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The Transfiguration of Jesus (Part III)

(by Lino Cignelli, ofm - translated by Fr. Silas Musholt, ofm)

3. Reading and commentary on Mt 17, 1-9.

From the context we now move on to the text. Things being as they are, we limit ourselves to the main data, and stick as closely as possible to the letter.

17,1. "Six days after (the first proclamation of His Passion) Jesus took (literally takes) with Him Peter, James and John his brother, and led (literally leads) them apart on a high mountain."

The historical present ("takes", "leads") makes it more vivid and thus arouses in the listeners interest and participation in the salvific event which is being proclaimed. "Peter, James and John" are the favored apostles, and, to use an expression of Dante (Par 25, 33), "more beloved" by Jesus. The Lord gives and is given "to each one according to his own capacity." (Mt 25, 15). "On a high mountain" according to tradition, the high mountain is Tabor, as we mentioned in the beginning (see M.T. Petrozzi, Mount Tabor and surroundings., Jerusalem 1976, 73ff). In the Bible a mountain "is the classical place of divine self-revelation and prayer (Lk 6, 12; Mt 14, 23;)" says J. Ernest (Il Vangelo seconda Luca I, Morcellania 1985, 416).

17,2. "And he was transfigured before them: His face shown like the sun and His clothing became white as light." St. Luke adds a significant detail: "while he prayed" (9, 29). Prayer is transforming, the source of beauty and of divine joy (Ex 34, 29). Sister Amata says of St. Clare of Assisi that "when she came back from prayer her face seemed more white and more beautiful than the sun" (FF, n. 3002).

"He was Transfigured." This is a theological passive. The statement is completed with the presumption that it was accomplished by God (the Father). He is the power-source of the activity, invisible but very much present and involved. The same is true of other saving events which took place during the earthly life of the Son-made-Man (2 Pt 1,17; Jn 8, 29; 12, 28). This scene in the Transfiguration event is a first, visible response of God, the loving Father to the fidelity displayed by His Beloved Son as He foretold and activated for the first time "the message of the cross" (1 Cor 1, 18). The Man Jesus, for only a brief moment, becomes precisely what He will be on that future day and then forever after His Resurrection, "the most outstanding among the sons of mankind" (Ps 45, 3), "prominent among thousands and thousands" and "full of goodness" (Song of Songs 5, 10.16), the perfect image of redeemed humanity in a liberated state and elevated to the divine.

The Transfiguration is an anticipation of the Resurrection in the midst of a most critical moment. The Transfiguration show us at one and the same time both the mercy and the teaching style of our big Brother and indeed of our Heavenly Father: the Father is always supporting the Son (Jn 14, 9ff). They know that we humans neek to feel and see something so that we can love and involve ourselves. So, in this way we have been gifted with a momentary glimpse of paradise. We are permitted a sample-taste, a type of prelude of heaven and so say with St. Paul, "... the sufferings of the present time can not be compared with the future glory that will be revealed in us!" (Rom 8, 18). We unite ourselves to the Poverello of Assisi in saying "I am in anticipation of so much and so great a goodness that I consider all my troubles nothing but a loss!"

17,3. "And suddenly there appeared Moses and Elias who were in conversation with Him." St. Luke tells us what they were talking about, namely "His departure (literally His exodus) which would eventually take Him to Jerusalem" (9, 31) and that is the Paschal Mystery of Jesus. The Fathers of the Church explain that "Moses" symbolizes the Law (Torah)and "Elias" the prophets of the Old Testament. St. Jerome (In Mark 9, 4), and likewise St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Cat. 12, 16) and many others comment that, "the Law and the Prophets whom Jesus came to complete (Mt 5, 17) spoke beforehand about the Passion of Christ."

The Old Testament clearly affirms a Messiah, first suffering, and then glorious (Is 52f; Ps 22)and so is in complete agreement with the prediction of Jesus. Thus the teaching of Jesus cannot be refuted on the basis of the Old Testament. The Paschal Mystery of the Passion and Resurrection, predicted by Jesus not only is not contrary to the Old Testament, but constitutes its essential message (Lk 24, 26f; 1 Cor 15, 3f).

17,4. "Then Peter began speaking and said to Jesus, 'Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish I will put up three tabernacles here, one for You, one for Moses and one for Elias.'" St. Luke also adds "He did not know what he was saying" (9, 33; cf. Mk 9, 6). It is true! The same thing happens to us. Confronted with the sublimity of Jesus we are no more than dwarfs and Gervases...

The Master knows how to pay attention to what is important. So he seems to ignore the promise of Peter. St. Augustine acknowledges that the Apostle "wanted to do well..." but did not yet have pastoral charity (Serm. 78,3f).

