Gen 15:5-12, 17-18; Phil 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28-36
“NOTHING GOOD comes EASY”
By our human nature, we like admiring finished products— a good work of art, a beautiful house, a man and a woman who make a good family, a young man/woman who graduates from a school with flying colours, a large and attractive car which someone is driving. They fascinate us. Even as little children, we have that nag to dream about the future just by looking at some finished products. (e.g., children arguing or even fighting because someone ‘chose’ the car which they admired…).
It is a very good thing to dream about the future, for we are told that many great inventions started from a dream. And those who do not dream cannot achieve much. But while we dream, we should not forget that finished products are an indication that someone, at some point in time, sweated in order to achieve what we admire now. Behind every admirable, finished product, there is someone, there are some persons, who toiled to see a dream come true.
Today, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, the Church presents us the episode of the Transfiguration of Jesus for our meditation. Last Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, Luke talked about the temptations of the Lord. As we saw, the episode was a reminder that the Christian pilgrimage is not an easy road. It is bogged with trials and troubles. This fact is brought out in today’s gospel by means of the transfiguration of Jesus, where a glimpse of his glory through the cross, the glory which we will all see at His second coming, shown to the three disciples—Peter James and John. Imagine how this picture encouraged them in the days, weeks, months and years to come! Peter, on his part, got caried away. He misconstrued what he was seeing. He admired the sight of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, in their glory, while seemingly ignoring the message of the cross behind this Transfiguration event. Jesus’ journey towards Easter, through Jerusalem, cannot be completed without the cross!
A comparison of the narratives of Matthew, Mark and Luke on the transfiguration event, shows that the meeting on the mountain took place about a week after Peter’s confession and Jesus’ explanation of the true nature of discipleship.
- BACKGROUND TO UNDERSTANDING THE TRANSFIGURATION
In order to understand today’s gospel text, we need to go back to some previous texts in the gospel of Luke, and other gospels. For instance, if we turn to the earlier part of the gospel text of today: Luke 9:18, we are told Jesus asked his disciples “Who do the crowds say that I am?” Jesus was not trying to track his popularity. He was setting the stage for the very important follow-up question. The answer to that question would determine whether or not the disciples actually understood the mission of Jesus. They replied, some say “John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets.” People understood that there was something different and even prophetic about Jesus, a man who spoke from God. They knew He was someone unique and special. Then Jesus asked further: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” We are told that Peter was the first to raise his hand and answered, “You are the Christ of God (the Messiah).” Peter testified that Jesus is the One to whom the Old Testament was pointing. “Jesus strictly charged the commanded them not to tell this to anyone.” (Lk 9:21) The disciples had accurate information but that information was incomplete. To Peter, the disciples, and just about every other Jewish person, the Messiah was going to be an earthly king who was going to restore material prosperity and military strength to Israel. Jesus did not want the disciples to go announcing that He was the Messiah because it would lead to misunderstanding and political turmoil. The disciples needed to learn why Jesus had come in the first place before Jesus would permit them to “go into all the world and preach the gospel”.
Next Jesus takes time to educate them on what being a Messiah implies: he says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised to life.” (Lk 9:22) He had not come for a coronation but for a cross. He did not come to build an earthly Kingdom but a spiritual kingdom. Jesus painted a very clear picture of what was to come. In Mark’s version of the event, we learn that “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him”. (Mk 8:32) Matthew adds more details: Peter said, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matthew 16:22-23) Poor Peter! Jesus does not say this because he has lost patience with Peter and the disciples. He is simply reminding them of the big picture. Luke 9:23-25 quotes Jesus as saying: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Mk 9:30-32; Mk 9:33-37; Mk 10:32-34; Acts 1:6) Every true disciple of Jesus, therefore, needs to do three things.
- a) The first thing we must do is DENY OURSELVES.
- b) Second Jesus tells us that we must TAKE UP OUR CROSS.
- c) The third requirement for discipleship is TO FOLLOW HIM.
- THE TRANFIGURATION EVENT
The transfiguration experience described in today’s gospel follows the episodes described above, beginning with Luke 9:28 ff. Having set the stage for the disciples to experience who Jesus is, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain. The peak moment in their experience up the mountain was while they were at prayer. Luke says: “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” This is a practical teaching on prayer for the Christian. Prayer time is holy time. It is pertinent that something holy should take place during this holy period of Lent. (After all, prayers can only be answered if they are said.) During this sacred moment on the Mountain, two important things took place in relation to Jesus.
- a) The appearance of his face changed.
- b) His clothes became dazzling white. These two things define the transfiguration of Jesus.
Next, Moses and Elijah appear at the scene. They began discussing with Jesus. In the Lucan account of this narrative, the evangelist summarized it this way: “THEY APPEARED IN GLORY and were speaking of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” This is what links this narrative to the Lenten season. First of all, we are told that both Elijah and Moses are now in glory. They accomplished this through a different route. Moses had the honour of reaching over one hundred years before dying. He did not suffer much before entering glory. Elijah did not suffer either; he was simply taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire (2Kings 2:9-12). This is what is known as the “Ascension of Elijah.” But Jesus’ path to the glory is totally different. This subject of suffering and death constituted the content of the discussion between Jesus, Moses and Elijah. This is also the content of the lesson that Jesus was giving his disciples in the preceding verses to the Transfiguration narrative. HE WILL SUFFER, DIE, AND RISE AGAIN.
