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JESUS' TRANSFIGURATION IS A DRAMATIC EXPERIENCE OF PRAYER THAT PUTS HIS SAVING MISSION INTO PROPER PERSPECTIVE
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Sunday, the Second Sunday of Lent, March 17, 2019
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18, Psalm 26, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 9:28b-36


Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted

 

"Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white" (Luke 9:28-29).


This is Jesus' transfiguration, which took place on a mountain, where he went to pray with Peter, James, and John, and "as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white" (Luke 9:29).


Above all, this was an extraordinary experience of prayer in which these three disciples see Jesus transfigured in glory, even his clothing becoming dazzling white. The transfiguration is a preview of the Parousia (Jesus' glorious second coming), when "they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matthew 24:30-31).


Professor Scott Shauf (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1572) writes, "The transfiguration scene provides ... a foretaste of the glory to be experienced when God's kingdom is fully present." It is also a powerful, dramatic experience of prayer of both Jesus and his disciples, and hence a model for our prayer too (ibid.). "A point that we may especially observe in the transfiguration account, but which is also present in some of these other places, is that prayer for Jesus involved, at times, a dramatic encounter of God's presence. Prayer was not merely speaking words to God but was a truly spiritual experience of God. Lest we think that such a possibility of divine encounter is limited to Jesus, we see the same thing with a variety of characters in Acts, Luke's second volume" (ibid.).


Jesus gives his disciples this experience one week after teaching them some pretty heavy things about his coming violent death in Jerusalem and about his disciples' coming persecution as his followers (Luke 9:23-26). The transfiguration follows immediately (Luke 9:28-36). It seems that Jesus senses that he needs to lighten up a bit, or else his disciples will become overly discouraged with such heavy teaching. Suffering and death is not the whole of Christianity, nor is it the goal of Christianity, but rather the means to the goal, which is the kingdom in the fullness of its glory. But instead of just giving them a teaching about this, Jesus gives them a dramatic experience of his glory.


Both Matthew and Mark use the Greek word metamorphoo (to transfigure, or in the passive to be transfigured, from which we get our English word metamorphosis) to describe what happened to Jesus (Mark 9:2; Matthew 17:2). Perhaps St. Luke, who was more in touch with Hellenistic culture, avoided this word because of its association with pagan Greek mythology and religion. But St. Paul, who is also quite familiar with the Greek world, uses this word to describe a deep and transforming experience of contemplative prayer:


"We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed (metamorphoumetha) into his likeness from one degree of glory to another" (2 Corinthians 3:18).


This is clearly contemplative language. Through contemplation of Jesus' glory, we are being transfigured, "metamorphosized," into the very image of Christ that we are contemplating. As we contemplate Christ's glory, we ourselves are being changed into his likeness, from glory to glory, from one degree of glory to another. This transformation takes place in contemplative prayer.


We are on our way, through Christ, to glory, heading for the kingdom in its fullness as it will be at Christ's Parousia (second coming), but on the way we are daily nourished by contemplative prayer, which is often a time of deep peace and union with God. Of course, the transfiguration of Jesus on top of this high mountain was more than just an experience of prayer. It was a miraculous event, in which Jesus' physical body visibly radiated the inner glory of his divine person, and even his clothing was transfigured in light. Nonetheless we should not miss the analogy to contemplative prayer and the encouragement that this experience gives us to practice it.


The voice that came out of the cloud, which enveloped them, said,


"This is my Son, my Chosen (eklelegmenos); listen to him!" (Luke 9:35).


Only St. Luke uses the word "Chosen" (eklelegmenos), the same word that the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses to describe the Suffering Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 42:1:


"Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen (eklektos), in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations."


The voice of the Father from the cloud thereby identifies who Jesus is, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, who would bring righteousness to the earth by bearing our sins and being wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:5-6). This is how Jesus will bring righteousness to the earth, and eventually the glory of the kingdom of God in its fullness at his Parousia. The transfiguration is a foretaste and preview of this final glory; and the path to it is his crucifixion, whereby he bears our sins and suffers their just penalty in our place, as our substitute, so that we might be set free, since our sins have been duly and justly punished in him on the cross. Hence, when we put our faith in Christ, God can justly acquit us and declare us righteous.


Although these three disciples did not understand all of this at the time, they would nonetheless remember this striking experience and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, after Jesus' resurrection and Pentecost, they would finally see how it all fits together, namely that his suffering and death is the path to our salvation, justification, and future transfiguration in glory. At the same time it is a striking experience of contemplative prayer that encourages all Christians to practice it.


Only St. Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah "spoke of his departure (exodon, Exodus in English), which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31). The word used here for "departure" in Greek is exodos (Exodus), which is the exact title in Greek of the book of Exodus in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), the book that is centered around the Exodus of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt to become the chosen people of God in Canaan. The Exodus is the great Old Testament paradigm of salvation that was applied to all the events of the people's life. As God saved our people in the Exodus, so will he save us now.


But here on the holy mountain of transfiguration, Moses, who led the Exodus, is speaking to Jesus about Jesus' Exodus (his death and resurrection), which is the greatest New Testament paradigm of salvation. Jesus' death and resurrection is his Exodus, his great saving act. So Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are speaking of Jesus' great saving act, his death and resurrection. This also helps to put Jesus' death into proper perspective for his disciples so that they might see that Jesus' death and resurrection is the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament Exodus, the path that leads to transfigured glory in the kingdom in its fullness at Jesus' Parousia. And it is precisely Moses, the founder and earthly father of the people of God in the Old Testament that is speaking about this to Jesus, the new founder of God's people in the New Testament.

 

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