Terror, tents, and Transfiguration: Sunday reflection


This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 9:2–10:

Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.

As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.

I’m a little under the weather; please enjoy my reflection on this Gospel from 2015.

Why does the Gospel describe Peter, James, and John as “terrified,” so much so that Peter’s first impulse is to find an excuse to leave? Theophanies are always terrifying events in Scripture, with the exception being Jesus’ life in humanity — and the Transfiguration being the exception to the exception. The power and the majesty of the Lord doesn’t just frighten us in and of itself, but it reminds us of our unworthiness to live in the presence of Him. We live most of our spiritual lives in the dark, groping for small shafts of light, reflections of His truth and His will. When it breaks through into our vision so powerfully, it’s as if we are blinded by experience.

I’ve related the story of our visit to Mount Tabor in a previous reflection, but that visit during our pilgrimage always puts the Transfiguration into a different context for me. It’s a tall peak, and in modern times pilgrims make it to the top in vans that navigate a narrow and winding road. Due to the popularity of the site, several vans are in operation simultaneously. Our driver intended on setting speed records going up and down the hills, on roads that I noted despairingly had no guard rails. When the driver stopped to allow us out to take a picture near the top, I declined, preferring to remain clinging to my seat belt. We had a more sensible driver on our way back down, but I gave serious thought to walking down the road rather than risk getting back in the van.

That wasn’t a theophany … but it was pretty doggoned terrifying at times anyway.

I mention this because Peter’s reaction to the Transfiguration puts that experience in mind for me. The four of them reach the top of the mountain, and suddenly Jesus rises up, his form transfigured, communing with the two greatest prophets, Moses and Elijah. Peter becomes so overawed — and who wouldn’t be? — that he volunteers to leave, to go back down the mountain and gather the materials needed for a camp. That trip would have taken hours at least, and put considerable distance between Peter and the transfigured Lord … even if Peter had a crazy van driver at that time. Peter, though, had to have thought that the reappearance of the two most important prophets of Israel required some sort of homage, and offers to make three tents to pay respects to their authority — perhaps not unlike the tent in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept.

The Transfiguration scene gives us an extra twist on theophanies, with the presence of the two major prophets of Israel joining the risen Christ — the transfigured Christ. Until then, Moses and Elijah were the epitome of the Law and the Prophets to Israel, the highest human authorities in Scripture. They appear in consultation with a form of Jesus that the disciples had never seen before, which immediately underscores the status of Jesus for Israel in that moment. The reappearance of the two — and their immediate recognition of who they were — would have been an epiphany in itself.

What happens next, though, is even more significant. Peter offers to make three tents of honor, presumably equal, for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. At that point, the full theophany occurs, with the Lord commanding the disciples to “listen to Him” — not them. At that point, the cloud dissipates, and Jesus remains by himself.

What does that mean? Our first reading gives us some perspective. In Genesis 22, we read the story of Abraham and the test to which God puts him. Abraham finally has his beloved son Isaac, a promise that the Lord made to him in return for Abraham’s faithfulness, but now God tells Abraham that Isaac should be made a sacrifice instead. Abraham does not disobey, going all the way to the point of holding the knife to complete the task. An angel of the Lord stops him, and Abraham sacrifices a ram instead. Human sacrifice was common in those days, and indeed continued until relatively recently in human history. God redirects humanity from that sacrifice by making the lesson plain to Abraham.

The Transfiguration also is a redirection, this time of authority. The disciples see Moses and Elijah in communion with Jesus, and at first Peter prepares to serve all three. Instead, God intercedes and redirects Peter and the disciples to serve the risen Christ. In Christ, both Moses and Elijah are fulfilled, and Jesus becomes the authority for Israel and the Gentiles alike.

Listen to Him. And when they look, Jesus has returned to his human form, standing alone.

So what is transfiguration, especially as related to us? We are called to that same life in communion with the Lord as Moses and Elijah. God calls to us to give our self-sacrificial love to the Body of Christ just as Abraham did with his own son, his most precious gift from God. When we love God above all else, then that agape love will lead us to lift up our neighbors, forming and transforming ourselves and each other in love. That redirects not just our faith but our lives, putting us in service to Him rather than only asking the Lord to provide service to us. We are called to live in the Trinitarian life, one that will transfigure us to true children of God, through the one authority of Jesus Christ. When that happens, we will have no need to build tents … because we will already be home.

The front-page image is a detail from “Transfiguration of Christ” by Giovanni Bellini, c. 1487, currently located at the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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