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Sunday next before Lent

24 February 2017

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Exodus 24.12-end; Psalm 2 [or Psalm 99]; 2 Peter 1.16-end; Matthew 17.1-9

Almighty Father, whose Son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross: give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

ST MATTHEW’s telling of the story of the transfiguration places it “six days later” (Matthew 17.1). It is not clear what distinctive earlier event he is referring to; and, in any case, more interesting than any single moment is the remarkable process which the disciples have been through since arriving in the district of Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16.13).

That geographical transition to the area north of the Sea of Galilee marks a new intensity in Jesus’s efforts to prepare his closest followers for what is still to come. He is not going to lead them blindly into the hostility and menace that will close in on him and take him to his death, and so he begins by making sure that they know the identity of the leader to whom they have attached themselves.

Peter takes the initiative in naming Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”, and earns Jesus’s blessing for this (Matthew 16.16-19). And yet, even though
he is the first to make the link between what Brendan Byrne calls “the conventional under­stand­ing of ‘Messiah’ and the unique filial relationship Jesus has revealed himself to have with God” (Lifting the Burden, Liturgical Press, 2004), he recoils when Jesus explains what it will mean for him to fulfil the destiny that goes with these titles.

For this well-intentioned mistake, he earns a sharp rebuke. He has fallen into the position taken by Satan immediately after God had claimed Jesus as his Son at
his baptism (Matthew 3.17-4.11), placing the obstacles of human comfort and prestige in the way of salvation that must be achieved through humiliation and death (Matthew 16.22-23). If the disciples are intending to stay with Jesus, they will have to take up their own cross, and seek the life that is found in losing one’s life (Matthew 16.24-26).

That is the background to what happens on the “high mountain”. Matthew tells his audience what Peter, James, and John saw, without initially suggesting fear (Matthew 17.1-4). For Byrne, the sight of Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah confirms to the three disciples that Jesus is “at home” in both earth and heaven.

Peter is even able to suggest preserving this moment by building “dwell­ings”. Perhaps he recalled Moses speaking to God on another mountain (Exodus 24.15-18), and God’s request that his people make him a “sanctuary”, so that he could dwell with them (Exodus 25.8). His words are swallowed up in God’s, as the voice out of the cloud repeats the baptismal proclamation: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” (Matthew 3.17, 17.5) and it is then that fear takes over.

At first sight, it seems strange that the disciples should have been rendered terrified by something that they knew already. They had not, however, heard it directly from God up to this point, nor ever had to contemplate the tangible closeness of divine presence. The tradition taught that “no one shall see [God] and live,” (Exodus 33.20) and, if there was a voice, somewhere in the radiance before them must be a face.

Jesus calms their fears (Matthew 17.7). The vision is a vision for life, not for death, and they will not bear the responsibility of talking about it until after the resurrection (Mat­thew 17.9). Then, with the authority of his victory over the power of death, Jesus will send them out from another mountain to “make dis­ciples of all nations” (Matthew 28.16-20).

The writer who assumes Peter’s voice in writing to a Christian com­munity near the end of the first century AD urges his corres­pondents to discern carefully be­­tween the trustworthy teaching of the prophets and the words of false teachers, especially as the author’s death draws near, and in expecta­tion of a “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Peter 1.12-15, 3.13).

The evidence of someone who had been an “eyewitness” to the majesty of Jesus would carry weight (2 Peter 1.16). It is offered as an anchor for the faith of others, and the writer builds elegantly on the imagery of light and glory: the lamp kindled from the vivid memory of a disciple who saw the glory of God will light these new believers on the way to their own encounter with Christ, “the morning star”, who will rise in their hearts (2 Peter 1.19).

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