Theophanies in my kitchen -Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus – Matthew 17:1- 9
Think about it…what if we were never permitted to see the face of God, ever ! But here we are today, privileged to gaze at Him in the Blessed Sacrament and receive Him in Holy Communion.
Not so if you were an Old Testament prophet or patriarch, much less an ordinary Israelite. Moses and Elijah, both of whom are mentioned in the narration of the transfiguration, never saw God’s face. To make matters worse they had to trudge up a high mountain just to hear His voice.
So what’s with mountains? Jesus seemed to like them a lot. The second temptation is on the mountain, so is His place of prayer. The Sermon on the Mount was given on a mountain and so too, the transfiguration of today’s gospel.
To a Jew of the first century, this imagery would not require an interpreter, even more if you mentioned Elijah and Moses in the same breath. Theophanies or God’s manifestation always took place on a mountain and couple that with a cloud cover. Put the two together and God was going to make an appearance.
So is the presence of Elijah and Moses just for representational purposes to make our narrative look good? After all Elijah represented the prophets and Moses represented the law and no Jew would deny the importance of the law and the prophets. Besides, it makes for a great PR campaign for Jesus.
For greater clarity, (in you spare time) open your Bible to Exodus 24:12-16, 33:17-23 and I Kings 11:13. You will find a lot of parallelisms to the transfiguration of Jesus. Like Jesus, both Moses and Elijah go up a mountain; in fact, the same mountain. Moses takes a disciple, just like Jesus did. Moses and Elijah desired to see God’s face, but were denied. They both saw His glory but not His face for they were told that they would die if they saw God’s face. Both of them had their faces covered by God’s hand or His mantle.
What makes the transfiguration so special ? God who never showed His face to Moses or Elijah in the Old Testament, does so in the New Testament. Jesus reveals His transfigured state to Moses, Elijah and the disciples, and guess what; THEY SAW THE FACE OF GOD AND LIVED. Moses and Elijah are finally able to see the face of God because ‘That God’ has become man.
It is this same face that God did not want to reveal in the Old Testament, that becomes on Good Friday, the face that WE HIDE FROM. The Prophet Isaiah in Chapter 53 says, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him; nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of suffering; as one from whom others hid their faces.”
Ironic is it not? The God who did not reveal Himself in the Old Testament finally does in the New Testament. Even more ironic is the reality that ‘man’, who desired to see God’s face in the Old Testament and was not allowed to is permitted to in the New Testament but does not want to ! Away with Him, Crucify Him! How fickle is humankind? How quickly the Hosannas of Palm Sunday will turn to ‘Crucify Him’, on Good Friday!
So what is the transfiguration all about, merely a Gospel guilt trip? The very word ‘transfiguration’ comes from the Greek word ‘metamorphosis’ which means change. Jesus’ appearance changed and Peter, James and John all saw Him as God and Man. The experience left the impetuous Peter a better man. Remember Peter, the patron of spontaneous prayer who must say something every time? Well, he did so this time too, but now with greater understanding. He calls Jesus, “Lord”.
Peter has become aware of the divinity of Jesus and addresses Him with a title of faith. But even more, the change is seen in Peter’s leadership. He who, not even a chapter ago, was given the keys of the kingdom of heaven and soon after denounced for his inability to grasp the new role foisted on his shoulders, takes on the leadership, but now in humbler tones. “If you wish, I will make three dwellings.” No more arrogance, no more leaning on the disciples for support. This is the Peter who has seen the face of God and lived.
Yet Peter, James and John will fall and fail the Lord again. They, who will be invited into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, will fail The Lord three times. Jesus understands this. And as tenderly as He touched His disciples in the transfiguration (verse 7) and helped them up, He will do the same after His resurrection; to Thomas, Peter and the rest. ‘Do you love me?’ is the question He will ask Peter and us.
Change is in the air, that’s what the Gospels invite us to. Today we don’t have to climb a mountain to meet God. Thank God for that! But like Elijah, we can hear Him in a still small voice. Mountains don’t need to be conquered for us to be with God; pride does, hate does, anger does, and lust does. And there we find God, on our own Mt Sinai; in a chapel or in our living room, in our kitchen, or in our work place. Look around now, He is there, revealing Himself to you.
Fr Warner D’Souza