Aug 6, 2021: Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord (B)

Introduction

According to explicit accounts in the three synoptic gospels (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36), the Apostles Peter, James, and John witnessed an unveiling of the divine glory of Christ, and the appearance with him of Moses and Elijah. This event has come to be called the Transfiguration on the basis of the scriptural report, “He was transfigured before them.”

According to tradition, the transfiguration occurred on Mount Tabor, but some believe it may have taken place on Mount Hermon or even on the Mount of Olives. There are no Old Testament parallels for this event, the closest being Moses’ face shining after he had visited with God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35). The Feast of the Transfiguration became widespread in the West in the 11th century and was introduced into the Roman calendar in 1457.

In 2002, Pope John Paul II selected the Transfiguration as one of the five Luminous Mysteries of the rosary.

1st Reading – Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

As I watched:
thrones were set up
and the Ancient One took his throne.
His clothing was bright as snow,
and the hair on his head as white as wool;
his throne was flames of fire,
with wheels of burning fire.
A surging stream of fire
flowed out from where he sat;
thousands upon thousands were ministering to him,
and myriads upon myriads attended him.
The court was convened and the books were opened.

As the visions during the night continued, I saw:
One like a Son of man coming,
on the clouds of heaven;
when he reached the Ancient One
and was presented before him,
the one like a Son of man received dominion, glory, and kingship;
all peoples, nations, and languages serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed.

In today’s gospel reading, Mark tells us that Jesus “charged [his disciples] not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Today’s first reading is the passage from Daniel to which Jesus is alluding when he calls himself the Son of Man.

Daniel is describing a vision of the heavenly court, the first of four apocalyptic visions. Everything about this vision bespeaks revelation, yet it is symbolic, with all the ambiguous traits of a symbol.

As I watched: thrones were set up and the Ancient One took his throne.

The vision comprises two scenes, both of which take place in the throne room. The two major figures are the Ancient One and the one like a Son of Man.

The name given this first heavenly being is telling: “Ancient One” implies both eternity and great wisdom. Being enthroned in the heavens presumes that the Ancient One rules wisely over all that is. Clearly this is a reference to God, who has endured and will continue to endure. God is everlasting.

His clothing was bright as snow,

White clothing implies purity and luminosity. Since exquisite white linen was often worn by kings, here it might also be an indication of royal raiment.

This snow bright clothing will also occur in our gospel reading.

and the hair on his head as white as wool;

White hair is a symbol of the age and wisdom of this ruler. It reinforces the notion of eternity.

his throne was flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire. A surging stream of fire flowed out from where he sat;

The throne of the Ancient One is made of fire. Fire is a traditional symbol to describe the presence of God.

thousands upon thousands were ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads attended him.

Only the Ancient One was seated, an honor reserved for rulers. Presumably the throngs that attend him are standing around the throne, as is the practice with all royalty.

The throne itself is reminiscent of the fiery chariot in Ezekiel’s apocalyptic vision (Ezekial 1:15-21). Flames of fire suggest a divine theophany (Exodus 19:18).

The court was convened and the books were opened.

Judgment time has arrived.

The books contain all the actions of humankind (Exodus 32:32, Jeremiah 17:1, Malachi 3:16, Psalm 56:8, Revelation 20:12).

At creation, according to Near Eastern mythology, the destinies of the nations were written in books which were then sealed and kept secret. Only at the end of time would these seals be broken and the fates of all revealed (Revelation 5-9).

As the visions during the night continued,

Visions and dreams were thought to be avenues of divine revelation. The seer is on earth, but the vision itself takes place in heaven.

The Book of Daniel is an example of apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature always had the same audience and the same theme: the audience was people experiencing persecution, and the theme was an admonition to maintain hope because God is faithful. The author is assuring the persecuted people that God will judge their enemies and send someone to save them. The end time, that is, the end of their persecution, is near.

The next section of the reading describes the person who will come to save them.

I saw: One like a son of man coming,

What is translated here as “one like a son of man” is literally “one in human form,” or “son of weak man” (in Aramaic, bar enash).  Of itself, this denotes a limited human being. However, this figure is not really a human; he only resembles a son of man.

Daniel later indicates that this human-like one symbolizes the vindication of the “holy people of the Most High,” the suffering people (Daniel 7:27).

on the clouds of heaven;

The Son of Man is described in mythic and royal tones, beginning with the fact that he comes on the “clouds of heaven.”  Clouds are the most frequent accompaniment of a theophany, or revelation of God (Exodus 13:21, 19:9; Matthew 17:5). He has been raised up by God while also sharing the human condition.

when he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him,

He is presented before God in the manner of courtly decorum, where one would not simply approach a ruler but would be presented by an attendant.

He received dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him.

The mysterious figure is installed by God as ruler over the entire universe. The authority and dominion belonging to other nations are handed over to him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed.

