First reading: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm: Psalm 96(97):1-2, 5-6, 9
Second reading: 2 Peter 1:16-19
Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
Link to readings.
The episode commemorated in today’s feast, the Transfiguration, as told in the Gospel (Matt 17:1-9), is one of those moments in the life of Jesus when the barrier between the heavenly and earthly realms slips away for a time to allow his divinity to shine through. That this revelation should occur on a “high mountain” goes along with the traditional association of mountains with the abode of God. Details such as the shining of Jesus’ face “like the sun” and the “dazzling whiteness” of his clothes are also features of the heavenly realm in the biblical tradition. And, of course, the two figures who appear and talk with Jesus, Moses and Elijah, were known from the biblical record (Deut 34:6; 2 Kgs 2:11) to be enjoying heavenly existence. In short, then, what the three select disciples, Peter, James and John, are given here is a glimpse of Jesus in the heavenly realm in which he is as much at home as in the earthly one shared with them.
Peter’s observation about being “good for us to be here” and his offer to make three “dwellings” (lit. “tents”), one for Jesus and one each for Moses and Elijah (v. 4), suggest a desire on his part to hold on to the experience. That the suggestion is inappropriate is shown by the theophany that occurs “while he was speaking” (v. 5). A “bright cloud” signals the presence of the unseen God (see Exod 16:10; 19:9; 24:15-16; 33:9). Then, as at Jesus’ baptism (Matt 3:17), the voice (of the Father) from the cloud identifies him as “my Son, the Beloved”, who “enjoys my favour”.
The final command, “Listen to him!” is a specific instruction to attend carefully to what Jesus has said in the first passion prediction (Matt 16:21) and will shortly repeat (17:22-23; also 20:17-19). From now on, precisely as God’s beloved Son, Jesus is to tread the path to Jerusalem as the Messiah who came, “not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (20:28). The two truths that Peter had found so difficult to reconcile with each other—that Jesus is “the Son of the living God” (16:16) and that he is destined to suffer and die (16:21)—are here held together in direct revelation from God. Being Son of God will not shield Jesus from death. It is precisely as God’s Beloved Son that Jesus will suffer and die (see also Rom 8:32; Heb 5:7-10; John 3:16). The disciples will struggle to hold these two truths together until the end of the story.
In a final act (vv. 6-8) Jesus comes to the disciples, prostrate and overcome by fear, and touches them with a word of reassurance. The transfigured Son of God is once again, simply and tangibly, the human Jesus they have known. By moving so swiftly from glory and theophany back to simple humanity the episode reaffirms the sense of divine presence in the human person of Jesus. The disciples have for a moment shared Moses’ and Elijah’s experience of heavenly glory in the presence of God. But they do not have to remain on the mountain to preserve it. Whenever they are with Jesus, they are with God—or, rather, God (“Emmanuel” [1:23; 28:20]) is “with” them.
The description of proceedings in the heavenly court in the First Reading (Dan 7:9-10, 13-14) offers a fine preparation for the Transfiguration. The early Christian tradition, taking up Jesus’ characteristic reference to himself as “the Son of Man”, found in this scene from Daniel an account of his commissioning and empowerment to exercise judgment over heaven and earth, preparatory to the final establishment of the reign of God. Jesus, in fact, alludes to his “coming” in this role as judge when he stands before the high priest at his own trial (Matt 26:64). Following his obedient submission to suffering and death, as risen Lord, he will claim, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” (28:18) and send his disciples on mission to the world. The Transfiguration anticipates that moment. What Peter has to understand, however, is that heavenly glory and authority come after obedient entry into the pain and suffering of the world.
The echo of the Transfiguration that we hear in Second Reading (2 Pet 1:16-19) recalls this truth to encourage a later generation of believers who are finding the going hard and perhaps are tempted to despair of the eventual triumph of God’s cause. In “the darkness” of the present time the Transfiguration is a “lamp” for lighting a way until “the dawn comes and the morning star rises in your minds”. “Dawn” and “Morning Star” are both epithets referring to Jesus in his full Messianic glory. Faith in him and hope in the eventual triumph of his cause are the lamps that continue to light our way in what is often the darkness of our times.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media