Witness of the Transfiguration
Homily for March 12, 2017 2nd Sunday Lent - A
by Dcn. Bob Bonomi
Today’s Gospel is about the Transfiguration of Jesus, and it is recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels – that’s Matthew, Mark and Luke. (John’s Gospel doesn’t include it.) St. Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration seems to me to be rather anti-climactic:
• Jesus takes three of His disciples up a high mountain.
• His appearance “changes” and begins to glow before them.
• Two other people appear and talk with Him.
• Peter wants to set up three booths.
• Something scary happens – God the Father speaks.
• Then it is all over. Jesus returns to normal and down the mountain they go, with orders not to tell anyone about what happened.
All three Gospels contain the above brief series of events. It’s only in St. Luke’s version that we get a few more details, such as:
• Jesus went up the mountain to pray.
• Peter, James and John fell asleep. (Ever notice how these same three guys, the leadership of the 12, usually seem to fall asleep just before something significant happens?), and
• How the discussion between Jesus, Moses and Elijah was about what would happen to Jesus in Jerusalem.
Since, the overall story of the Transfiguration is pretty brief compared to the significance of the event, so let’s look at it a little more closely.
First, what do we mean by “transfiguration”? A dictionary definition would say that to transfigure something is to “give it a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance”, or to “transform something outwardly and usually for the better”.
St. Luke doesn’t even use the word “transfigure”. Instead he only describes what happens to Jesus - His face changes and His clothes glow white.
But in both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels the Greek word that they use is “metamorphoo”, which is where we get the word “metamorphosis”.
It means a more fundamental change, as in what happens when a caterpillar changes into a beautiful butterfly. It’s still the same creature – but the transformation is more – structural? – as the caterpillar reaches its intended, ultimate destiny – a butterfly. And although Jesus’ Transfiguration is a temporary change here, it is a prelude to the change He will go through at the Resurrection – and the ultimate destiny we will one day experience. I'll come back to that in a minute.
As Jesus’ appearance changes, two additional people, identified as Moses and Elijah, appear. How did Peter, James and John know for certain that it was those two? As one person said to me last week, “It wasn’t as if they could look up their pictures in a high school annual or a picture directory.” I’d say that Jesus told them.
But, in Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah we see a second “transfiguration” – the metamorphosis of the Old Covenant – the Law, represented by Moses, and Prophetic visions represented by Elijah – into the New Covenant of Grace, Love and Mercy represented by Jesus. Jesus came to fulfill the law, not eliminate it; it is transfigured from the old into the new through Jesus.
So, if the Transfiguration event here reflected a temporary change in the appearance of Jesus in front of His disciples and the future change in God’s covenant with His people - both historical events from our perspective - why do we reflect on the Transfiguration today?
Because it is through that momentary glimpse of Jesus’ future glory that we see the promise of our own future. We see this in the letters of the New Testament:
• In the first letter of St. John: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 Jn 3:2)
• St. Paul to the Philippians: “He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.” (Phil 3:21),
• And to the Corinthians: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual one.” (1 Cor 15:44) and “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.” (1 Cor 15:49)
We are destined for our own ultimate Transfiguration, the metamorphosis of our earthly bodies into something exalted; something better than we are now – heavenly beings with spiritual bodies. Oh yes, we are corporal beings and so we will have bodies – just ones that have been through a metamorphosis.
One last thought. Most of the time, whenever we read about the Transfiguration, we reflect on how we need to change our lives or be transfigured today, especially during this time of Lent. But do we pay any attention to the transfiguration events of those who are around us? We witness them through those people who live holy and exemplary lives; we see them in the “aha!” moments of those who experience a sudden encounter with the Risen Christ at a retreat or in the sacraments; and we witness them in the many miracles of life that we encounter daily. Like Peter, James and John, God allows us to witness these moments of His Glory to prepare ourselves and to help sustain us as we continue on our own road to Jerusalem, for we too have our crosses to bear. And like the disciples in the Gospel, we should be aware of how quickly the “flash bulb” effect of such an event can wear off, returning us to our daily routine.
The Transfiguration and the other signs Jesus did were meant to help prepare His disciples for the uncertainty they would face during Jesus’ passion and death, and to give them the hope needed to carry them through to His Resurrection, His Ascension, and beyond. Let Jesus' transfiguration and the transfigurations that we witness in our own lives strengthen us for our own trials, knowing that despite whatever flaws or ills we suffer now, we too will one day, like the caterpillar and the butterfly, experience an ultimate metamorphosis of our own – a Transfiguration to become something spiritually exalted.
That is our hope. That is our faith. That is God's promise.