviously true that human culture has been built around it, especially when it comes to justice. Eyewitness testimony has been considered the best evidence possible in practical terms until very, very recently, with the development of forensics. Contracts and wills require witnesses to attest to signatures. Weddings require witnesses too, perhaps even more than they require an officiant to celebrate them.
This is so true of human experience that we even see it at work in the Gospels — but we also see the limit of this aphorism as well. When the apostle Thomas hears of Jesus’ appearance to the other disciples after the Passion, he refuses to believe it. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side,” Thomas tells his closest friends, “I will not believe.” Only when Thomas sees Jesus return and can touch His body to assure himself that Jesus is not a ghost does Thomas believe in His bodily resurrection.
Why did Thomas doubt that testimony? It came from ten or more of the people who had been closest to him over the three years of Jesus’ ministry. Seeing was believing for them, of course, but Thomas needed to see it for himself. The more unusual the testimony, the more difficult it is to believe it without corroboration. In Thomas’ case, even the corroboration of literally everyone else in the room was not enough.
Thomas gets a lot of grief in popular culture for this disbelief. He’s the subject of another handy aphorism, the “Doubting Thomas,” which might make him one of the more well-known of the apostles for all the wrong reasons. After his crisis of faith, Thomas proclaimed the Gospel all the way into India, where tradition holds that he was martyred for the faith in 72 AD. Thomas laid down his life for the Gospel, which is not the act of a man who harbors doubts about Christ.
And yet, the trouble of testimony to the singular event of the Resurrection presented enough of an issue for the early Church that Peter felt the need to instruct on it. In today’s reading from his second epistle, Peter assures early Christians that they can rely on him as a credible witness to Christ’s glory, especially given his testimony of the Transfiguration:
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
Jesus understood the power of testimony, too. Recall that Jesus told Peter, James, and John to refrain from testifying to the Transfiguration until after His resurrection. He did not want His nature to be revealed at that time to all, that He was the fulfillment of the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah). Jesus knew that the apostles would need to have that understanding later, though, in order to believe for themselves and build the church on that belief. By the time Peter writes this epistle, it seems clear that his readers already know this story of the Gospel, and he is reminding readers of his testimony on it so that they can believe Peter speaks truthfully about the nature of and path to salvation. I was there, Peter is saying, and you can trust me.
This also relates to the surety of the Gospels, and the reliability of the New Testament, of which Peter’s epistles are part. The Gospels are the oral testimonies about Jesus from the apostles in written form; the rest of the New Testament is the written testimonies of the apostles about the church and the nature of salvation to specific audiences, and a final prophecy from John on the end of time. All of them originate from direct witnesses to Jesus, even Paul, who saw the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. They repeatedly attest to their firsthand experiences not as a brag or boast but as an indicator of reliability to speak on salvation, which is such a miracle that it almost demands doubt as a response. We were there, they say, and this is what happened. Be attentive to it.
However, the greatest testimony of these apostles comes not from their words, but from their lives. Let’s return to Thomas, who went from doubt even with the unanimous testimony of his friends to offering his life to save others by proclaiming the Gospel. We know that all of the apostles but John suffered martyrdom, dying for their belief in the risen Lord. Why would they all have given their lives for a lie or a wild exaggeration that shook the foundations of empires and their own communities? One or two might have been crazy or foolish enough to bluff, but all of them? All twelve went out into hostile territory, near and abroad, giving up comfort and potential wealth and their lives to proclaim the Gospel, the prophetic message, as a testimony to Jesus and the reliability of that message.
The Gospels are their testimony, and the epistles are their testimony, too — but their lives are also their testimony. They laid down their lives in order to save others and to give glory to the Lord. Even when they saw their brother apostles being martyred, none of them wavered. Instead, they appointed successors to keep the prophetic message on the march, and when those successors suffered martyrdom, their successors put their lives on the line too.
And to what does that testimony all point? God’s own testimony at the Transfiguration — “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” All of it points back to Christ, and the need to follow His teachings.
Now that we have these testimonies over the two millennia between now and then, we have to ask ourselves how we give testimony to Christ’s teachings and salvation. We can proclaim the Gospel, and we should, but do we offer our lives for Christ as testimony? When we identify as Christians in the public square, do our lives speak to our faith? When it comes to spreading the Good News in this age as in all others, those in need of conversion will say: Seeing is believing. When we have transfigured ourselves in the model of Christ and live out the Gospel message of caritas to all, then we will give true testimony to Jesus. That testimony can change the world, just as it did two thousand years ago.
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.