Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone by themselves. There in their presence he was transfigured: his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them. Elijah appeared to them with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. Then Peter spoke to Jesus: ‘Rabbi,’ he said ‘it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say; they were so frightened. And a cloud came, covering them in shadow; and there came a voice from the cloud, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.’ Then suddenly, when they looked round, they saw no one with them any more but only Jesus.
As they came down from the mountain he warned them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They observed the warning faithfully, though among themselves they discussed what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean.
I was visiting six year old Ciara in Crumlin Children’s Hospital recently. In that setting one can’t help being aware of the burden of grief and anxiety being carried by parents. It shows in their faces and in the way their bodies move as they sit by the bedside of very sick children. Instinctively, you feel that they would gladly give their own lives for their children.
In the account of the Transfiguration from the gospel of St Mark, Jesus invites Peter, James and John to climb a high mountain with him. What happens next is quite unexpected. At the summit, Jesus is literally transfigured as though he has been lit up from within. There he is speaking with Moses and the great prophet Ezechiel before a cloud descends and a voice is heard. In this defining moment, his frightened followers hear Jesus being named as the Father’s beloved son.
St Paul’s observation on this unique relationship is this; if God would give us his Son to lead us into the fullness of life there is nothing he would refuse us. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son’.
When it comes to Jesus’ death on the cross, it has always been important how we try to express what it means. Firstly, Jesus’ death fits into the mystery of innocent suffering. But we have also learned to say that Jesus died for our sins. Using Old Testament imagery the first theologians described him in that way as the lamb that was sacrificed or as the scapegoat chased out into the wilderness with the sins of the people on its back.
But there is something more to be said. It is this. According to St Francis de Sales and many others, the very intimacy of the Father and Son means that in the death of Jesus the Father’s love for us and for all creation is revealed. God is not an outsider looking on but is deeply involved, beyond our imagining, in Jesus’ self-sacrificing love for his friends. ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only Son.’
On top of a mountain the story of who we are unfolds. We too, are the beloved of God. We know ourselves best when we can accept that every child is a child of God and indeed, for the Creator, every lamb is a lamb of God! The love story of Father, Son and Spirit goes on and we are blessed to be part of that amazing story.
Download text of reflection in PDF: Second Sunday of Lent – Year B
Only six days after Peter’s confession of faith (Mk 8, 27), Jesus took three of the disciples up the mountain with him. By selecting these three Jesus showed a preference, not so much over the people in general, but over the rest of the group of disciples. They were privileged to be present at an extraordinary event, the transfiguration of Jesus through a special intervention of God. The visionaries saw only what God allowed them to see – they saw only Jesus. They saw him in a different light beyond what they were accustomed to. Jesus, whom they had been following, was now revealed to them as divine, to their great amazement.
The episode is narrated swiftly. The miraculous sign is not what is important even though it is related first (Mk 9, 2-4). The transfiguration of Jesus gives way to an ongoing dialogue presented in three acts, with different participants, and each with a different topic. The experience is unique during all the time of their discipleship. What is important is not so much the vision they saw but the dialogue they heard.
In the first scene (Mk 9, 4-6), the disciples are present for Jesus’ conversation with Elijah and Moses, and they ask for the experience to be perpetuated (Mk 9,5). The second scene is dominated by the unexpected appearance of the cloud and the voice that broke the quiet of the vision (Mk 9, 7-8). The disciples pass from contemplating Jesus to listening to God who introduces himself as the Loving Father (Mk 9,7b). When they have heard the voice of God, the vision disappears. In the third scene, Jesus and his disciples are brought back somewhat abruptly to normality (Mk 9, 9-11). Jesus warns them not to tell anyone what they have seen, and the writer adds a comment to the effect that they were confused at what Jesus had just told them.
The disciples’ vision is described with realism. The whiteness of the garment is the first change they noticed in Jesus. Mark says nothing about the radiance of his face (cf. Mt 17, 2; Lk 9,29) but remarks on the extraordinary whiteness of his garment, a heavenly whiteness that completely surrounds Jesus (cf Mk 16,5; Acts 1,10). He emphasizes the exceptional nature of the event with simplicity: no human hand could have produced so white a garment. In apocalyptic symbolism, white garments are an image of a life that has been restored and is incorruptible (cf Dan 10,5; Apoc 3,4; 7,9; 2 Cor 5,4). What the disciples are admiring is not of human origin. Mark insists on the change that has taken place in Jesus without saying what caused it. He leaves it to the reader to understand that the change is a gift from God. This experience of Jesus in glory is a manifestation of the future exaltation of Jesus. The disciples are given a brief glimpse of what will be in the future. Even now, at the beginning of the journey towards Jerusalem, they see how it will end.