Unlike other kingdoms that rise and fall, this kingdom will last forever. Note that this dominion was not attained by military conquest or political alliance, but rather was granted by God.

The “one like a son of man” may have been in heaven when he received his commission, he may even rule from some exalted place in the heavens, but his kingdom belongs to the earth.

When Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, he is alluding to this passage of Daniel. He is acknowledging that he is the expected Messiah, the one whom God has sent to save the people.

2nd Reading – 2 Peter 1:16-19

Beloved:
We did not follow cleverly devised myths
when we made known to you
the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For he received honor and glory from God the Father
when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory,
“This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven
while we were with him on the holy mountain.
Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.
You will do well to be attentive to it,
as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

Our second reading today seems to have a bit of a defensive tone. The authenticity of the gospel message preached by the author appears to have come under attack, and he counters with two arguments. One of those arguments is that Peter himself was an eyewitness to the Transfiguration.

Beloved: We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,

“The power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” refers to Christ’s return at the end of time (the parousia), which the apostles believed was imminent.

The extraordinary, even incomprehensible, character of this event has led some to denounce it as myth. One can almost hear them exclaim: That could never happen!

but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.

The author counters the denunciation by asserting that he had been an eyewitness to the power and majesty of Christ. The event of which he is speaking is the transfiguration of Jesus.

The word translated here as “majesty” is megaleiótōs, denoting a wondrous manifestation of divine glory.

For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.

Those who were with Jesus on the mountain were witnesses both to his glory and to God’s affirmation of him. Today the whole church recalls this event that Peter, James, and John witnessed. At the time the event occurred, the disciples could not understand its significance and meaning. For them, the Transfiguration was a foreshadowing of a truth they would understand only after the resurrection.

Because we, like the audience of this letter, live after the resurrection, we understand the meaning of the Transfiguration: Jesus is the Son of Man, the king over all the earth. Every nation on earth should adore him.

Moreover, if Jesus could have been so transformed during his lifetime, surely this same Lord can return in the same glory.

Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.

The second argument the author makes is an appeal to the Scriptures; specifically, the prophetic message that foretold the coming of the Messiah.

The Christians inherited these Scriptures from the Jewish community, and they held them in the same esteem as the inspired word of God.

You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, 

The prophetic words acted as beacons in the darkness, guiding the people through trial and doubt.

If the detractors will not believe the testimony of the eyewitnesses, they should at least accept the reliability of these sacred words.

until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

Two very powerful metaphors are used to describe the parousia of the Lord, both of which characterize it as the coming of light out of darkness. They are the dawning of the day, the eschatological day of fulfillment, and the rising of the morning star.

The latter image recalls the messianic prophecy spoken by the Moabite prophet Balaam: “A star shall come out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17). The Christian community placed the fulfillment of this prophecy on the lips of Jesus: “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16). The Scriptures themselves bear witness to the veracity of the gospel message.

Gospel – Mark 9:2-10

Jesus took Peter, James, and John
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses,
and they were conversing with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;
from the cloud came a voice,
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone
but Jesus alone with them.

As they were coming down from the mountain,
he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what rising from the dead meant.

Today’s gospel reading is the familiar account of the transfiguration, an event which is reported in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36) and is alluded to in John (1:14).

The story knits together traditions of Israel’s past, insights into Jesus’ identity, and a glimpse into the future of eschatological fulfillment.

The event takes place a little less than one year before Jesus’ death.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John

These three are privileged to witness this event and seem to form an inner circle. They were also the only apostles present for the healing of Jairus’ daughter and at Gethsemane.

Their presence makes this a historical event, not a celestial one.

and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.

Mark and Matthew’s accounts don’t tell us why he went up the mountain, but Luke tells us that he went there to pray. In all three gospel accounts, Jesus has just given the disciples the first prediction of his coming passion and told them the conditions for discipleship. Each gospel writer tells us that it was some days after that (six in Mark and Matthew, eight in Luke) that the Transfiguration occurred.

In Hebrew tradition, mountains were the traditional settings for supernatural revelations and theophanies. Suggested identifications of the mountain are Harmon and Tabor; the actual location is unknown and is largely unimportant.

And he was transfigured before them,

The Greek word used here, metamorphóō literally means “to change form.”

Many religious traditions believe that gods can easily change into different forms. Various schools of mysticism maintain that human beings and certain animals as well can change their forms. In Jewish apocalyptic hope, the righteous will take on a glorious new heavenly form.

and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.

White garments are the traditional dress of heavenly beings. Although this account emphasizes the new brilliance of Jesus’ clothing, it is he who was transfigured. Matthew’s account adds that “his face shone like the sun.”

This is a glimpse of Jesus in his true glorified state.

Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus.

Together, these men represent the basis of Israel’s tradition: the law and the prophets, respectively.

