Scripture in Depth
Reading I: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
As we point out on the second Sunday of Lent in series A, the transfiguration appears there as a curtain-raiser to the passion. Today the accent is rather different. The transfiguration can now be considered for its own sake. It is related to Christology, to the understanding of the person of Jesus.
The keynote is struck by the first reading, the vision of the Son of man as he is presented before the “ancient of days.” Note that the scene is not of a coming of the Son of man to earth, but of his being brought before the presence of God. The analogue is the ascension rather than the second coming. The transfiguration as related in the Gospel reading, in which Jesus' face shines like the sun and his garments are white as light, shows that it is he who is to be glorified like the Son of man. For although nothing is said in Daniel about the shining face or the white garments of the Son of man, similar features are combined with the picture of the ascended Christ as the Danielic Son of man in chapter 1 of the Apocalypse. The transfiguration reveals Jesus in his earthly existence as the one who is to be exalted as the Son of man after his suffering. It is an “anticipation of his eschatology”(G. Kittel).
Responsorial Psalm: 97:1-2, 5-6, 9
The psalm picks up the theme of kingship from the Danielic vision. Of course, it concerns the kingship of YHWH, but there is no difficulty for Christian interpretation in shifting the term “Lord” from YHWH-Kyrios to Christos-Kyrios.
Reading II: 2 Peter 1:16-19
This passage contains an account of the transfiguration that, according to some scholars, is independent of, and in some respects more primitive than, the accounts in the Gospels. As it stands, it serves two purposes:
(1) It reinforces the pseudonymous claim of the letter to have been writ ten by the apostle Peter. We have to remember that the second century, when this letter was probably written, had very different ideas about pseudonymity from ours. It was a device to enable an authority, now dead, to continue to speak in the changed circumstances of the Church subsequent to his death. By claiming to have been present at the transfiguration, the author reinforces his claim to be speaking in the name of the apostle Peter.
(2) The transfiguration story is used to prove that the Christian gospel is not based upon a myth, but upon an event that actually happened, namely, the earthly life of Jesus. Of course, this historical event receives interpretation, albeit in mythological terms, for the Danielic Son of man is unquestionably mythological in origin. But a myth per se is an entirely unhistorical speculation. The gospel involves the use of mythological concepts, but it uses them to interpret history, which is a very different thing.
Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9
The Transfiguration looks forward to the passion and the subsequent glorification of Jesus in his resurrection. Luke’s version, read on the second Sunday of Lent in series C and commented upon there, brings out more clearly the episode’s connection with the Passion: Moses and Elijah talk with Jesus about his “departure [Greek: exodos] which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
Matthew follows Mark quite closely, except for the addition of verses 6 and 7, the disciples’ “fear” (so the Greek) and Jesus’ attempt to quiet their fear by his reassuring touch and the words “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
In the Bible, fear is always the human reaction to a theophany (see, for example, Rev 1:17). It is overcome, not by saying that confrontation with the presence of God is a casual, everyday experience which there is no reason to fear, but only by the encouraging word of Christ (see Mt 14:27; Mt 28:5, 10).
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University