The geographical and symbolic setting for last week’s gospel was the wilderness. This week, the setting is a mountain, eventually a cloud-covered mountain. Both wilderness and mountain link Matthew’s story of Jesus with the story of the Israelites of old. Wilderness and mountain also remind us that God’s wondrous creation is the locus of mystery, the place of human-divine encounter.
Matthew’s account of the ‘transfiguration’ is followed by a reminder that Jesus is soon to meet a violent death (17:23). Jesus’ three companions get a glimpse of God’s glory shining on his face and penetrating even his clothing, a hint that God’s grace is more life-giving than the forces of violence and opposition to God’s reign. They see Moses and Elijah, the key prophetic figures of Israel, speaking with Jesus, God’s new and definitive prophet.
The ‘transfiguration’ seems to point to a time in Jesus’ ministry when he comes to terms with the fate he is likely to meet: if he confronts the forces of oppression and injustice, he is certain to encounter opposition, even death. He struggles with this realisation in the wilderness at the outset of his ministry. He comes to peace with what it involves on the mountain top.
Peter wants to hold on to the experience of glory, to ‘make tents’ for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He prefers not to face the difficulties involved in fidelity to the mission. But that is not the way of discipleship. Rather, he and his companions are called to ‘listen’ to Jesus, the beloved of God.
Like Jesus and his companions, we too need the occasional glimpse of final victory. We also need the good sense to listen and to follow through on the path that brings life, despite the pain. We can feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges facing us and by the opposition we experience from the most unexpected quarters. If we are to sustain the struggle for a healthy, safe, and peace-filled world, we have to resist the temptation to hold on to the experience of glory, and come to terms with the personal cost of going all the way to Jerusalem.
-Veronica Lawson RSM