Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 33; 2 Timothy 1:8b-10; Matthew 17:1-9
We hear about the temptations of Jesus on the first Sunday of Lent each year, and we hear about the transfiguration of Jesus on the second Sunday of Lent each year. This year is the turn of Matthew’s gospel, but it is instructive to think about what each of the evangelists decides to omit and what he decides to include compared with the other two accounts of the same experience.
Matthew, for example, does not show Peter and the other two disciples to be quite as dim as they can seem in Luke and Mark. The comment that Peter, always the first to open his mouth, ‘did not know what he was talking about’ is omitted by Matthew. He is generally kinder in his account of the disciples anyway, certainly kinder than Mark who presents them as forever getting the wrong end of the stick.
In this, Matthew’s approach fits with one aspect of what the transfiguration means, that it is a moment of re-assurance for the disciples. It happens, he tells us, ‘six days later’. Six days later than what? Six days after Jesus had told them for the first time that he was to go to Jerusalem, to be rejected and condemned, to suffer and to be put to death. The transfiguration is a moment of re-assurance and encouragement for them to continue following Jesus even in view of what Jesus had begun to say to them about his destiny. It is a divine endorsement of the way Jesus is going and of what he is saying about his mission.
The scene is richly loaded with traditional and familiar figures, scenery and texts. Of course the disciples knew who Moses and Elijah were. The scenery – on a mountain, with an overshadowing cloud and a voice – immediately evokes an experience of the divine presence. They surely understood something also of the significance of the words spoken from the cloud. The beloved son with whom God is well pleased, is referred to by Isaiah and others of the prophets. They might well have been familiar also with Moses’ prophecy in the Book of Deuteronomy about a great prophet, whose authority would be comparable to that of Moses himself. ‘Listen to him’, Moses had said, providing words for the divine voice at the transfiguration.
But if the characters and scenery and words of this dramatic moment are all familiar, the meaning of their being brought together in this way, and the one around whom they are brought together, makes of this an experience of something radically new. Although each of its elements is anticipated in the Old Testament, there is nothing quite like it in the Old Testament. What Jesus is helping the disciples to do is to make the transition from the ways in which they understood life and God and themselves up to then to a completely new way of understanding life and God and themselves in the future. The journey they are being asked to take is solidly rooted in all that they had been taught about the God of Israel and yet it is a journey that will transform them completely as regards what they thought and how they lived. It is at once familiar and completely mysterious so their fear is understandable.
Related to this is another detail of Matthew’s account, which is not mentioned in either Luke or Mark. Jesus, he tells us, touched them and told them to stand up. They have done what human beings ought to do in the presence of God: bowed down, fallen on their knees and put their faces to the ground. But the great outcome of the adoration of God, as distinct from the adoration of anything that is less than God, is that we stand up greater for having worshipped.
Whenever we worship something less than God we must hand over some of our identity to that thing. We are then less than we might be for having worshipped an idol. It may be money or power or a group of people or a political ideology or a religious organisation or some vague abstraction– to worship an idol, a false god, always makes us less than what we are. We must pay tribute to whatever it is we worship in that way. We must invest something of ourselves and such false gods have big appetites.
But to adore God does not mean losing anything of our identity. In fact it means the opposite, for we are not rivals to God and God is not a rival to us. To worship God is to live in the truth. This is the reality of our situation, that we are the creatures and servants of God, called to follow the way of His Son. In the presence of God, the Son says to us ‘stand up’. Already we get a glimpse of the greatness that is being revealed, not only the greatness revealed in Jesus but the greatness revealed in Him for us. The second reading speaks of it as ‘the power of God who saved us and called us with a holy calling not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago’.
Romano Guardini, a theologian working in Berlin at the height of Nazi power there, decided with colleagues and friends to try to disseminate statements to counter-act what was happening. He decided to write first about adoration, for adoration, he says, is ‘the safeguard of our mental health, of our inmost intellectual soundness’. ‘Whenever we adore God’, he writes, ‘something happens within and about us. Things fall into true perspective. Vision sharpens. Much that troubles us rights itself. We distinguish more clearly between good and evil. … We gather strength to meet the demands which life imposes upon us, fortified at the very core of our being, and taking a firmer hold upon truth’.
To fall on our knees before God expresses the truth of our situation. To be enabled to stand up in the presence of the same God, at the invitation of His beloved Son and through His saving work, is the wonderful grace that has been manifested through the appearing of Jesus our Saviour.