ColumnsSunday’s Word

Upright is the word of the Lord

March 8, 2020


Gen 12:1-4

The blessing upon Abraham

Ps 33:4-5, 18-20, 22

Upright is the word of the Lord

2 Tm 1:8-10

Bear your share of the hardship

Mt 17:1-9

Jesus is transfigured


Each year, whether it is the liturgical cycle of Matthew, Mark, or Luke, the second Sunday of Lent features the Transfiguration of Jesus. In each of these Gospels, the story of Jesus begins in Galilee, where Jesus is shown working in the villages, healing the ill and restoring the life of the communities. About halfway through the narrative, Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem, and the second part of the story unfolds.

Matthew sometimes uses verbal tags to articulate sections of his account. For instance, the five major discourses in his Gospel each ends with a version of “When Jesus finished these words…” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). This is his way of alerting his reader that a major speech has just concluded. We know the first of these as the Sermon on the Mount. But the others are just as significant.

Similarly, he introduces both phases of Jesus’ ministry with a verbal formula — “From that time on…” The first of these (4:17 introduces the Galilee ministry. The second introduces the move to Jerusalem (16:21). After this, Jesus will make his way to the city, where he will confront those in the temple, and incite the authorities to remove him. They will do that by involving the Roman governor, Pilate, to have Jesus crucified. The account doesn’t end there, of course, for the final chapter shows Jesus risen from the dead, and the movement continuing among his disciples. (John’s Gospel does not follow this pattern, but that is another story, as they say.)

In each of the three Gospels, the move toward Jerusalem begins with the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. It is preview of what is to come, a warning as well as an encouragement. And it serves a similar purpose in the season of Lent. Appearing on the second Sunday, it looks forward to the difficult days ahead, but promises Easter just beyond. The promise of Easter is seen in the vision of Jesus in shining clothes. This anticipates the vision of the angel at the tomb of Resurrection, whose clothing was “white as snow” (28:3). The glory this suggests outshines the darkness of the days ahead.

But the Transfiguration story doesn’t only look ahead; it also looks back to the beginning and the Galilean mission that followed. The Voice from heaven has been heard before, at the baptism of Jesus (3:17). And the message is the same: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” At the baptism this was a brief sketch of the coming mission. Citing two Old Testament passages, it affirmed that Jesus was the Messiah (Ps 2:7), but surprisingly he is to carry out that role as the suffering Servant of the Lord (Isa 42:1). This combination of roles is unprecedented, and denies the anticipated Messiah as a conquering militant hero, replacing that image with a Servant, or slave. Service is the new model.

The unforeseen combination is lost on the disciples. The Galilean mission of Jesus concludes with Peter affirming “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16). While he is technically correct, he fails to understand the new meaning of that role. That is the issue behind his subsequent conversation with Jesus, which ends with Jesus saying, “Get behind me, Satan! … You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (16:23). Of course, Peter was not present at the baptism, and did not hear the voice then. So Jesus begins his journey to the city, where the confrontation and Passion will take place.

And so the Transfiguration lesson also answers Peter. Repeating the baptism message, the Voice adds the perhaps ominous, “Listen to him.” And from now on, along the road to Jerusalem, Jesus will be teaching about servant discipleship.

For reflection: Baptism is both Cross and Resurrection.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.