Matthew 17 1-9
The fact that Jesus takes his more intimate disciples to the top of this nameless mountain alerts us to the deeply personal nature of the episode to follow. When they arrive there, the appearance of Jesus suddenly changes. He is radiant with a light whose source is not identified. When Matthew notes that the face of Jesus “shone like the sun,” he wants us to recall how Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with radiant face after having spoken with God (Exodus 34:29). Matthew considers Jesus to be the new Moses who brings a new revelation from God.
It has been customary to attribute the illumination of Jesus to a beam of light from heaven intended to reassure the disciples who have just heard that the Messiah must suffer and die. However, most of the disciples are not present, nor do those few present seem to have been reassured and there is no mention of a light from heaven. It is far more likely that this illumination derives from within Jesus who, for the first time, comes to a full realization that God wants him to save the world, not by feats of power or by killing Roman soldiers (the human way), but by loving and therefore suffering and dying (the divine way). This would be then an ecstatic moment of discovery as Jesus becomes fully aware of the true nature of his messianic mission.
If that is so, it is entirely appropriate that Moses and Elijah should join him there, for they too had met God on a mountaintop and received a revelation that illumined their futures. The face of Moses glistened from the divine encounter on Mt. Sinai and Elijah outran the chariot of Ahab after meeting God on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:46). Peter knows that he is in the presence of God and makes a generous but unnecessary offer to build tents for the others. Finally, when the voice of God is heard, the baptismal affirmation is repeated and significant new words are added: “Listen to him.” This tells us that Jesus is now ready to teach the ultimate divine wisdom of salvation through loving and self-giving.
We Christians are asked to follow Jesus, not only by listening to his words, but also by sharing in his experience of human life as an opportunity for ultimate victory and freedom. We have heard with Jesus the liberating baptismal words, “You are my beloved child,” and as we have grown in confidence we have learned to be a beneficent presence in our world within our limitations.
However, the time soon comes when we begin to doubt whether building monuments or achieving status is really the purpose of life. Then, in middle age (sometime between the ages of 30 and 70 or so!), we are invited to the mountaintop for a transfiguring experience which will hopefully enable us to discover that brain-power and money-power, though very useful, are not nearly as important as love-power. Suddenly it becomes clear that being kind and gentle in an often violent world is the ultimate wisdom for us humans. Moreover, we discover to our relief that age is not an obstacle to being a loving, caring presence. Indeed, the touch of an octogenarian is often more tender than that of a 20-year-old.
We also earn that true loving is always a kind of dying. However, after we die in countless small ways, we discover that our real dying is just the last and best opportunity to trust a gracious God who has illumined all our days. In this way, bright promise and luminous hope can conquer dark and frightening fear and despair.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.
Image: Unknown artist, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (Egypt)