Sunday, March 4, 2012
The transfiguration of Jesus: the cross on the horizon The passion that leads to glory
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send your Spirit to help us to read the Scriptures with the same mind that you read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the Bible, you helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create in us silence so that we may listen to your voice in Creation and in the Scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples from Emmaus, may experience the force of your resurrection and witness to others that you are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of you, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us your Spirit. Amen.
a) A key to the reading:
On this second Sunday of Lent, the Church meditates on the Transfiguration of Jesus in the presence of the three disciples who joined him on the mountain. The Transfiguration takes place after the first announcement of the death of Jesus (Lk 9:21-22). This announcement had confused the disciples and especially Peter. When we take a close look at the small details, we see that the text describes the transfiguration in a way that makes us aware of how this unusual experience of Jesus was able to help the disciples overcome the crisis in which they found themselves. As we read, let us try to pay attention to the following: "How did the transfiguration take place and what was the reaction of the disciples towards this experience?"
b) A division of the text to help our reading:
Mark 9:2-4: The Transfiguration of Jesus in the presence of his disciples
Mark 9:5-6: Peter’s reaction to the transfiguration
Mark 9:7-8: The voice from heaven that explains the meaning of the Transfiguration
Mark 9:9-10: Keeping secret what they had seen
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain on their own by themselves. There in their presence he was transfigured: 3 his clothes became brilliantly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them. 4 Elijah appeared to them with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus. 5 Then Peter spoke to Jesus, 'Rabbi,' he said, 'it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.' 6 He did not know what to say; they were so frightened. 7 And a cloud came, covering them in shadow; and from the cloud there came a voice, 'This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.' 8 Then suddenly, when they looked round, they saw no one with them any more but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming 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. 10 They observed the warning faithfully, though among themselves they discussed what 'rising from the dead' could mean.
3. A moment of prayerful silence
so that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) Which part of the text did you like most or that touched you most? Why?
b) How does the transfiguration take place and what is the reaction of the disciples to this experience?
c) Why does the text present Jesus with brilliant clothes while he is speaking with Moses and Elijah? Who are Moses and Elijah for Jesus? Who are they for the disciples?
d) What is the message of the voice from heaven for Jesus? And what is the message for the disciples?
e) How can we transfigure, today, our personal and family life and the life of the community in our area?
5. For those who wish to go deeper into the theme
a) The context then and now
The foretelling of the passion sank the disciples into a deep crisis. They lived among the poor, but in their minds they were confused, lost as they were in the propaganda of the government and of the official religion of their time (Mk 8:15). The official religion taught that the Messiah would be glorious and victorious! That is why Peter reacts strongly against the cross (Mk 8:32). Someone condemned to die on the cross could not be the Messiah, rather, according to the Law of God, he had to be considered “cursed by God” (Dt 21:22-23). In these circumstances, the experience of the Transfiguration of Jesus was able to help the disciples overcome the trauma of the Cross. In fact, at the Transfiguration, Jesus appears in glory and speaks with Moses and Elijah of his Passion and Death (Lk 9:31). The journey towards glory, then, is through the cross.
In the 70’s, when Mark is writing his Gospel, the Cross was a great obstacle for the Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah. How could it be that one crucified, one who died as one marginalized, was the great Messiah expected for centuries by the people? The cross was an obstacle to believing in Jesus. "The cross is a scandal," they said (1Cor 1:23). The community did not know how to respond to the critical questions put to them by the Jews. One of the great efforts of the early Christians was that of assisting people to see that the cross was neither scandal nor madness, but rather the expression of the power and wisdom of God (1Cor 1:22-31). Mark’s Gospel contributes to that effort. He uses texts from the Old Testament to describe the scene of the Transfiguration. He shed light on the events of the life of Jesus and shows that Jesus fulfils the prophecies and that the Cross is the way that leads to Glory. It was not just the cross of Jesus that was a problem! In the 70’s, the cross of persecution was part of every-day life for Christians. In fact, just a little time before, Nero had launched his persecution and many died. Today too, many people suffer because they are Christians and because they live the Gospel. How do we approach the cross? What does it mean? With these questions in mind we meditate and comment on the text of the transfiguration.
b) A commentary on the text:
Mark 9:2-4: Jesus looks different.