Both of them are associated with mountains (Sinai in Exodus 19; Horeb in 1 Kings 19), and both underwent a kind of transformation (Moses’ face was made radiant in Exodus 34:29-35; Elijah was transported in a fiery chariot in 2 Kings 2:11).

Some commentators see their witness here as the fulfillment of what Moses and Elijah represent and foretell.

Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.

Peter’s plea for permission to set up three tents recalls the Feast of Tabernacles, when the Jews remembered the temporary dwellings in which they lived during their sojourn in the wilderness. By the time of Jesus, the feast had taken on messianic undertones (see Zechariah 14:16-19). This makes sense, given that Peter has already made his confession that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 8:27-30).

There is also a pragmatic angle to Peter’s statement. A person who is going to stay to well with the people needs a tent. To put up three tents implies that Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are three teachers who will continue to dwell with the people.

Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;

In the Old Testament theophanies (and also at the Annunciation) a cloud is a representation of God and the overshadowing denotes occupation or indwelling.

“It seems to me that this cloud is the grace of the Holy Spirit. Naturally, a tent gives shelter and overshadows those who are within; the cloud, therefore, serves the purpose of the tents. O Peter, you who want to set up three tents, have regard for the one tent of the Holy Spirit who shelters us equally” (Saint Jerome, Homily 80).

then from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”

The words from the cloud are both clear and cryptic. Jesus is identified as the beloved Son, reminiscent of Isaac, who was also a beloved son (Genesis 22:2).

It’s unclear whether the directive to “listen to him” should be understood in a general sense, or specifically refer to the words he has for them on the way down the mountain. Regardless, we should put the emphasis on “him”: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”  

Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.

After the voice instructs them to listen to Jesus, they suddenly are left with Jesus alone. Jesus fulfills both the law and the prophets. Moses and Elijah won’t need tents.

As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Unlike other commands to silence in Mark, this one has a special time limit: Christ’s resurrection. His directive to tell no one reminds them, especially Peter, that Jesus’ debasement must precede his glorification, which is prefigured in his transfiguration.

It may be that this experience was intended to prepare the inner circle of disciples for the unthinkable suffering and death that they would soon witness, in order to strengthen them in advance.

Remember, although only Jesus was transformed and only he spoke with the apparitions, the disciples were caught up in the experience as well. They beheld the transfigured Jesus, they saw Moses and Elijah, they were overshadowed by the cloud, and the voice spoke directly to them.

So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.

The disciples clearly did not understand what Jesus meant. How could Jesus be raised from the dead before and apart from the general resurrection, which was to occur at the coming of God’s kingdom?

This is an important reason that underlies Jesus’ mandate of silence: they should not talk about what they do not yet themselves understand. After Jesus rises from the dead, they will understand this experience; until then, they should remain silent.

Connections and Themes

In the midst of Ordinary Time, we are invited to join Peter, James, and John as they behold the transfiguration of Christ. The white light that shone from Christ was but a mere suggestion of the divine splendor that is beyond human comprehension.

Transfiguration.  The transfiguration of Christ was not a simple metamorphosis. Christ was not changed from a terrestrial human being to a celestial divine one. Rather his transfiguration was a moment in time when the divine glory he had always possessed broke through the humanity and shone with a brilliance that was blinding. Nothing could prepare the apostles for this experience, and there was no way to describe it except with cosmic imagery. The brightest light flashed forth from his countenance, like the birth of a new star.  His hair, his garments, everything about him shone like the sun. Moses and Elijah stood as witnesses to his glory, and the voice of God confirmed his divinity. It is no wonder the apostles fell prostrate.

Eyewitnesses.  Who would believe such an explosion of power and might would have taken place? We sing of this glory time and again in the psalms. We proclaim that nothing can stand before the splendor of the LORD; even mountains melt like wax. Yet when it really appears, we can hardly believe it ourselves. The readings outline three moments when this glory was revealed:

  • The first is Daniel’s vision of the throne room in heaven. In that scene, it is the Ancient One who shines forth with indescribable radiance.
  • The second is the scene of the transfiguration itself.
  • The third is hidden in the testimony of the author of the letter of Peter. The pseudonymous author of the letter was probably a second-generation Christian who may or may not have shared in the actual vision of the transfigured Lord, but who was a witness to faith in his divine glory.

The splendor of God is manifested in each generation of believers.

We possess the prophetic message.  We are the ones who today possess the prophetic message; we are the present-day eyewitnesses of Christ’s majesty. We too have moments when we might behold his glory and hear the voice proclaiming his identity, but we need eyes of faith and ears that are open. We really never know when God will choose to reveal a glimpse of divine glory. The disciples probably thought Jesus was merely taking them up a mountain to pray, as he had done on other occasions. Like them, all we can do is follow Jesus and open ourselves to whatever God has in store for us.

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