By Father John P. Cush, STD
As in all things, when we read a passage presented to us in the lectionary from the Holy Gospel, we need to place it into the proper context. If we read this particular passage from the Gospel according to the Evangelist Saint Luke, we might get a bit confused. Why would the Lord Jesus take his three closest associates, the Apostles Peter, James, and John, up the mountain to pray and, while they are there, to witness the confirmation of the Lord’s identity in the event of his Transfiguration?
We need to look first into the early part of this ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel wherein we read of the Lord’s first prediction of his passion in the 22nd verse of this chapter. Before this, life might have seemed like an adventure for Apostles. Filled with fire, they met this man who seemed to know everything about them.
This man from Nazareth, this Jesus, was a prophet, indeed more than a prophet. Simon Peter, the unofficial leader of their apostolic band, when asked by Jesus who the crowds say that he is, does what he usually does — he “one-ups” them all. Peter, to use the nickname that Jesus calls him, goes far beyond what the rest of the disciples are stating. They all say that he is Elijah or John the Baptist or another ancient prophet. Peter goes full-bore and proclaims him the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah of God.
Then Jesus goes and takes the excitement level down. In verse 22 of this ninth chapter of Luke, he throws these words, which no doubt stung the disciples to the quick: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” What is our new leader, Jesus, who is going to lead all of us into a new Jerusalem and out of Roman control, speaking about?
And Jesus just doesn’t stop there with the prediction of his own suffering and death. To be honest, what Jesus was saying there wasn’t all that surprising in the reality of his day. Men going around Jerusalem claiming to be the Messiah of God were a dime a dozen in Jesus’ day. If they kept challenging the Jewish religious authorities, and, most especially if they were zealots whose religious beliefs led to political insurrectionism, no doubt these “messiahs” would be killed. But what Jesus is saying in verses 23-27, is that not only will he suffer, but so too will all who follow him. And they won’t just be rejected, but will suffer the ultimate form of torture — the agony of the cross.
Can you imagine how many of the disciples of the Lord Jesus shook with fear upon hearing those predictions of suffering? How many of them wanted to leave the side of the Lord and to go back to their regular life?
Therefore, when the Lord Jesus takes his “main men,” Peter, James, and the beloved disciple, John, up the mountain, it is a kind of divine “pep-talk.” These apostles, the most influential perhaps of all the disciples, witness who Jesus truly is. He is the Lord; he is the Son of God, the Word Incarnate, one Divine Person in two natures, human and divine, God himself.
The Apostles, perhaps filled with fear, with doubts, perhaps wondering who they are following to his death and to their own deaths, witness Christ transfigured, filled with the glory of God, shining forth brighter than even Moses did when he met with the Lord. And, to further secure the identity of Jesus in the minds of the Apostles Peter, James, and John, the Lord meets the two greatest of the figures in the history of Israel, Moses and Elijah.
Christ knows that if we are to be his disciples we must carry our crosses. However, we need not fear that the burden of the cross will overwhelm us and cause us to fall; no, our Lord, our God, our Savior, he who has become our brother, Jesus the Christ, is right next to us, helping us to bear that cross. And this event of the Lord’s transfiguration reassures both the Apostles and all of us as Christians.
Readings for Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18
Father Cush is the Academic Dean of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy, and professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical University of Santa Croce, also in Rome.