Jesus goes up a high mountain. Luke adds that he goes there to pray (Lk 9:28). There, on the summit of the mountain, Jesus appears in glory in the presence of Peter, James and John. Together with him appear Moses and Elijah. The high mountain recalls Mount Sinai, where in times past, God had made known his will to the people by presenting the law to Moses. The white clothes of Jesus recall Moses shrouded in light as he speaks to God on the Mountain and as he receives the law from God (cf. Ex 34:29-35). Elijah and Moses, the two great authorities of the Old Testament, speak with Jesus. Moses represents the Law and Elijah the prophets. Luke says that they talked about the Death of Jesus in Jerusalem (Lk 9:31). Thus it was clear that the Old Testament, both the Law and the Prophets, taught that the way to glory is through the cross (Cf Is 53).
Mark 9:5-6: Peter likes what is happening but does not understand.
Peter likes what is going on and wants this pleasing moment on the Mountain to last. He suggests building three tents. Mark says that Peter was afraid and did not know what he was saying, and Luke adds that the disciples were sleepy (Lk 9:32). For them, as it is for us, it is difficult to understand the Cross!
The description of the transfiguration begins with an affirmation: “Six days later”. What six days are these? Some scholars explain this phrase thus: Peter wants to build three tents, because it was the sixth day of the feast of tents. This was a very popular feast of six days that celebrated the gift of the Law of God and the forty years spent in the desert. To recall these forty years, the people had to spend six days in temporary tents. That is why it was called the Feast of the Tents. If they could not celebrate the whole six days, they had to celebrate at least the sixth day. The affirmation "six days later" would then be an allusion to the feast of the tents. That is why Peter recalls the duty of building tents. And spontaneously, he offers himself to build the tents. Thus Jesus, Moses and Elijah would have been able to go on talking.
Mark 9:7: The voice from heaven shed light on the events.
As soon as Jesus is shrouded in glory, a voice from heaven says: "This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!" The expression "Beloved Son" recalls the figure of the Servant Messiah, proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah (cf. Is 42:1). The expression "Listen to him" recalls the prophecy that promised the coming of the new Moses (cf. Dt 18:15). In Jesus, the prophecies of the Old Testament are being fulfilled. The disciples could not doubt this. The Christians of the 70’s could not doubt this. Jesus is truly the glorious Messiah, but the way to glory is through the cross, the second proclamation made in the prophecy of the Servant (Is 53:3-9). The glory of the Transfiguration is proof of this. Moses and Elijah confirm this. The Father is the guarantor of this. Jesus accepts this.
Mark 9:8: Only Jesus and no one else!
Mark says that after the vision, the disciples see only Jesus and no one else. The emphasis on the affirmation that they see only Jesus suggests that from now on Jesus is the only revelation of God for us! For us Christians, Jesus, and only Jesus, is the key to understanding the complete meaning of the Old Testament.
Mark 9: 9-10: Knowing how to keep silent.
Jesus asks his disciples not to say anything to anyone until he would have risen from the dead, but the disciples do not understand him. Indeed, anyone who does not link suffering to the resurrection, does not understand the meaning of the Cross. Jesus is stronger than death.
Mark 9:11-13: The return of the prophet Elijah.
The prophet Malachi had proclaimed that Elijah was to return to prepare the way of the Messiah (Ml 3:23-24). This same proclamation is also found in the book of Ecclesiastes (Ec 48:10). Then, how could Jesus be the Messiah if Elijah had not returned yet? That is why the disciples asked: “Why do the Scribes say that Elijah must come first?” (9:11). Jesus’ reply is clear: “I tell you that Elijah has come and they have treated him as they pleased, just as the scriptures say about him” (9: 13). Jesus was referring to John the Baptist who was murdered by Herod (Mt 17:13).
c) Further information:
i) The Transfiguration: the change that takes place in the practice of Jesus
In the middle of conflicts with the Pharisees and Herodians (Mk 8:11-21), Jesus leaves Galilee and goes to the region of Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8:27), where he begins to prepare his disciples. On the way, he puts a question to them: "Who do people say I am?" (Mk 8:27) After listening to their reply that they considered him the Messiah, Jesus begins to speak of his passion and death (Mk 8:31). Peter reacts: "Heaven preserve you, Lord!" (Mt 16:22). Jesus replies: "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because you are thinking not as God thinks but as human beings do!" (Mk 8:33) This was a moment of crisis for the disciples, who still held on to the thought of a glorious Messiah (Mk 8:32-33; 9:32), not understanding Jesus’ reply and trying to divert it in another direction. It was close to the feast of the Tents, (cf Lk 9:33), when the popular messianic expectation was much stronger than usual. Jesus goes up the mountain to pray (Lk 9:28). He overcomes temptation by prayer. The revelation of the Kingdom was different from that which the people imagined. The victory of the Servant would take place through the death sentence (Is 50:4-9; 53:1-12). The cross appears on the horizon, not just as a possibility, but as a certainty. From this moment on a change takes place in Jesus’ practice. Here are some important signs of this change:
Few miracles. At first there are many miracles. Now, beginning with Mk 8:27; Mt 16:13 and Lk 9:18, miracles are almost an exception in Jesus’ activities.