- PETER AND HIS COLLEAGUES GOT IT ALL WRONG!
In the Gospel Peter and his colleagues are given a glimpse of a finished product, a picture of Jesus IN HIS GLORY. Peter is so full of admirations to the extent of wanting to preserve the experience by building three tents in this dream-world. He would like that the glory should also belong to him at that moment, and forever. He is full of false expectations.
Abraham, in the First Reading, does not let himself carried away by the promise of a posterity that is full of glory — the father of a large nation. He knows what it takes to get to a finished product. He has to work for it, though he has such an unshakable faith in God. As Christians, we may flatter ourselves that we will pass from this world of suffering to the world of glory easily and without giving up our lives. We may even deceive ourselves that everything was different for Christ. We may presume that since Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, all he had to do was go up that hill, turn on the magic button, and in an instance, without pain or effort, he was transfigured into his glory. But all the evidence of the Gospels goes against such an interpretation.
Peter, also, was thoroughly mistaken. The mountaintop experiences are meant to be a glimpse of Heaven in order to spur us on as we live on earth. We must not spend our lives chasing the rainbows. We should welcome and cherish the “God-moments” and continue to live faithfully even when those moments pass. After the transfiguration, after our beautiful dreams and visions, Jesus invites us back to normal life. We must come down from the mountain to continue working for what we want to achieve. This involves embracing the painful and unavoidable aspects of life from which we would like to escape. The Transfiguration event calls our attention to the truth that old problems remain with us always in spite of our dreams for a painless future. There is the problem of bringing up one’s children well; it has no magic switch. There is the problem of passing an exam or acquiring a skill; it has no button that one can press in order to make these happen painlessly. In fact, all the really worthwhile things in life require a lot of patient effort. There are no shortcuts to true and worthwhile victory. Every easy victory gives little joy. And at the end of the day, one really possesses as one’s own only those things for which one has laboured and paid the price.
- THE TRANSFIGURATION AND THE DISCIPLINE OF LENT
The transfiguration reminds us that there is no shortcut to glory. That is also the objective of the period of Lent. When things are difficult, when the haul seems long, we also need a vision, a glimpse of the glory to which we are called. That glimpse is the Resurrection of Jesus at Easter. Christ took no shortcuts. Satan, during the temptations of Jesus, tried to show Jesus some shortcuts to his glory, shortcuts that would exclude the cross and suffering. Satan asked Jesus to worship him so that he would grant Him all the kingdoms of the earth. Jesus never gave in. Neither should we. The voice from the cloud attesting to the Son-ship of Jesus, insists strongly that his followers should “LISTEN TO HIM” and imitate him in every aspect. Here, therefore, is the message Jesus has for us today:
- a) We are encouraged in our hope for Heaven. Seeing Jesus resplendent in glory standing with Moses and Elijah is a powerful reminder that we live even though we die. Both men had been dead centuries ago (Elijah for 900 years and Moses for nearly 1500 years) yet they were fully in tune with what was going on. They had departed the earth but they continued to live. They eagerly awaited the resurrection of Jesus when they would gain entrance into the very courts of Heaven! We, too, look forward to a life after death, as we attest in our Creed every Sunday.
- b) We are reminded that every rose has its thorny petals. Peter and colleagues would have wanted to hear that the pathway to glory would be like the ascension of Elijah, who was simply transported into heaven without any hassle. But Jesus resisted this temptation and made it clear that it is about the cross. His pathway is that of a rejected prophet. This is also going to be the pathway of every true Christian. For this reason, Paul told the Christians of Philippi, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
- c) Jesus went up to Jerusalem where he will meet two things: HIS DEATH THROUGH THE PASSION, and HIS GLORY THROUGH THE RESURRECTION. In other words, struggle and victory are linked together. This is an appeal to the so-called prosperity-preachers, the “name it and claim it” They are hereby called to drop their honey-coated preaching and embrace the real Christianity, which has the cross as its centre. Christians should be told what they need to hear and not what they want to hear!
- d) Christians should, therefore, avoid nursing false expectations and false hope. Instead, we should bear in mind that there is “NO CROWN without a CROSS; “NO SWEET without SWEAT”; “NO GAIN without PAIN”; “NO GLORY without GUTS”; “NOTHING GOOD comes EASY”! Let no Christian rest on his/her oars, saying, “I am saved. They should beware; and stay alert at all times, lest they fall.
- e) As we all know, the transfiguration story did not end with three tents being built there, but with Jesus telling the disciples to go down from the mountaintop, and to move on. Life is about changes and surprises. We must not get stuck with life’s problems, nor must we ever stop believing that something good is coming just around the bend. We are called to be open to life’s possibilities and not be disheartened by our difficult realities. Aside from spiritual transfiguration, let us be open to a transfiguration of our mind-sets, attitudes, values, and new ways of looking at things and circumstances. Problems can frighten us or transform us. Problems can imprison us or help us grow and move on. Let us seek to grow and move on amidst life’s challenges!
- f) Finally, Lent is not a picnic time. It is a time of very serious reflection. Indeed, we are marching to glory like Jesus in the gospel of today but it has to be through “Jerusalem,” the place of the way of the cross. The best way to respond to Jesus is so simple: “listen to Him!” God is not simply telling us to hear words. He is telling us to pay attention. So let us make the greatest use of this Lenten season that is offering us a good time for stock-taking.