The wilderness was the geographical and symbolic setting for last week’s gospel. This week, the setting is a mountain and eventually a cloud-covered mountain. Both wilderness and mountain link Luke’s story of Jesus with the story of the Israelites of old. Wilderness and mountain also remind us that God’s creation is the locus of mystery, the place of human-divine encounter, the place of prayer.
Luke’s account of the ‘transfiguration’ is situated towards the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Very soon he will ‘set his face’ towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) where he is to meet a violent death. Three of his close followers get a glimpse of God’s glory shining on his face and penetrating his whole being, a hint that God’s grace is more life-giving than the forces opposing God’s reign. The disciples have a vision of Moses and Elijah, the key prophetic figures of Israel, entering into dialogue with Jesus, God’s new and definitive prophet. The dialogue is about the breakthrough or ‘exodus’ he will accomplish in Jerusalem, the breakthrough from death to life.
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 continues to challenge oppression and injustice, he is certain to encounter opposition, even death. He struggles with that realisation in the wilderness. He comes to peace with what it involves in prayer on the mountain. Jesus’ companions want to hold on to the experience of glory, to ‘build tents’ and settle down. They prefer not to face the difficulties involved in fidelity to their shared mission. But that is not the way of life, and certainly not the way of discipleship.
Like Jesus and his companions, we too need the occasional glimpse of final victory. We also need the good sense 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 come to terms with the personal costs involved. If we are to find peace in our hearts, we need to pray – alone and with those whom we invite to climb the mountain with us.