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Sunday next before Lent

13 February 2020

Exodus 24.12-end; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1.16-end; Matthew 17.1-9


THE transfiguration, with the dialogue that precedes it, marks the transition between two halves of Jesus’s public ministry. “From that time on,” Matthew tells us, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (16.21). Peter objects to this teaching, and earns a fierce rebuke from his Lord, who underlines the point by telling his disciples that only those who lose their lives for his sake will save them.

As a sign of this moment of transition, the Father’s voice speaks from heaven — as it did at the baptism that inaugurated Jesus’s public ministry (3.17). Again, he declares that “‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” But, on this occasion, he adds the command “Listen to him.” These words reinforce Jesus’s teaching on the nature of his mission. As St Jerome observes, it will have had a particular resonance for Peter, given his rebuke.

Coming at a pivotal moment in the Gospel narrative, the transfiguration presents Jesus as the fulfilment of both the Law and the Prophets. Yet it also points forward — first to his paschal triumph, but also to the gathering up of all things in Christ at the end of time.

In ascending the mountain with three disciples, Jesus is echoing the ascent by Moses of Sinai in our Old Testament reading. This is one of many parallels, among which are the period of six days, the radiant faces, and the disciples’ fearful reaction.

When God addresses Moses in the cloud, he delivers the instructions for the building of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25). As St Ambrose explains, this prefigures his abiding among us in Christ. The Blessed Virgin Mary is the new “ark”; for in her womb God has become flesh: “The former contained in it the Law, the latter the gospel.”

If the presence of Moses emphasises Jesus’s fulfilment (and, indeed, embodiment) of the Torah, Elijah emphasises his fulfilment of the Hebrew Prophets. Jewish tradition expected Elijah to reappear before the coming of the Messiah, and Jesus had already told the disciples that John the Baptist “is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11.14).

As Anna Case-Winters explains, the identification of John the Baptist with Elijah is in many ways surprising: “It was not part of the expectation that Elijah would be so poorly received.” The fate of this new Elijah prefigures that of the Messiah. At the end of our Gospel reading, Jesus once again speaks of his impending death and resurrection (Belief Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew).

The transfiguration points forward as well as back: forward to Christ’s resurrection, but also to the end of the age, when it will be not only his body but also a restored creation which will be transfigured with his redeeming light (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.28, Colossians 3.11).

This glimpse of the destination sustains the Church on its pilgrim journey. In our epistle, Peter reassures a persecuted Church that the preaching of the apostles did not consist of “cleverly designed myths”, but that they were “eyewitnesses of his majesty” on the holy mountain. In the Gospel, Peter wanted to prolong the moment of transfiguration, constructing booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But this was not the Father’s will: the vision ends after the heavenly voice, and they are left seeing “no one except Jesus alone”.

As Stanley Hauerwas observes, we face an analogous temptation to Peter’s, “to make the success of the past our own without having to have the courage of those who followed Jesus into the unknown”. In Christ, our destiny is indeed secure, but “this does not mean that everything is going to work out as we want it to work out” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew).

In each generation, the Church is called to walk the way of the Cross — to journey out with her Lord, in vulnerability and suffering — even as she is sustained by his risen presence. By the power of the Spirit, her scriptures and her sacramental life offer each disciple a foretaste of the future kept for us in Christ: “A lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

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