Second Sunday of Lent (Year A)
Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you
From the Mount of Temptation to the Mount of Transfiguration
“The Gospel on the second Sunday of Lent is always the account of the Transfiguration” says the Homiletic Directory (no. 64) which further explains authoritatively: “The Transfiguration holds an essential position in the season of Lent because the entire Lenten Lectionary is a lesson book that prepares the elect among the catechumens to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil, just as it prepares all the faithful to renew themselves in the new life into which they have been reborn. If the first Sunday of Lent is an especially striking reminder of Jesus’ solidarity with us in temptation, the second Sunday is meant to remind us that the glory that bursts forth from Jesus’ body is a glory that he means to share with all who are baptized into his death and resurrection” (no. 67).
For an in-depth reflection on today’s Gospel, I refer obligatorily to Pope Francis’ recent Message for Lent, which comments precisely on the episode of Jesus’ transfiguration, recounted by the evangelist Matthew. We offer here only a few reminders in the margin on some details of the story.
1. “Up a High Mountain” – The Temporal and Spatial Context of Jesus’ Transfiguration in the Mission Journey
The first important aspect to be clarified is the temporal context of the event (which is expressed in the Lectionaries in various languages with a generic note “at that time”). The transfiguration of Christ took place after Peter’s confession about Jesus (“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”; Mt 16:16), immediately followed by the first prediction of the Passion to the disciples, with which Christ reveals His true messianic mission (cf. Mt 16:21; Lk 9:22). Moreover, with this revelation, He invites all to follow Him on the way of the cross and self-denial to “enter into glory,” (cf. Mt 16:24-25; Lk 9:23-24). Thus, the transfiguration of Christ is not an isolated episode to show a “divine spectacle” on the mountain, but it is entirely part of the mission’s journey that He makes with His disciples with a clear pedagogical-parenetic purpose for them.
One should note also the place of Jesus’ transfiguration, which the evangelist Matthew describes with the expression, “up a high mountain.” That phrase reminds us of that “very high mountain” of Jesus’ third and final temptation that we saw last Sunday. It also reminds us of the other mountains on which Jesus has been or will be: that of the beatitudes, the multiplication of bread, Calvary, and finally His Ascension. The path of Jesus’ mission is shown to be a constant ascent of the mountain, which certainly reflects the Sinai of the Judeo-Biblical tradition, where the encounter between God and Man took place, indeed, where concretely God revealed himself and spoke to Moses and, later, also to Elijah, who now converse, again on “a high mountain,” with the transfigured, glorious, divine Jesus.
Thus, according to the evangelist Matthew’s vision, Jesus’ mission is a journey “from mountain to mountain,” up to that of the transfiguration, the image of that last mountain from which the glorious risen Lord ascended to heaven permanently before the eyes of His disciples. This will then be the journey that raises the people from the oppression of sins and death to the fullness of life in God. It will, however, also pass through the mountain of temptations, labors and sufferings, but it will always end with ascension to Heaven. If Jesus’ mission is like this, will the mission of His disciples be different?
In this perspective, in the prayer of the Preface this Sunday, “As the Eucharistic prayer begins, the priest, speaking for the whole people, wants to give thanks to God through Christ our Lord for this mystery of transfiguration: ‘For after he had told the disciples of his coming Death, on the holy mountain he manifested to them his glory, to show, even by the testimony of the law and the prophets, that the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection’” (Homiletic Directory no. 65). In the same vein, the Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes, “The Transfiguration gives us a foretaste of Christ’s glorious coming (…). But it also recalls that ‘it is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22)” (no. 556). This “must…through many persecutions” for glory, of course, does not mean that Christ’s disciples will have to look for troubles or even create it at will for pleasure (like masochists!). It simply affirms the truth that the disciples’ mission will reflect that of their Master. This mission will have to face difficulties, sufferings, everyday crosses, for the Gospel and for the Kingdom of God. The Mount of the Transfiguration is linked with Mount Calvary. We should not be surprised, then, if there are obstacles (including temptations) in the missionary Christian journey, but we must always remember the reassuring words of the Master: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33).
