• Gn 15:5-12, 17-18
• Ps 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14
• Phil 3:17—4:1
• Lk 9:28b-36
What a difference a week makes! From temptation in the desert to Transfiguration on the mount; from supernatural battle with Satan to supernatural glory before the disciples. It is a striking contrast between the respective Gospel readings for last Sunday and today. But while the temptation in the desert is obviously Lenten—in fact, it is the inspiration and foundation of this season—why is the Transfiguration a part of the Sunday readings during Lent?
Of course, the actual time between the temptation in the desert, which preceded Jesus’ public ministry, and the stunning event on the mountain was about two years or so. But just a week prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus had asked the disciples, “Who do the multitudes say I am?” (Lk. 9:18). After Peter, the head apostle, made his famous declaration, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16; Lk. 9:20), Jesus began to tell them that he would soon suffer many things, be rejected by the rulers, killed, and then “raised up on the third day” (Lk. 9:22). In Matthew’s account, the intrepid Peter, stunned by this revelation, rebuked Jesus, only to be rebuked, in turn, in no uncertain terms: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23).
In sum, in the days leading up the Transfiguration, Jesus had directly confronted and demolished any false notions the disciples might have had about the nature of his mission. He strongly expressed the unwavering commitment he had to offering himself as a sacrifice for the world. His kingdom was not of this world, and he was not a political leader or a military warrior; he was not promising comfort and wealth. On the contrary, Jesus was promising a cross: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23).
We can only try to imagine how disorienting and confusing this had to be for the disciples. Suffering, rejection, and rapidly approaching death were not parts of their plan! In the midst of this confusion and anxiety, Jesus took Peter, John, and James, the inner circle of the disciples, up to the mountain to pray, ascending, as it were, toward the heavenly places. There, above the tumult of the world and an ominous future, Jesus revealed his glory and gave them a dazzling glimpse of their eternal calling.
But the glory witnessed by the three apostles was not just about the future. “The Transfiguration,” notes Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis in Fire of Mercy, Heart of the World (Ignatius Press, 2003), “is the experience of the fullness of divine Presence, action, communication, and glory now, in our very midst, in this world of passingness and disappointment.” It is about the fullness of life now—not ordinary, natural life, but extraordinary, supernatural life. The Transfiguration is about the gift of divine sonship, which comes from the Father, who says of Jesus, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, in considering whether it was fitting that Jesus should be transfigured, observed that since Jesus exhorted his disciples to follow the path of His sufferings, it was right for them to see his glory, to taste for a moment such eternal splendor so they might persevere. He wrote, in the third part of the Summa, “The adoption of the sons of God is through a certain conformity of image to the natural Son of God. Now this takes place in two ways: first, by the grace of the wayfarer, which is imperfect conformity; secondly, by glory, which is perfect conformity…”
Peter and the disciples had to learn that Jesus’ death was necessary so his life could be fully revealed and given to the world. “On Tabor, light pours forth from him,” writes Leiva-Merikakis, “on Calvary it will be blood.” A week ago we entered into the desert of Lent; today we get a glimpse of the glory given to every son and daughter of God—glory conforming us to the Son.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the February 28, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)