Proclaiming the Passion. Earlier there was talk of the passion as a remote possibility (Mk 3:6). Now there is constant talk of it (Mk 8:31; 9:9.31; 10:33.38).
Taking up the Cross. Earlier, Jesus proclaimed the imminent coming of the Kingdom. Now he insists on watchfulness, the demands on those who follow him and the necessity to take up one’s cross (Mt 16:24-26; 19:27-30; 24:42-51; 25:1-13; Mk 8:34; 10:28-31; Lk 9:23-26.57-62; 12:8-9.35-48; 14:25-33; 17:33; 18:28-30).
He teaches the disciples. Earlier he taught the people. Now he is more concerned with the formation of his disciples. He asks them to choose again (Jn 6:67) and begins to prepare them for the future mission. He goes out of the city so as to stay with them and busy himself with their formation (Mk 8:27; 9:28. 30-35; 10:10.23.28-32; 11:11).
Different parables. Earlier, the parables revealed the mystery of the Kingdom present in the activities of Jesus. Now the parables tend towards the future judgement, at the end of time: the murderous vine growers (Mt 21:33-46); the merciless servant (Mt 18:23-35), the workers of the eleventh hour (Mt 20:1-16), the two sons (Mt 21:28-32), the wedding banquet (Mt 22:1-14), the ten talents (Mt 25:14-30).
Jesus accepts the will of the Father that is revealed in the new situation and decides to go to Jerusalem (Lk 9:51). He takes this decision with such determination as to frighten his disciples, who cannot understand what is going on (Mk 10:32; Lk 18:31-34). In the society of that time, the proclamation of the Kingdom as Jesus proclaimed it, could not be tolerated. So either he had to change or he had to die! Jesus did not change his proclamation. He continued to be faithful to the Father and to the poor. That is why he was sentenced to death!
ii) The transfiguration and the return of the prophet Elijah
In Mark’s Gospel, the scene of the transfiguration is linked to the question of the return of the prophet Elijah (Mk 9:9-13). In those days, people expected the return of the prophet Elijah and were not aware that Elijah had already returned in the person of John the Baptist (Mk 9:13). The same thing happens today. Many people live in expectation of the return of Jesus and even write on the walls of cities: Jesus will return! They are not aware that Jesus is already present in our lives. Every now and then, like an unexpected flash of lightning, this presence of Jesus breaks out and shines, transforming our lives. A question that each one us should ask is: Has my faith in Jesus offered me a moment of transfiguration and intense joy? How have such moments of joy given me strength in moments of difficulties?
6. The prayer of a Psalm: Psalm 27 (26)
The Lord is my light
Yahweh is my light and my salvation,
whom should I fear?
Yahweh is the fortress of my life,
whom should I dread?
When the wicked advance against me to eat me up,
they, my opponents, my enemies,
are the ones who stumble and fall.
Though an army pitch camp against me,
my heart will not fear,
though war break out against me,
my trust will never be shaken.
One thing I ask of Yahweh,
one thing I seek:
to dwell in Yahweh's house all the days of my life,
to enjoy the sweetness of Yahweh,
to seek out his temple.
For he hides me away under his roof on the day of evil,
he folds me in the recesses of his tent,
sets me high on a rock.
Now my head is held high above the enemies who surround me;
in his tent I will offer sacrifices of acclaim. I will sing,
I will make music for Yahweh.
Yahweh, hear my voice as I cry,
pity me, answer me!
Of you my heart has said,
'Seek his face!'
Your face, Yahweh, I seek;
do not turn away from me.
Do not thrust aside your servant in anger,
without you I am helpless.
Never leave me, never forsake me,
God, my Saviour.
Though my father and mother forsake me,
Yahweh will gather me up.
Yahweh, teach me your way,
lead me on the path of integrity because of my enemies;
do not abandon me to the will of my foes
- false witnesses have risen against me,
and are breathing out violence.
This I believe: I shall see the goodness of Yahweh,
in the land of the living.
Put your hope in Yahweh,
let your heart be bold,
put your hope in Yahweh.
7. Final Prayer
Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, your mother, not only listen to but also practice the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.