When God Tells Us to Listen to His Son, We Need To Do Just That
“And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord it is well that we are here” (Mt 17:4)
It is well that we are here. What else could Peter say in the face of the mystifying and beautiful things happening? Jesus had led Peter, James, and John up a mountain seemingly without much preparatory explanations. St. Luke makes the comment that, “[he] went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white” (Lk 9:28b-29). Jesus’s whole appearance changes. Though the apostles are “heavy with sleep” (v. 32) they remain awake to watch Jesus undergo this transfiguration and watch him talk with Moses and Elijah. Imagine how bewildered these good, solid, stouthearted first-century Jews must be actually seeing the major prophets of the Old Testament. As many wonders as Jesus had worked, no other figures from the past had mysteriously emerged. And so Peter says that it is good that they are with him, and would Jesus like for him to make tents for the three of them? St. Mark (who was a disciple of St. Peter’s) adds in, “For [Peter] did not know what to say for they were exceedingly afraid” (Mk 9:6). The tents, or booths, are reminiscent of how the Israelites worshipped in the desert – with the Ark of the Covenant kept in a tent in the midst of their camp. Some scholars suggest that Peter is trying to prolong the glory of this moment, but what is for certain is that the gospel writers suggest he didn’t know what he was saying because the three were in total shock.
As if it weren’t enough of a shock to see Jesus in glory speaking with Moses and Elijah, when Peter attempts to make his suggestion of what they ought to do the following happens, “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (Mt 17:5). They have all been caught up in the presence of God, who appeared to the Israelites as bright cloud throughout the Old Testament. Not only are they caught up in his presence, but the Father actually speaks to them. Notice he does not speak to Jesus, but speaks to the apostles. In the accounts we have of the Transfiguration, the words of Christ are very few. After the apostles throw themselves down in the presence of God Jesus tells them to “Rise, and have no fear” (v.7). The primary speakers are Peter and God the Father. What does this have to tell us about the event of the Transfiguration?
The True Messiah: A Suffering Servant
It would be well to examine what the events leading up to the Transfiguration were. In all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke), Peter has shortly before made his declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus affirms this declaration of Peter and says, “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (16:17-18). So Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus affirms this and declares Peter is the rock on which the Church will be built. Peter was probably feeling pretty good about himself until he gets rebuked shortly thereafter.
Now that the apostles know that Jesus is the Messiah, he is trying to correct their understanding of the Messiah by informing them that he must suffer and die when he goes to Jerusalem. Many of the Jews at the time understood the Messiah as a political savior who would lead the Jewish people in an overthrow of the Roman tyranny over them. Many troubling things had happened throughout Judea and Galilee to provoke the anger of the Jewish people against the Romans, and things had become deadly more than once. Jesus’s apostles likely expected the same out of the Messiah, and their excitement over his being the Messiah needed to be guided by God’s true work. Peter does not realize that Jesus’s suffering and death is the plan of God and tries to rebuke Jesus. It does not go well for Peter.
“Listen to him”
It is only after this debacle with Peter that Jesus tells the disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (16:24). It is six days later that Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain. What they must have been talking about amongst themselves! Jesus is the Messiah, but he’s also talking about suffering and death, what can it mean? So they ascend the mountain, and Peter, with his newfound authority, asks Jesus what he can do for him. It is not Jesus who responds, but the Father from heaven who responds to Peter’s request. What do they need to do? Listen to him. That is the posture the apostles ought to have. Jesus did not bring them up the mountain to wait on him, he brought them up the mountain so they might witness his glory and not be overwhelmed by the sorrow and suffering that was soon to come. They needed to listen to him, to ponder his words and his meaning.
St. Luke makes it painfully clear how the apostles struggle with listening to Jesus. After coming down the mountain, Jesus heals an epileptic boy who was possessed with a demon and many marvel at him for his works. In the midst of their marveling he tells his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men” (Lk 9:44), but Luke comments, “But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, that they should not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask him about this saying” (v. 45). What they were not too afraid to ask about was who was the greatest amongst themselves. They knew he was the Messiah, and some of them had seen his glory, and naturally they wanted to know what the pecking order would look like once the kingdom was settled. But he places a child in their midst and says simply, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3-4).
Childlike Faith and Dependence
To be like a child is to be in the position of receptivity. A child cannot make his or her own choices about most things. A child must humbly ask for help. A child must listen, especially to what mother and father and sister and brother say. And God the Father had just responded to Peter’s question by emphasizing, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Jesus is the beloved Son of God the Father. He came to reveal the Father and the Father’s love for men. He came to teach us how to be human and to teach us about the redeeming plan for humanity. He came to die and to rise. He ascended into heaven, but he will come again. His Transfiguration is a foretaste of the glory to come and reminds us of the glory we were made to partake in. Celebrating the feast of the Transfiguration affords us a great opportunity to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s glorious humanity, a humanity drenched the in the dazzling love of God.
Descending the Mountain
St. Peter may not have known what was going on that day on the mountain, but he took it to heart. And after some more foibles and downfalls, he did indeed write about his experience of the Transfiguration in the Second Letter of St. Peter. In the letter he makes reference to his approaching death, and he writes to encourage the brethren to persevere in the faith. He wants to remind them of what he can while he can, “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to arouse you by way of reminder…and I will see to it after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things” (2 Pt 1:13, 15). He goes on to emphasize that the apostles were indeed eyewitnesses of Christ’s glory. He reminds them of the story of the Transfiguration so that they might bear in their hearts a testimony of his glory and majesty. When St. Peter wrote this letter, Christians were being killed for their faith. Those who were not close disciples had not seen him in his resurrected power. They needed reminders that Christ was indeed the Messiah, that he had the power of God, and that he was coming back. Peter emphasizes, “You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (v.19). In the darkness of the times, Christ’s glory must serve as a glowing reminder of his goodness and faithfulness to the people.
The same remains true today. There are dark things in the world and in the Church. It is easy to get caught up in fear and anxiety about them. We would do well to contemplate more frequently how Christ has worked, how he is working now, and what he will do when he comes again. The feast of the Transfiguration gives us an opportunity to step back and contemplate these mysteries, hopefully in new or deeper ways. This feast provides us with another opportunity to remember that Jesus is the beloved Son of the Father, and that we must, if we are to be true disciples, be as little children and listen to him.