Thursday, February 21, 2013

Transfiguration: Glory through Suffering and Death

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Lent, Year C, Luke 9:28-36, February 24, 2013

TODAY’S GOSPEL FOCUSES on Luke’s narrative on the transfiguration of Jesus.  Readers of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) will easily recall that the transfiguration story tells of an event that took place near the end of Jesus’ public ministry in which his external appearance changed.  In the presence of Peter, James and John atop a mountain, Jesus’ clothing became dazzlingly white, and with him appeared Moses and Elijah who spoke with him.  Peter was so overwhelmed by what took place that he suggested that three tents be made: one for Jesus, one for Moses and another for Elijah.  Then after a cloud overshadowed them, a voice was heard identifying Jesus as his Son, who must be listened to.  Then Jesus and his three disciples went down the mountain to be with the people.  Noting that the event offered the disciples an experience of the true identity of Jesus, many preachers follow a line of interpretation that stresses the need to follow up our “experience of the divine” with the practical aspect of spirituality, which is service to the people we meet every day.  They say that we cannot just contemplate on the divine; for that would be empty if divorced from action on behalf of the poor.

            While such line of preaching has something to commend it, yet it fails to take into account that each evangelist has a different way of understanding the event.  If we look at the version of Luke, we find that he has some theological insights that are not shared by other evangelists, and one of them relates to the content of the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah: “They appeared in glory, and spoke of his passage which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:21).  To understand what Luke means by this, it may be recalled that earlier on, Jesus asked his disciples who did crowds say he was.  It appears that they had come to uncover the reality of what he was through the public confession of Peter who addressed him as the “Messiah of God.”  But when Peter used this title to describe him, there is scarcely any doubt that he understood this title in the Jewish sense of an expected Messiah, the anointed one, sent by God in the Davidic, kingly or political tradition.  He would be a political figure identified with the “Messiah of Israel” (1QS 9:11) in the Qumran community.  In effect, having seen how Jesus healed and performed miracles, Peter thought that Jesus was really God’s anointed to restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory.

            It is for this reason that Jesus tried to explain to them the meaning of his messiahship by means of the prediction of his passion:  “The Son of Man,” he said, “must first endure many sufferings, be rejected by the elders, the high priests and the scribes, and be put to death, and then be raised up on the third day” (Luke 9:22).  And to make sure that his disciples, who frequently misunderstood him and his teaching, fully realized the implication of his words for those who wished to follow him, he continued his instruction on discipleship:  “Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self, take up his cross each day and follow in my steps” (Luke 9:24).  We do not know how, according to Luke, the disciples reacted to Jesus’ teaching, for Luke records none of it, unlike in Mark where we find Peter remonstrating with the Lord (Mark 8:33).  But one could make the educated guess that his declaration would have proved a disappointment to them, assuming they understood it.  After all, even after Jesus’ death, the disciples, according to Luke, thought that Jesus would free Israel from the Romans and restore its political and economic glory (Luke 24:21).

            The story of transfiguration, therefore, functions as a corrective of Peter’s faith in Jesus’ messiahship and confirms what Jesus said in the prediction of his passion.  The presence of Moses and Elijah, whic fulfills the requirement for witnessing in Luke’s theology (cf Simeon and Anna in the Infancy Narrative of Luke), serves to indicate that the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) testify to the identity of Jesus as the suffering Messiah.  Understandably enough, Luke—and no other synoptic evangelist—says that the two heavenly figures “spoke of his passage, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).  In the Greek Bible, the term translated in English as “passage” is exodos, which could also mean departure, the Exodus.  Since the use of the word no doubt echoes the Exodus of Israel from Egypt to the land of milk and honey, what Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31) was a new redeeming action for his people.  That is to say, just as the Exodus of old freed the people from slavery to Egypt, the new Exodus in Jerusalem would free the people from slavery to sin. 

           The Exodus then refers not only to Jesus’ passion and death, as some writers tend to think, but also to his resurrection and ascension, as all these events took place in Jerusalem.  Since the passage that Moses and Elijah spoke of includes the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the transfiguration serves also to correct the impression that Jesus was only a suffering Messiah.  For Luke, he is also the Messiah of glory.  Which is why unlike other synoptic writers, Luke says that the disciples had a glimpse of the glory of Jesus (Luke 9:32).  Of course, the term “glory” in Luke is to be connected to the risen status of Jesus, his being the Son of God.  His identity as Son of God that the disciples had a glimpse of was made explicit by the voice from the clouds, declaring him as God’s Son, his Chosen One (Luke 9:35).

            Luke’s understanding of the transfiguration should be obvious.  If the disciples saw Jesus in his glory as God’s Son, it is to affirm that Jesus, far from being a Messiah in the political tradition of his day, is one who enters into glory through suffering, death and resurrection in the holy city (see Luke 24:26).  (In that sense, Luke shares John’s view that death and glorification is a single event, though, as Schweizer notes, Luke stresses the death aspect of the event, while John emphasizes the glorification.)   The disciple of Jesus, who must listen to him and him alone, is to share and follow the same passage—death and glorification.

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