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His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI
(SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT 2017)
Majestic Mt. Tabor in Galilee serves marvellously to recall for Christian pilgrims the glory revealed to the privileged trio, Peter, James and John. In 1921-4 the Franciscans built the Church there. The site is shared today between the Catholics and the Orthodox Christians. The evangelists did not say on which mountain the event actually took place but from the days of Origen and St Jerome Mt.Tabor has been accepted as the mountain referred to in the gospels.
The Importance of the Transfiguration
The major theological point in the transfiguration scene is the manifestation of the identity of Jesus. He is more than Moses, he is more than Elijah; he is God’s beloved Son. This had been said before at his Baptism. But now he is in Glory. The splendour of the divine shines forth in his face and through his garments. The mountain is reminiscent of Mt. Sinai where Moses had received the Law (Ex 24:1ff.); his face too had also been suffused with light (Ex 34:29ff.). But Peter seemingly on Tabor had not understood that Moses and Elijah did not belong to God in the way the Beloved Son does. There was a major difference. Moses and Elijah are there clearly to show the relationship of Jesus to the fundamental revelations in the Old Testament: God had revealed himself through the Law and the Prophets. But now Jesus is the revelation of God in his own person. He is of unique and unparalleled importance. Later on in Matthew’s text, Jesus will correct the teaching of Moses, on the issue of divorce, (Mt 19:9ff.), and he identified Elijah with John the Baptist as already come and rejected (17:13). During the descent from the mountain he tells the three of his forthcoming death. In seeing his glory they had had a foretaste of his resurrection, but the dreadful trauma of his death was still before them. Writing about it the evangelists really criticise the performance of the Twelve, and especially Peter. For their perfor-mance was dreadful. But at least St. Matthew is kinder to Peter than St. Mark; he always is. He had said that on the mountain Peter had wanted to do the will of the Lord: ‘if it is your will I will set up three booths for you’. Mark simply writes that this suggestion showed Peter did not know what he was talking about. We recall that before the transfiguration Jesus himself had called Peter Satan at Caesarea Philippi. This was precisely because Peter refused to think of Jesus being tried, insulted and executed (Mt16:18ff.). But the transfiguration vindicates Peter’s confession of faith; Jesus is the Messiah, and the Son of God…and ultimately the suffering and resurrected Messiah.
St. Matthew certainly wrote his Gospel to give the historical background to the life of Jesus, and to show what it all meant in God’s eyes. He wrote it for instruction for his own community, to help them with their witness to the faith. He stated in the first verse of his gospel that Jesus was the Son of David and the Son of Abraham. With the Baptism and the Transfiguration he is shown to be The Son of God. And it is the voice of The Heavenly Father himself that proclaims this truth. Everything Jesus says and everything he does is as the perfect obedient Son of the Father. This involved suffering and death. The disciples had to learn that the way of the Cross is the way of discipleship. The Lord of Glory will die ignominiously. Matthew would go on to elaborate on how this unfolded. And that after the resurrection all of this experience must be proclaimed as good news, to make disciples of the whole world.
The glory that the disciples experienced on the mountain had seemed incompatible to them with the horrors of which Our Lord spoke. But they remained faithful to their call after the resurrection. The death and resurrection of Jesus had shown them where the true values in life were attested. Faithful love and service that cost everything was what they lived and died for in their own time. “Get up and do not be afraid” was the invitation given to them after the Transfiguration experience. They would have looked back on that experience in time of trouble. We read in the Second Letter of Peter: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.…..we were with him on the holy mountain…” (2 Pt 1:5-7; 16-19).
These days the Christians in Iraq and Syria, and the Copts in Egypt know all about suffering merely for bearing the name of Jesus. Their beautiful churches and shrines are systematically destroyed. One of the aspects so important to recall about the Transfiguration is its attestation of beauty, described as glory, when the humanity of Jesus appears manifesting the splendour of God, eliciting adoration. Peter, James and John fell on their faces. It really was their Jesus in Glory. The goodness of created humanity mediated the glorious majesty of God. Suffering later could for a time obscure this. But creation and redemption belong together. Theirs was no illusion. The crowning glory of creation is humanity relaying perfectly the mysterious unsurpassable glory of God. Watching in the Middle East the shocking destruction of beautiful things by fundamentalist Moslems has us wondering what Bread of Life nourishes them, and what kindly Light guides them. The persecuted Christians are paying a high price for the treasure they carry in earthen vessels and all decent human beings everywhere are in sympathy with them.
The three apostles had been given a glimpse of heaven. That helped their vocations on earth as disciples of the Crucified Master on his way to Final Glory, his resurrection. Beauty had not left the world because it could be obscured by so much suffering. Often when people suffer greatly they still radiate peace with gratitude. They can still say: ‘it is good for us to be here’. Christian hope is founded on faith and love. Lent helps us to keep perspective, always so grateful to those who bear their suffering with such kindness and affection; they help us so much to bear our sorrows too. A happy Sunday to you all. Amen.
Fr Richard J.Taylor
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK