2nd Sunday of Lent – 8th March 2020 – Matthew 17,1-9
Epiphany is about light, about illumination, about revelation
The transfiguration narrative serves as a confirmation of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Son of the living God (16,16) and an anticipation of his resurrection and Parousia. This revelation also contributes as a vehicle for developing the connection betweenglorious Son of God and suffering Son of Man. However, the highlight is that Jesus underwent a unique transformation on top of the mountain before his disciples. Matthew selects two features of this change, the first being that Jesus’ face was shining like the sun. Mark says nothing about Jesus’ face, and Luke tells that while Jesus was praying the appearance of his face ‘became other’; only Matthew speaks of it as shining. Secondly, he goes on to say that Jesus’ clothing became white as the light. The radiant face and splendid appearance in garments show that Jesus belongs to the heavenly or divine world, the world of light (cf. 13,43 of the righteous in heaven; 28,3 of the angel at the tomb).
The transfiguration event recalls God’s presentation of the Torah to Moses in Exodus 24 and 34. The high mountain recalls the heights of Mt. Sinai, where God was manifested to Moses. The description of the countenance of Jesus, “his face like the sun,” evokes the report of the face of Moses, which “shone because he had been talking with God” (Ex 34,29). Paul points out that this “glory” was fading, and he contrasts it with the glory of the new covenant (2 Cor 3,7.11). The mention of Peter, James and John accompanying Jesus reminds the reader of the companion of Moses on the Mountain, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu (Ex 25,1). The interval of six days between Peter’s confession and the transfiguration, and the Father’s voice from the cloud recall the cloud that covered Mt. Sinai for six days and the voice of God that called Moses on the seventh day (Ex 24,16). As Moses and Elijah became part of the vision of the transfigured Jesus, the scene incorporates the full sweep of Israel’s saving history. Moses and Elijah (Mal 4,4-5) represent “the law and the prophets” and Jesus is the final fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hopes, the fulfiller of Law and prophets (5,17). As Moses and Elijah prepared his way, Jesus is preparing Peter, James and John to travel with him to Jerusalem and to continue his way, the journey that leads to the cross.
After confirming that Jesus is indeed his beloved son, God’s voice from the cloud says, “Listen to him”. As Peter, James and John continue the journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, they must keep listening to what Jesus teaches them and live by those teachings. Listen to him – not only when he confirms the joyful revelation of the glorious Messiah and Son of God, but also when he adds the disturbing revelation of the suffering Son of Man. Listen to him as he explains this mystery to you when you descend the mount. Listening to Jesus is the way to follow in his footsteps: i.e., listening to the Word of God that transfigures sinners into forgiven and redeeming people; that transfigures sick and disabled bodies into healed and whole beings; that transfigures bread and wine into his body and blood; that transfigures suffering and death into resurrected life. Matthew skillfully adds that at the sound of the voice the disciples fell on their face, and feared greatly (unique to Matthew). Prostration (falling on the face) is the usual reaction of weak, mortal men to an apocalyptic vision (Dan 8,17; 10,9-11; Rev 1,17). It is characteristically used for taking up a lowly position before God or occasionally before a great man. Certainly, falling down is a sign of humility and devotion. Fear doesn’t always denote a deep reverence before God, but it may also refer to simply being scared. The three disciples were going through an awesome experience; it is not surprising that they were very frightened. The act of Jesus touching and encouraging them (only in Matthew) is witnessed in the above mentioned apocalyptic texts. Matthew has already given examples of the life-giving touch of Jesus (8,3.15; 9,25.29; 20,34) which raises up the sick and the dead and dispels fear. His words reassure that whatever happens next will be in God’s hands, no matter how frightening the circumstances (1,20; 10,26; 28,5.10). The Son of the living God, who gives life to the dead, now raises up his prostrate disciples and delivers them from fear. The distressed disciples were reassured by Jesus’ human touch, which must have been very comforting. They must have realized that the Master was still with them and that he felt for them. Their experience on the mountain had doubtless been wonderful, but they could not have known that he stood in such a close relationship to the heavenly Father, yet also with them.