An ancient Christian tradition placed the mysterious event we call the Transfiguration (and which we just heard about in the Gospel [Luke 9:28b-36]) - 40 days before Jesus’ crucifixion. That is why we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration every year on August 6 – 40 days before the feast of the Holy Cross – and also explains why we traditionally hear an account of it early in Lent each year.
Of course, the Gospel says nothing at all about how much time actually elapsed between the Transfiguration and Good Friday. It does, however, tell us – not in the actual excerpt we just heard but in the larger context of the Gospel – that it occurred soon after Jesus’ 1st prediction of what was in store for him in Jerusalem. Situated as a sequel to Jesus’ prediction of his Passion, the Transfiguration was apparently intended to confirm Jesus’ somewhat astonishing claim that his death would not be the end of the story. In other words, this advance look at Jesus’ glory as God’s Son seems to have been intended to prepare the disciples for the challenge of following Jesus on the way to the cross – yet another obvious reason to hear this story now, early in Lent.
For all its mysteriousness, however, the story itself is simple enough. Jesus and his special inner circle of Peter, John, and James went up the mountain to pray – mountains being traditionally understood as the preferred place for divine revelation, where Moses and Elijah, for example, had earlier experienced God’s presence and had heard his voice. The traditional site – the Mount of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor – in Israel is accessed nowadays by taxi ride – a somewhat scary, high-speed taxi ride (at least as I recall the experience) - up the narrow mountain road. Presumably, Peter, John, and James walked up the mountain – physically far more challenging, of course, but perhaps safer and certainly calmer!
Jesus, we are told, went up the mountain to pray. Prayer, as we learned in grade school, means “lifting our minds and hearts to God.” It was while he was praying, while modeling for us how to be in God’s kingdom, that this majestically mysterious event occurred – in effect, revealing the very God whose presence and action our prayer is our response to.
Joining Jesus in this tableau, the Old Testament’s two preeminent prophetic figures, Moses and Elijah appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem – a reminder that the Mount of the Transfiguration leads directly to the Mount of the Crucifixion.
Completely confused, Peter, blurted out the first thing that came into his head. Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Poor Peter! Moses and Elijah were actually already about to depart, but Peter wanted to make tents for them, as if this were everyone’s final destination, rather than part of a longer journey to Jerusalem and the cross! Distracted by everything he was seeing, Peter, not surprisingly, missed the point. So, from the cloud came a voice, God the Father himself speaking to clarify the situation, telling the disciples - and that includes us, who like them are also so easily distracted – to listen, not just to some prophet, but to his Son, God’s chosen Son.
Although Peter had already said that he acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, in fact he and the other disciples were still quite clueless as to what that really meant. Much like us perpetually distracted multi-taskers, Peter and the disciples desperately needed to listen, to learn what Jesus was going to accomplish for our sake on the cross. Listening, however, is not easy. It takes effort. It can be quite a challenge. How often - and how well - do we listen to one another? It’s taken for granted nowadays that most of our political debate in this country consists largely of people shouting at one another – or at any rate talking past one another – neither side listening to the other. Listening is hard because it takes time and energy and a readiness to take seriously someone’s experience besides my own.
Thursday of this week will mark the end of the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, who is handing over the papal office to end his days in a life of prayer and study. He’ll be 86 in April, and to his great credit he recognizes the limitations of age and ill health and their impact on one’s ability to meet the ever expanding expectations of today’s 24/7, constantly on the move, and always in the public eye, modern papacy. I’ll be 65 next month, and I’d certainly find it a challenge to meet those ever increasing public expectations. I think the Pope’s action offers us all a good model of listening to the Lord - good practice, I think, for our own challenge of listening to the Lord - who often speaks to us through our day-by-day experience, including own human experiences of weakness and infirmity.
In particular, as we all believe (or presumably we wouldn’t be here this morning), God speaks to us through our shared, common experience of being his Church. And it is as his Church that we are now being invited to listen to the Lord in a special way as the leaders of the Church prepare to choose a new Pope, by searching their own and our experiences to recognize the needs of God’s People – in the Church and throughout the world
Listening to the Lord is always a challenge. There is nothing automatic about it. , But it is always essential – for the Church as a whole, for Popes and Cardinals, and for each one of us - no less so than it was for Peter, John, and James!
The good news is that, even as Peter, John, & James listened (&, with them, we listen), to the lesson of the cross, they saw (& we see) in the transfigured glory of Christ, the first faint glimpse of the resurrection, already present in the frightening darkness in which we still find ourselves. That means the Jesus we need to listen to is not some figure form the past but the living Christ present in his Church as its Risen Lord, who affords us the confidence & encouragement we will need to navigate in the darkness.
Distracted as we all are by our preoccupation with ourselves, it is no less tempting for us than it was for the disciples to want to stay in a tent on the mountain & perhaps proceed directly to the resurrection. Such in the easygoing complacent Christianity that the great 20th century American Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr warned about, back in 1937 – what he called “a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” [The Kingdom of God in America]
In contrast to all such complacency, Lent is given to us each year to challenge us to listen to Jesus, to listen to his words & learn the lesson of his cross. Walking the Way of the Cross together, as we do here every Friday afternoon during Lent, is a particularly powerful Lenten practice, intended to help us listen & learn the lesson of Christ’s passion. All our traditional Lenten practices – prayer, fasting, charity – are intended to help us to listen more attentively to Christ the living Lord present in his Church, & so to learn anew the lesson of his death & resurrection in our own lives.
Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 24, 2013