Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17—4:1; and Luke 9:28b-36
The Gospel for today recounts the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor in Galilee.
Jesus takes Peter, John, and James up the mountain to pray. The apostles, of course, promptly fall asleep. As Jesus is praying, “his face changed in appearance and his clothes became dazzling white.” Suddenly two men “appeared in glory”—Moses and Elijah—and start talking with Jesus about the “exodus he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” At this point, the apostles wake up. Peter, who is always unfortunately the first to speak, says: “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The narrator tells us that Peter “did not know what he was saying.” In any case, a cloud suddenly interrupts and envelops the top of the mountain. The apostles, having progressed from unconsciousness to incomprehension, now mature into fear. A voice booms from the cloud: “This is my Son; listen to him.” Jesus appears again, alone; Moses and Elijah have vanished. The apostles “fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.”
The Church pairs this Gospel with the reading from Genesis for good reason. Both are mysterious and dream-like stories. Abram—like Peter, James, and John—falls into a trance, is enveloped by “terrifying darkness,” and hears the voice of God. When God speaks to Abram, he makes a covenant with him and reveals to him the land that will be given to his descendants. When God speaks to the apostles, though, he does not make a covenant with them; he reveals to them the Sonship of Jesus, and he commands them: “listen to him.”
Why doesn’t God make a covenant with Peter, James, and John, as he did with Abram? The figures of Moses and Elijah help us to answer this question. Moses and Elijah represent the legal and prophetic developments of God’s covenant with Abram. These developments culminate in the single person of Jesus, who is “about to accomplish the exodus” that will fulfil God’s earlier promise.
God’s new covenant, then, is not with the apostles, but with Jesus. Jesus will submit himself to the ruinous violence of human power so that humans held in bondage by that power might be freed from it. The “descendants” promised to Abram is the human family liberated by Jesus.
The “glory” of that family is the “glory” of God’s own Son: Jesus Christ. He makes us his brothers and sisters in the very act of murder we commit upon him.
How could Peter have understood this? How can we?
Dr. William Junker
Assistant Professor, Catholic Studies; Co-Director, Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy