A Tale of Two Mountains: The Transfiguration

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Luke 9:28b-36

The evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke all write of the Transfiguration of our Lord. While they share many aspects of the event, the version from Luke we heard today is distinct in some important ways. Let us begin by briefly considering what they have in common and then see how Luke’s unique perspective deepens that.

All three men place the Transfiguration just after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah and the announcement by our Lord of his upcoming passion. Recognizing this, the Church set the feast of the Transfiguration on August 6, exactly 40 days before the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Thus, the Transfiguration must be understood in light of the paschal mystery and the recognition that Jesus is the Christ.

With this in mind, let us consider the events of the Transfiguration the authors have in common. First, Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John ascend the mountain. Next, Jesus appears in brilliant light, accompanied by Moses and Elijah. Peter begins to speak but the Father’s voice is heard from the cloud, “This is my beloved (chosen) Son. Listen to him.” Finally, Jesus is alone with the apostles again.

These basic facts reveal several things. First, the Transfiguration is the Father’s own confirmation of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of Man as foretold in Daniel. Note that the voice from the cloud does not speak to Jesus but to the apostles. Second, it is at the same time a visible sign of future glory and a foretaste of the beatific vision. Moses and Elijah, alive in the spirit, stand in the presence of Christ, who shines with the bright light of God. Third, it is a consolation to the apostles, who have witnessed hostility, rejection, plots against Jesus, along with no little misunderstanding and confusion on their own part. Finally, it is a sign that the law and the prophets find their ultimate meaning in Christ and therefore in love – both love of God, since Christ went to his death in obedience to the Father’s will, and love of neighbor, since his life was poured out for the many.

jesus-3149505_640What is unique to Luke in the Transfiguration is the dimension of prayer. Only he tells us that Jesus ascended the mountain to pray. Luke properly understands it as a tale of two mountains: On the one, the unnamed mount of Transfiguration, the prayer of Jesus results in a glorious vision, he dazzling white, his face shining, his Father speaking to the apostles awakened. On the other, the mount of Gethsemane, the prayer of Jesus will end in the passion, his face sweating blood, his Father silent, and these same apostles sleeping. Luke is clear: We cannot have the glory of the Transfiguration without the suffering of the cross. In Christ, the two are inextricably bound. What’s more, this is the cost of discipleship; later in Luke Jesus will say, Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27)

Beyond this, the context of prayer adds depth to the experience of the apostles on the mountain and informs our own. Earlier, I mentioned that the vision given to the apostles was a consolation. We too can receive consolations in prayer. Perhaps you recall a time that you have attended Mass, knelt in Adoration, or sat in quiet contemplation and suddenly had a strong if not overwhelming sense of God’s presence. No wonder Peter asked about setting up tents! Our second reading showed how deeply the vision was ingrained in him; we can feel the imagery and power of it in his words years later.

Of course no mountaintop experience lasts forever; sooner or later we have to come down. And we will have our share of desolations as well; times we pray as Jesus did: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Matthew 27:46)? But always, no matter how dark the valley, we also have those most consoling words of Luke after the vision was over: Jesus was found alone (Luke 9:36).

Who could ask for more than the Light of the World?

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