The Transfiguration Of Jesus
Mark, Matthew, and Luke all have their version of the transfiguration of Jesus. Mark’s version is thought to be the oldest. The Gospel of Mark was composed about the year 70 A.D. Matthew and Luke wrote their documents about fifteen to twenty years later. Here we are concerned with Matthew’s version. It is basically that which he found in Mark’s gospel. He makes no significant changes, just a few minor additions and subtractions, much as a college student copying from an encyclopedia changes a word here or there so his plagiarism is not so evident. Following Mark’s arrangement of material, Matthew places the transfiguration in the same context as Mark. That context: Jesus’ prediction of his suffering death and resurrection, plus a collection of Jesus-sayings describing discipleship (Christian life) as no bed of roses.
Matthew begins: “After six days, Jesus took with him Peter and James and James’ brother John, and led them up a very high mountain apart by themselves.” Why these three and not the others? The choice of Simon Peter is obvious because the gospels recognize him as the accepted spokes-person for the disciples. He must have had leadership skills, besides being a successful business-man with his brother Andrew in the fishing industry on the Sea of Galilee. More importantly, Peter would be chief witness to the resurrection of Jesus, as is emphatically recognized in Luke’s Acts of Apostles. James and John were probably late teenagers and blood relatives of Jesus. He showed special care for these two enthusiasts. Also, James became the first of the Twelve to die for his witness to the resurrection of Jesus, while John became the witnessing companion of Simon Peter, again according to Acts of Apostles. These three would also be separated from the other disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. There they would witness the humanity of Jesus in utter humiliation. At the transfiguration they would see his divinity in triumph. The two events are connected. The transfiguration was to strengthen them to witness the humiliation.
“And he was transfigured in their presence. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” The Greek verb Matthew uses for transfiguration is the origin of our English word metamorphosis, a word indicating a profound change, a different form. In this case, a glor-ified body, similar to the later resurrected body of Jesus, no longer subject to the laws of physics.
St. Paul speaks of the resurrected body as a “spiritual body,” which seems a contradiction in terms. But who are we to understand the realities of the world beyond this world? “White” and “light” are stock phrases used in human attempts to understand or describe the great beyond. The gospels surely intended the transfiguration of Jesus to be a preview of his resurrection. Recall that in his passion predictions, Jesus spoke not only of his suffering and death, but also of his resurrection.
The next feature in this story: “And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.” Curiosity prompts the question, “What did they discuss?” Luke senses the absence of the subject of discussion, and supplies a content, “They spoke of his exodus (departure) which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” If that was so, then we can conclude that the catechesis intended by the appearance of Moses and Elijah was this – that everything that was to befall Jesus in Jerusalem, his suffering, death, resurrection, were in harmony with Torah and Prophets, the two main divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures. Moses was thought to have authored the Torah,
(the first five books of our Bible), while Elijah represented the second division, the Prophets.
Simon Peter, as usual, has something to say. “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.’”
For lack of a better interpretation of Peter’s “tents,” perhaps it is best to go along with the common interpretation. Peter’s statement refers to a joyful autumn harvest celebration when the Israelites lived in outdoor booths, huts, tents, made of leafy branches to commemorate their dwelling in tents during the Exodus from Egypt. Nothing came of Peter’s generous offer. “While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them. Then from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.’” Lots of Old Testament in that heavenly voice, and therefore lots of catechesis. “Beloved son” recalls the near sacrifice by Abraham of his son Isaac. There the Lord spoke to Abram, “Take your son..., your beloved son…, offer him as a holocaust, etc.” The catechesis is this, as expressed in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….”
“With whom I am well pleased.” Words lifted out of Isaiah 42:1, the first of four poems called the Songs of the Servant of the Lord.” These poems describe a Servant of the Lord who died at the hands of his own people. He took upon himself the sins of his people and “with his stripes we are healed” – thus a vicarious death, a death for others. “Listen to him” refers to Deut. 18:15-18, where Moses tells the Israelites that God would raise up a prophet like himself, and “Listen to him!” Thus the heavenly voice proclaims Jesus Son of God in sacrificial terms, the Suffering Servant of God of Isaiah, and the new Moses or “prophet like Moses.” To what must Jesus’ disciples listen? Back to the context: the prediction of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, and the warning that those who follow him may be asked to undergo their own suffering to arrive at the glory of the resurrection. “Those who choose to follow behind me, let them take up their cross and follow me,” Matthew 16:24.