Transfiguration Leads to Life through Death
Gen 12:1-4; 2Tim 1:8-10; Matt 17:1-9
The gospel reading of the Second Sunday of Lent brings us to one of the important events in the life of Jesus: his transfiguration on a mountain during which his face was transfigured and shone like the sun, while his clothes became white as light. This episode is now part of the “Mysteries of Light” of the Rosary. Today’s three readings urge every Christian to bear in mind that pain and suffering are a reality in our lives. it is through sacrifice and suffering that one can achieve anything great. The TRANSFIGURATION of Christ, particularly brings home the lesson that we cannot achieve success unless we work and work hard.
- THE FAITH OF ABRAM
Today’s 1st Reading, coming from Genesis 12 narrates the story of the call of Abram (Remember that he was originally called “Abram”; it is only after he answered the call that God renamed him “Abraham” – Gen 17:5). He lives in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. He’s 75, well into his retirement age, and he and the wife are not getting any younger. Suddenly God appears and tells him to pack up, uproot his comfortable life, and march into an uncivilized wilderness. He does not even know the name of the God who calls him. The book of Genesis tells us that without any argument, no “yeah-buts”, “Abram went as the Lord directed him” (Gen 12:4).
That is FAITH! Abram hears a command from a God he cannot see, believes that this God must know what He is talking about, and begins a journey to where he knows not. This is what St. Paul means when he says, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). That’s why Abraham is the great model of faith in the Old Testament. For faith is not just about believing. It is about walking.
Obviously Abram’s choice to walk involved great hardship. What was the motivation that drove him to do it? The answer is simple. There was something that God promised him that he desperately wanted. He had a lot of things, lots of stuff – wife, property, servants, and all the earthly comforts that could be afforded by the civilization of his time. Yet he lacked a son. A son would, presumably, beget children, and so keep his father’s name and memory alive. God promised not only descendants, but children so numerous that all the communities of the earth would find blessing in Abram’s name. It was the desire for future glory that enabled Abram to put up with the hardships entailed in answering the call. THIS DESIRE IS CALLED HOPE.
- ST. PAUL ENCOURAGES TIMOTHY
St. Paul, writing to Timothy from prison, about 1900 years later, echoes this faith of Abram: “Bear your share of the hardship which the Gospel entails” (2 Tim 1:8). Paul encourages his young disciple Timothy, who had left his home, his family and dedicated himself to the mission of the young Church. Being a Christian does not immunize you to life’s challenges. To be a Christian during the era of Paul and Timothy meant risking everything (St. Paul is writing from prison for being a Christian). If the Romans caught you, it could mean torture or death or, if you got off easy, the confiscation of all of your possessions. The only reason why people could take chances of being Christians was none other than the same reason Abram embraced hardship—HOPE. They had been given a vision and a promise of eternal glory. They understood that no earthly good could compare with this everlasting joy and so were willing to suffer whatever loss necessary in order to lay hold of it. In this, they followed their master who “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2).
- THE TRANSFIGURATION OF JESUS
The gospel brings us to the mountain of transfiguration. There, God shows the discouraged disciples, who had followed the call of Jesus and left behind the security of their homes and families that after all sufferings and hardship are not the only reward that they were called to. They are taught that glory, eternal joy and life in the presence of God will be theirs if they follow Jesus all the way. Jesus, aware of the trauma that the apostles would shortly suffer, in witnessing the horror of his crucifixion, gave the three leaders (Peter, James and John) a vision of hope to sustain them. On Mount Tabor Jesus appeared as he really was. In anticipation of his risen glory, the Light of the World was shown forth in the dazzling white of his divinity. The Law and the Prophets bore witness to Him through Moses and Elijah. The Father’s voice boomed the affirmation that this was his beloved son. The Holy Spirit was manifested as the “shekinah” cloud of glory which had led the Israelites on their desert journey. This transfiguration is a scene that proclaims the whole gospel, the Good News of a glorious life, won by the Saviour, that would last forever.
But the experience itself did not last forever. It was not given to them so they could erect tents and stay there. There was still walking to do. The path called the Via Dolorosa (the way of the cross) lay before Him and before them as well. The experience called the Transfiguration was to show them that THIS WAY OF THE CROSS WAS NOT A ROAD TO DEATH BUT THROUGH DEATH TO A LIFE THAT MAKES EVEN DEATH SEEM BUT A TRIFLE.
Remember that just before the transfiguration Jesus asked his disciples whom the people and they themselves think he is. When Peter gives the correct answer that he is the Christ, Jesus congratulates him and then proceeds to warn them and prepare them for his unavoidable suffering, death and resurrection. But Peter is so unprepared for this that he protests visibly. He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he says. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus sharply corrects him, telling him that he is seeing things from a purely human point of view (Matthew 16:13-23).
Peter needed a vision from God’s point of view, to see that in spite of the death sentence hanging over the head of Jesus, God is still with him; God is still in control of events; God will see to it that in the end he triumphs over his foes. What Peter and his fellow disciples needed was for God to open their eyes and then give them a glimpse of God’s abiding presence with their master Jesus. The transfiguration is that experience. The religious experience at the mountaintop recharged them and made them more clear of and confident in their identity and mission.
- PETER AND THE THREE TENTS
It is significant that the transfiguration takes place on the road to the crucifixion. The disciples have some sense that Jesus is on the road to suffering and death. However, Peter’s proposal to Jesus, “lf you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” was a way of evading the pains on the cross. As it were, he proposed the construction of a comfort zone. For Peter, staying in the mountain could be more advantageous than going back to the lowland because there Jesus would encounter his own death. Jesus did not utter any response to Peter’s proposal. The gospel tells us that after the Father speaks, Jesus told the three disciples. “Rise and do not be afraid.”
