The 2nd Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Genesis 12: 1-4
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 33:4-5, 18-20, 22
Second Reading: 2nd Letter of St. Paul to Timothy 1:8-10
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 17:1-9
When people speak of those moments in life where they believe they have been given a ‘glimpse of heaven’ they do not often convey to their listeners a sense of being “very much afraid.” Yet that is exactly the emotion coursing through the three Apostles who were witnesses to the Transfiguration.
In the C.S. Lewis classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Aslan, the lion who is the embodiment of Christ, is described as “good but not safe.” That notion pretty much sums up the difference between our human understanding of ‘glimpse of heaven’ and the real thing that Peter, James, and John experienced on Mount Tabor when they saw Jesus in His glory flanked by Moses and Elijah, and heard the voice of the Father say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
To see Jesus changed – literally ‘transfigured’ – into the glorified Christ must have brought to their minds the warning from the Old Testament that God offers to Moses: “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live.” One unfortunate casualty of seeing Jesus as my ‘bro’ is the sense of awe that is an essential part of the Transfiguration experience. For Peter, James, and John this experience was – in the original sense of the word – awful, full of awe.
When a cloud overshadows the events of the Transfiguration and a voice emanating from it proclaims, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” these words take us back to the Jordan River and Jesus’ Baptism where that same voice spoke those same words. Yet the Transfiguration offers more, for on Mount Tabor the Father adds, “listen to Him.” In those three simple words Peter, James, and John are given their ultimate commission, a commission that extends not only to the other members of the Twelve, but to all who claim to follow Jesus as their Christ, their Messiah.
That commission, coming as it does from the Father, is offered in this moment to give them the strength they will need to endure the next major event in the life of Christ – the Crucifixion.
When Jesus enters the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and to await His betrayal and arrest, He takes these same three Apostles with Him. He tells them “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with Me.” And with that, they fall asleep. This is how they “listen to Him.”
For the remainder of the story of the Passion and Crucifixion, these three men take on the roles of archetypal characters in a medieval morality play. James disappears from the narrative, representing us when we avoid the Gospel in times of difficulty and make decisions as if we weren’t really called to “listen to Him.”
Peter, who was so awe-struck at the Transfiguration that he wanted to build a memorial to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, follows at a distance and when confronted about his relationship with Jesus declares a full-out denial. Here Peter symbolically represents us whenever we publicly disavow Jesus and His Gospel, when we are afraid of looking like we “listen to Him” rather than to the world around us.
And then there is John, the youngest of all the Apostles and the one whom the fourth Gospel calls the Beloved Disciple. Where does this mere youth stand when his elders have all run away because they were “very much afraid” just like on Mount Tabor? He stands at the foot of the Cross and he stands with the women – those of the so-called “weaker sex” – who had the courage to be with Jesus when all others had abandoned Him.
Here John stands – at the Cross and in harm’s way – and here we stand whenever we also “listen to Him” and do not align ourselves with those who are indifferent to Him or capitulate in the face of those who stand against Him.
When we imitate John we are often taking a great risk, and it is not cowardly to admit that we are “very much afraid.” But if we, like John, listen to Jesus, then we can take comfort in the words He spoke to the three Apostles on that mountainside immediately after the Transfiguration: “Rise, and do not be afraid.”