The visionaries’ horizon widens. Now they see Elijah and Moses in conversation with Jesus. The apparition is not the work of their ordinary human faculties. The term used is a technical one to describe a resurrection experience (1 Cor 15,5; Lk 24,34) or an apparition of angels (Lk 1,11; 22,43; Acts 7,30). They are allowed to see Jesus in the company of two men of God (Exod 34, 29.35), two friends of God who had not known death. Jesus appears before their eyes as belonging to the world of God, in the company of those who have conquered death. There is no reference to the content of their conversation (as there is in Lk 9.31). The mere fact of the conversation is all that matters. Moses as a leader is a prototype of Jesus, and Elijah his precursor (Mal 3, 23-24). They accompany Jesus, the man of God, as he is revealed to his disciples.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
This gospel records a moment which is unique and central in the life of Jesus, the moment when his true identity is revealed to his closest friends. Maybe we envy those disciples who saw Jesus in such convincing manner, totally resplendent, a prophet among prophets, the beloved Son of God. It would be easy to follow a Jesus so clearly divine. It would not be hard to remain seduced by such a Jesus. Everything would be fine if only we could see Jesus like that, and we would want to stay with him forever as Peter did, even if it meant living without a roof over our heads. Why, then, are we not more enthusiastic about Jesus? Is it because he is not transfigured also in our presence?
Maybe we should acknowledge that we have never seen Jesus in such dazzling form. We have not had the experience of being close to him as Lord and as Son of God. We might deceive ourselves into thinking that one day he will reveal himself to us in similar spectacular fashion, all powerful and yet close at hand, wonderful Master and beloved Son of God, compared to whom everything else and everybody else are of no significance, and with whom all our troubles disappear. As we prepare for the day when he will let us see him as he really is, we can learn from the chosen disciples the prior condition and the necessary consequence of such a revelation.
Jesus took with him the disciples who had been following him from the beginning, men who had put their trust in him, and he led them to a place apart, on a mountain. In this action of Jesus we find the prerequisite for seeing him transfigured. Jesus did not appear in glory to strangers but to those who had seen him every day, walking, sleeping, eating, preaching praying and resting. The familiarity they acquired through living with him day by day, was not an obstacle to their recognising his true identity. Quite the opposite! It is only faithful disciples of Jesus who receive the surprise of discovering who Jesus really is. It is not that he is not transfigured enough, or not divine enough, to surprise us one day. Rather it is that he does not find disciples capable of renouncing everything and putting him before all else, so that he can reveal himself to them as he really is – wonderful Master and beloved Son of God.
The disciple of Jesus, precisely because he is used to being with him, should be open to being surprised continually. Anyone who does not marvel at him, and fear him, and does not wish to be alone with him, is not a disciple worthy of his trust, and does not merit intimacy with him. If we are among those unfortunate disciples who do not decide to go up the mountain alone with Jesus, we can at least offer ourselves to him today as volunteers who want to go with him wherever he wants to lead us. It is there that he will reveal himself to us, as wonderful Master and beloved Son of God. And this will be enough for us, as it was enough for Peter. We will forget the efforts we have had to make, and the suffering endured, the weakness of our profession of faith, and even the rebuke we have received from Jesus. Seeing him as he really is will be enough to make us happy, and we will not worry about the sacrifices we have had to make. Seeing him as he really is will make us generous, and we will try harder to pay attention to him and not to ourselves.
The obvious consequence of our meeting with him will be hearing the voice of God telling us to listen to him, above all else. Everything else we see or hear will be less important. When we discover Jesus, we discover the obligation to please him, to follow him, and to obey him. Jesus becomes the only point of reference of the disciple who has seen him as he really is. Anyone who becomes really enthusiastic about him even once, remains enthusiastic forever. We cannot reduce our Christian living to listening to his Word once a week. God himself has imposed directly on the disciples the obligation to listen always to his beloved Son. Anyone who wants to stay with Jesus must listen always. There is no other way that he can be transformed into that fascinating figure that Peter and the other two disciples saw.
We need to ask ourselves, then, is it not precisely because we are not faithful to Jesus, because we do not follow him wherever he goes, because we do not listen only to his word, that he has not yet appeared to us as he really is, the Son of God. If we listen to what he tells us, we will discover him near at hand in all his glory, and we will want to make an appointment with him. Anyone who listens to him knows that with him all will be well, and he will have no need of anything else. Anyone who sees him transfigured will have time for nothing else but to contemplate him. Christ is loving towards those who obey him, and a wonderful Master to all who serve him. It is not hard to see why we do not yet follow him – it is because we are not yet among those he has chosen to reveal himself to in all his glory. If we do not make an effort to be with him, it is because we are distracted in following him.
Let’s not fool ourselves! This experience of seeing Jesus as he really is, lasts only for a short time. “And suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only,” and they came down the mountain with him. These beautiful experiences with Jesus are real, but they are rare, profound and brief. They happen, certainly, but they do not last long. It is in their daily relationship with Jesus, in the ordinary everyday doubts and difficulties that the disciples learn to listen to his voice. Faith lives and grows through doubt. Fidelity is proved when temptation or betrayal are possible. The disciples who saw Jesus transfigured returned immediately to see him as they had always seen him. But they knew that at any time they might see him again as the Son of God in all his glory as he really was. They knew this and they listened to him always. May we also listen to him, and give him all our attention, and respond to his demands. Then we too, one day, will experience the marvel that Jesus is for all who follow him and obey him. May we desire him always as we continue to obey him, and the day will come when we will contemplate him as Son of God.