Homilies on the Transfiguration often begin with the acknowledgement that the section we read at Mass begins in midsentence. The missing part, “About eight days after he said this”, may sound inconsequential but the “this” is especially important. Indeed, the events of the last few weeks have made this “this” truly relevant.
The “this” for Luke and indeed both Mark and Matthew is Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the “Messiah of God.” A breakthrough statement indeed, but instead of congratulating them, Jesus tells them that he must suffer and be killed and that anyone who wished to be his disciple must deny himself take up his cross every day. Everywhere in the empire people were publicly crucified and it was so feared that it was not mentioned out loud. Even worse was the next line: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it”.
Luke is telling his audience that in becoming a Christian they are not taking on an academic philosophy but a way of life which will demand that they give their lives away. This self-abandonment is non-negotiable: it is only in this that one can be saved.
Although Matthew, Mark, and Luke all connect the Transfiguration with Peter’s confession of faith, they each develop it differently to reflect the needs of their audiences. Luke has streamlined the story and knowing that his audience is composed of people with position and property, asks more clearly than the others, ”What profit is there for one to gain the entire world yet lose or forfeit himself?”
Of all those who heard the Good News they had the most to lose financially and socially from the practical realities of accepting Christianity. The Apostles represent them and during those eight days I imagine they did a cost-benefit analysis: si this worth it?
Now the most important reality is that they are still following Jesus. They may be shocked and unhappy, but they are still listening to Jesus, and he is leading them more deeply into his life. Peter, speaking for them all, had acknowledged that he was the Messiah. It is a breakthrough because Jesus did not sound like an earthy Messiah they would have expected. What leader, teacher, much less savior, predicts his own punishment and death? Yet, the apostles have not abandoned him.
Today, he will give them an indication of what “rising on the third day” means. This passage is loaded with symbols and is an advertisement for Bible study. Remember Luke’s audience was composed mostly of non-Jews, the echoes of the Old Testament found in this passage would not have been immediately familiar to them and like ourselves they would need to learn them.
Luke, more than the other writers, has emphasized Moses. They are on a mountain as Moses was on Mt. Sinai, Jesus’ face changed as Moses’ did when he experienced God and the cloud overshadowed them as at the tent when Moses would meet God. Yet most importantly Moses and Elijah speak of the “Exodus such Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem”. This is exceedingly important. Moses’ exodus led the chosen people from physical and political oppression to freedom in their own land.
Yet although this was a great act of power, by the time of Jesus’ birth they were once again without political independence and freedom. Jesus’ exodus will lead his disciples to a spiritual freedom which, far from being ethereal, demands social and indeed political action. However wonderful Moses was, the voice from heaven clearly states that Jesus is God’s own Son, different from all others. He must be heard and obeyed. The Apostles got the point and remained silent in fear and awe.
This was a process that began with the Apostles acknowledging that in ways they do not understand Jesus was different from any other person they ever encountered. Jesus builds on this by emphasizing his difference even more. Most potential leaders would promise an enhanced position and perhaps good stuff. Jesus promises the cross. Only when they have had time to think about what this means does he give the Apostles an inkling what rising after 3 days might mean and where his exodus will take them. But as we see in Holy Week, the cross must come first.
This is true for us as well if we are to experience the Transfiguration in our own lives. A productive spiritual exercise is to think about our own experiences of the cross. Let them marinate, savor them, and then meditate on the Transfiguration. Jesus did not need to become human, much less die on the cross because of minor transgressions, but because evil had gotten out of hand and the world needed not reform but transformation. We can only understand this in our individual lives by remembering the experiences of evil we either suffered or perpetrated.
Yet there is another dimension. We have seen tremendous evil every time we look at a screen in Ukraine. It is evil on too many fronts to name. When the Soviet Union broke up and the Berlin Wall came down, it seemed as if the sacrifices and promises of the Second World War were fulfilled. We see that they were not.
We need to participate in Jesus’ exodus once more, in his death and resurrection. It is wonderful to celebrate this liturgically in Lent, but disciples are meant to have an effect in the world. We are meant for glory. The Hebrew word for glory is kabod, it means weight, it is something felt more than seen. A great saint said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. A glorious human life reveals God’s presence.
The very evil that we see in Ukraine today and who knows what and where tomorrow reminds us of our own high calling as disciples of Jesus. Let us be transformed, let us live in a way that God is felt in our world.