2. “Lord, It Is Good That We Are Here!” Rediscovering the Beauty of Being with the Lord
From these words of Peter we can guess how extraordinary his experience must have been to see Jesus transfigured with His face that “shone like the sun” and His clothes “white as light,” as the evangelist Matthew describes it in his own original way. However, we should stress that, according to the Gospel account, what Peter and other disciples experienced on the mountain was not only a strong visual experience, but of all the senses, particularly that of hearing, as they listened to Moses and Elijah converse with Jesus. Such “integral” experience of the whole being made Peter exclaim “Lord, it is good that we are here”; this makes us, too, now dream of such a heavenly moment in life.
In this regard, it should be remembered again that the beautiful experience with the glorious Lord is offered to us in every Holy Mass, in which we are immersed in listening to the Word, in Eucharistic communion with Christ who is sacramentally united with His disciples. They are the precious moments Christ gives to His faithful on the mission journey, as a kind of weekly / daily sacramental transfiguration of Christ for us, so that we can also taste a pinch of our transfiguration with Him and in Him. In this regard, here is the inspired invitation from the sacred author, “Look to him and be radiant, and your faces may not blush for shame,” indeed, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps 34:6, 9). In fact, “what the chosen three disciples heard and beheld at the Transfiguration exactly converges now with the event of this liturgy in which the faithful receive the Body and Blood of the Lord. (…) While still on earth, the disciples saw the divine glory shining in the body of Jesus. While still on earth, the faithful receive His Body and Blood and hear the Father’s voice speaking to them in the depths of their hearts: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!’” (Homiletic Directory no.68).
In such a perspective, this Lent will perhaps also be an opportunity to renew our way of living every Mass, so that it may be more and more a moment of deep experience of the glorious Christ, like that on the high mountain in Galilee.
3. “Do Not Tell the Vision to Anyone Until the Son of Man Has Been Raised From the Dead.” The True Disciples of the Transfiguration
The transfiguration continued and culminated with a divine manifestation like during the theophany on Mount Sinai: the cloud over all disciples and the voice (from the cloud) confirming Jesus’ identity as the “beloved” and “Son [of God]”, as happened during Jesus’ baptism. In this perspective, the recommendation “listen to Him” of the divine voice, which resounds from the cloud on the mountain as on Sinai, has a fundamental meaning for the disciples: now in Jesus is manifested the fullness of the Word of God, given to Moses (Law) and Elijah (Prophets). Indeed, “in times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things” (Heb 1:1-2).
After the Father’s recommendation to listen to him, Jesus’ command to the disciples seemed rather strange: “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Why? Wasn’t it necessary to announce to everyone what had happened, as a testimony and proof of Jesus’ divine messianic identity? Without getting lost in various historical explanations, such a mysterious order of Jesus seems significant from a theological-spiritual point of view. First of all, it emphasizes that His resurrection from the dead will be the fulfillment of His transfiguration, experienced at that time by the disciples. Consequently, the true meaning of this event on the mount will be fully and rightly grasped only after having walked with Jesus His entire mission journey from the mount of transfiguration to Calvary and then back to the mount of Ascension in Galilee. In other words, only those who have completed the entire journey with Jesus up to the passion, death, and resurrection will be able to understand and thus proclaim Christ fully and correctly, according to the divine vision, and not the human vision (which usually wants a glory without a cross).
Like Peter, James, John, we all are called to become more and more disciples of transfiguration, that is, disciples of the transfigured Christ. We are concretely called to often climb the mountain with Him to “enter the cloud” of the Spirit without fear, and above all to listen to and follow Him as the only Way to the Father by constantly reflecting in the secret of the soul on all the mysteries of Christ and keeping them with us, to be all of us transformed too, indeed, transfigured with Him and in Him on our missionary Christian journey. And it is now time to start, from this Transfiguration Sunday.