It’s interesting to see the way Jesus revealed himself to his disciples. It began when he brought them to Caesarea Philippi, an important place for Jews and non-Jews. The city’s central feature was a magnificent white marble temple dedicated to the emperor-god, Caesar. The Syrians had worshiped their god Baal there and some of their temples still remained. The Greeks believed the god Pan was born in a cave there. The Jews revered the place because the water that flowed from the spring in the cave was one of the sources of the Jordan river. So much of Jewish history was connected to the Jordan.
Immersed in this religious ambience Jesus asked the most important question he could ask: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Simon immediately gave him the answer he had hoped for: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus’ response was powerful and totally unexpected. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
This was an extraordinary moment for Simon Peter and the other disciples. But almost immediately, a crisis hit. Jesus told them that he was traveling on to Jerusalem. There he would be rejected by the religious leadership and killed. Peter jumped on him over the comment. Jesus retaliated. “Get behind me, Satan. You are an obstacle to me. You are not thinking as God does, but as humans do!”
Without missing a beat, he turned to all the disciples. He shocked them all by telling them the price they would have to pay to be his disciple. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
In a few short moments Jesus had anointed Peter as the “rock of the church,” told him to “get behind me,” called him a “Satan,” and challenged each of them to “take up his cross and follow him.” There was probably very little talking after that short altercation. But there was more to come.
Six days later Jesus chose three from the group, Peter, James and John “and led them to a high mountain by themselves where he was transfigured before them.”
It was no accident that Jesus chose to bring the witnesses of his transfiguration to a mountain top. Sacred places were often elevated. Think of Moses going to Mount Sinai to receive the Law, the Mayan pyramids, the temple mount in Jerusalem, St. Peter’s Basilica on the Vatican Hill, or even the churches on the Upper East Side with grand staircases lifting the worshipers up from the street level. Jesus was lifting them up from the earth physically and spiritually. The vision was clear. He took on the divine light. He revealed himself glorified in heaven in conversation with two heavenly figures, Moses and Elijah.
Elijah was the prophet who was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot. It’s still common belief among Jews that Elijah will return to inaugurate the Messianic Time. Moses was the charismatic leader and law-giver during the Jewish Exodus. Luke adds in his account of the Transfiguration that Jesus, Elijah and Moses were speaking about Jesus’ personal exodus from this world back to the Father.
Peter, frightened and bewildered by what he saw, tried to somehow normalize the event – to bring it back down to earth. “I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he was interrupted by the overshadowing of the shekinah, the cloud of divine glory. This was the cloud that descended upon Mount Sinai when Moses was given the commandments. That day God spoke in thunder and lightning. At the Transfiguration God spoke clearly and directly. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
At hearing the voice, the three collapsed with terror. A terrifying silence followed. Then each of them felt the touch of a gentle, reassuring hand.
“Rise, and do not be afraid.” Everything was back to normal. Or was it? “As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, ‘Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’”
Why are we asked to contemplate this passage at the beginning of every Lent? Because it’s essential that we look beyond the Jesus we so easily know, the first century rabbi, healer and mystic, to the Christ, the crucified and resurrected Lord. The transfigured Christ blinds our earthly eyes so that we can see him through the eyes of our soul – the eyes that see the path that leads us through the Paschal Mystery.
The Prologue to John’s Gospel puts this into a context for us. “To those who did accept him he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
The Transfiguration is an invitation for us to be reborn, to experience the mystery of Christ. Paul puts it this way: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 13:14) Clothing symbolizes the person. He’s asking us to become, not Jesus, but the transfigured Christ. When Jesus told Peter, James and John not to speak of the vision until he had been resurrected, he was telling them that he was walking the path of the Paschal Mystery but he had not yet completed his personal Passover. Though we look at the transfigured Christ, we have not yet entered fully into his Paschal Mystery.
During Lent we’re asked to contemplate our participation in Christ’s Paschal Mystery. We asked to ponder our life, death and resurrection. We’re challenged to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”