We cannot blame Peter for wanting this special moment to last a bit longer. We all hate to see the time of some spiritual exhilaration come to an end, be it the end of pleasant gathering or party, a conference, a great concert, or a stirring time of worship. Our tendency is to build comfort zones in our life. We all inclined to evade the pains and struggles in life. What God wants us is to have the capacity to face all these. We need a determination to face life’s difficulties and at the same time, cling to the hope and promise of glory.
Strictly speaking, it was not necessary for Jesus to undergo the terrible, bloody suffering. He could have redeemed mankind without shedding a single drop of blood, such as was suggested by Satan, the tempter, when he proposed to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth if only He could worship him (Satan). But Jesus thinks otherwise. The glorious event of Christ’s Resurrection had to be achieved with the greatest of pain. This truth applies in every human endeavor. Hence, the sayings, “No guts, no glory,” “No pain, no gain,” “No cross, no crown.” Many of us would want success without the struggle; we want fulfilment without hard work. Think of certain people who want to make fast money by engaging in hold-ups (armed rubbery), smuggling, stealing from government funds, or peddling prohibited drugs. The transfiguration opens our eyes to the fact that this is not the way life generally works. You cannot pass an exam if you don’t burn the proverbial midnight oil. You cannot be a champion unless you undergo the long, dreary hours of training; in work, you do not get promoted if you do not exert effort and deliver. But the historical fact is that Jesus chose to save us the hard way.
- “THIS IS MY BELOVED SON; LISTEN TO HIM!”
One of the highlights of today’s Gospel is the voice of God the Father, “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him!” Listening to Jesus was what the apostles were not doing. They did not listen to Jesus when He told them that He was going to suffer and die. They did not want to hear it. Jesus took the three up the mountain to help them understand that they had to trust and believe what He was telling them. There had to be a change in the way the Apostles listened to Jesus. They not only had to listen, they had to trust what He had to say.
We too have to have a change of heart many times and place our trust in the teachings of Jesus.
- LESSONS LEARNT FROM THE TRANSFIGURATION
- a) Like the disciples, we too learn that Jesus is worth following. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is more than good man or great teacher. He is more than a good model. Jesus is more than the head of a movement or religious organization. He is God in human form who came to earth to save us. There are times when we need a vivid reminder. When the tragedies, injustices and corruption of life in this world begin to squeeze the life out of us we need some reminder that God is still on the throne. When we fail miserably and wonder if Jesus can forgive us, we can look to the Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus and know that He is Lord beyond a shadow of a doubt. This is the Jesus you’ve come to worship today!
- b) We see the importance and the wonder of prayer. It is doubly hard to be obedient when everyone else is calling you in a different direction. The best way to resist this is through prayer. Jesus knew what the Father wanted Him to do. But there were all kinds of voices telling him there were other ways/better ways to go. Since Jesus was fully human He had to resist the voices of compromise and the whispers of Satan. He had to stand strong when the disciples urged Him to take a different course. He had to hang in there when His body was being punished and His friends deserted Him. The only way Jesus was able to do this was through His time of prayer.
Prayer is the place where we meet God in a special way. We may not see visions or meet Heavenly beings. But, in the time of quiet prayer God’s Spirit has the chance to quiet our soul and calm our hearts. In the time of prayer, the Lord reminds us of how great He really is. When we pray God helps us to see through the fog of our circumstances and reminds us of His truth. He helps us to see what really matters and which way we should go.
This is certainly one of the reasons we struggle with prayer is because this is where the front line of the battle is. Satan knows if he can keep us from prayer, He can keep us from power. If he can lead us to turn worship into a concert and remove the times of quiet resting in God’s presence, he can keep us from the true source of power. If he can keep us reading, studying and serving but never praying, he can weaken our commitment even as we are patting ourselves on the back for all our knowledge. How many times do we see Jesus take time to pray in the gospels? If Jesus needed to pray, so do we.
- c) The Old Testament and New Testament go together. As Jesus stood there with Moses and Elijah, we see that Jesus is the fulfillment of all that was proclaimed in the Old Testament. We love to read about Jesus but we must not neglect the foundation on which the gospel is built. The Old Testament is the foundation on which the New Testament stands. The work of Jesus can only be fully understood with the background of the Old Testament.
We should discard no part of the Bible, because “ALL Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for reproof, correction, and training in righteousness”.
- d) We all want to hold on to the mountaintop experiences, but life is lived in the valley.(This one comes from the words Peter spoke about building tents for everyone.)But we are wrong to spend our lives pursuing mountain top experiences. They are great but they are rare in the life of a disciple. Most of our living takes place in the valley, in the daily grind, and in our everyday decisions and encounters.
We make a mistake when our goal in worship is always to produce an experience or a “High”. The more we seek experiences, the more we become focused on us instead of on the Lord. This is why it sometimes troubling to hear Christians evaluate their worship in terms of how it made them feel. When worship becomes about what we GET from the experience it becomes man-focused and therefore is not really worship at all! True worship is God-focused. It is about surrendering anew to His greatness. It is a time when we honor God for what He has done. It is about giving Him praise. We do this as much with times of quiet reflection and surrender as we do with vibrant singing.
We are weighed down by our weaknesses and failures, by trials, insecurities and sufferings, by the prospect of certain death. Jesus approaches us also today and says: “Get up, do not be afraid! Go and do not hesitate to proceed on the often difficult journey “to the land I will show you!”
We all need to leave our comfort zones and allow the Lord to lead us to a mountain where He will reveal Himself to us again. Trials, sicknesses, disappointments, humiliations, deprivations, and even persecutions, lead us closer to God’s heart. Climbing a mountain is never easy, AND THAT IS WHAT LENT IS ALL ABOUT, but it will lead to a clearer vision, closer devotion, and deeper commitment and mission.