17,5. "He was still speaking when a bright cloud covered them over with its shade." The "bright cloud" is a sign of divine presence (Shekenah) and of His glory (Ex 24, 15ff; 34, 5). St. Ambrose,(In Luc. exp. 7, 19) saw in this "cloud" a symbol of the Holy Spirit as did Pope John Paul II (Homily Mar, 11, 1990, n.2). On the basis of this exegesis, the Theophany of Tabor turns out to be a Trinitarian event (cf. Mt 3, 16f).

"And there was a voice which spoke out of the cloud: 'This is my chosen Son, my Favored One, in Whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!'" We are at the very heart of the Mystery. With this interruption of God the Father the Theophany on Tabor reaches its climax, as does also the whole Gospel of St. Matthew. The Greatest Protagonist of the entire Salvation History, the "Father and Lord of heaven and earth" as the Son Himself calls Him (Mt 11, 25), once more breaks into the silence and powerfully forces us to listen. On Tabor God the Father "not only confirms the vocal statement made at the Jordan - This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased (Mt 3, 17), but he adds emphatically Listen to Him!" (Mt 17, 5). That means always! Also when he speaks about the Cross!

There is no doubt that the voice of the Father is the absolute center of the Mystery we are reliving. As we are reminding ourselves, the Transfiguration took place at a most critical moment. The disciples of Jesus, with Peter at the head, react to the announcement of the redemptive Passion, that is, to the true messianism foretold and effected by the Beloved Son. They would like to have the Resurrection, the triumph and the glory, but without the suffering and violent death, more or less like those who are "enemies of the cross Christ." St. Paul flared up against such people, threatening them with eternal "perdition" (Phil 3, 18f). But then God the Father, the supreme authority, intervened to break up all resistence. His "voice" is clear, precise, powerful like a "thunderbolt" (Jn 12, 28f; Ex 19, 19), and allows no reply. The message and example of the Beloved Son must be accepted completely, without excuses and without hesitation, as explained by St. Augustine (On Jn. tr. 34, 8f). A convenient, festive messianism, without strength and responsibility is an absurdity, it is even satanism (Mt 16, 23). God the Father and His beloved Son do not save us in our way, but in Their way, absolute only in Their way!..

This guiding "voice" is always present. The Father makes us hear it every time we veer away from the example and the instructioin of the Beloved Son and begin to give in to abusive teachers who promote a gospel more or less watered down and bent to suit the inclinatioins of the "flesh" or the old man (Gal 5, 19ff). He longs for us to be, and He enrolls us in the school of our big Brother, our Master and only model (Mt 23, 8-10); He wants us to "conform to the image of His Son because He is the first born among many brothers" (Rom 8, 29). It is a duty and even more so a concern for us to accept this kind of a Master and model as St. Leo the Great pointedly observes (Tr. 51, 6f). Indeed, anyone who does not have this single Master will acatually have many and all of them are more or less full of demands and pressures, "thieves and robbers" (Jn 10, 8). Past and present events speak clearly.

17,6. "Upon hearing this, the disciples fell down with their face to the ground and a great fear seized them." Theophany brings on dizziness, cites Origen (Exodus 33, 20 In Matt. tr. 54A, 8).

17,7. "But Jesus came to them and, touching them, said: Get up and have no fear." In the presence of the prostration and terror of the disciples, Jesus showed Himself to be the good and cencerned brother (Cf. Ex 20, 20). St. Jerome underscores this fittingly: "While these were on the ground and could not get up, He carefully came near and touched them. In this fashion, by touching them, He freed them from fear and restored vigor to their weakened members..." (In Math. 17, 7). On the part of Jesus, that was a consoling and healing touch (cf. In Mark, 1, 30f; 8, 22-25).

17,8. "When they raised up their eyes they saw no one except only Jesus." The Theophany had ended. The Master returned to his normal appearance, no longer transfigured and radiant. To use the expression of St. Ambrose (De virg. I, 66), he was simply Himself the "incomparable" the person to whom belongs "everything" (Col 2, 3; 3, 11). Indeed St. Jerome calls Him "our all" (Ep. 66, 8) and praises His charm and His absolute importance, His uniqueness.

17,9. "And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about this vision until the Son of Man had been raised up from the dead." The Transfiguration is closely related to the Resurrection, an example of it given to us beforehand. Jesus, humble and realistic, prohibited the three disciples from making known before its time the vision they were privileged with on Tabor. They "believed and listened to and gave obedience to Christ" is the comment of Eutichios (o.c., n. 323). After this they no longer rejected "the message of the cross" (1 Cor 1, 18), even though, until Pentecost, they could not succeed in bringing it to perfection, as St. Bernard maintains.


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