Homily for the 8 o’clock Mass
Second Sunday of Lent Year A, 12 March 2017
Mt 17:1-9; Gn 12:1-4; 2 Tm 1:8-10
You’re wondering: what relevance to the Gospel of the Transfiguration have today’s two first readings? Let me start now then by having a brief look at them.
In our first reading we heard a familiar passage from Genesis about the call and blessing of Abraham. Abram, as he was then called, was asked to be obedient to God; to leave everything he knew behind; to enter into the unknown. He could do that because he was given a vision, a goal, a promise: a hope that was very wonderful and very great. And this is our case also. We don’t know any details, but we do know what is the ultimate goal and purpose of our life, and it’s very wonderful and very great. Through, with and in Jesus Christ, we are to leave the land of sin and death. Led by him, we are to make our way towards heaven. There we will at last see him face to face. If we keep our eyes fixed on him, who has gone before us, and who is beautiful in shining light, then we will find the courage we need to bear many the difficulties, many obstacles, many pains and trials we encounter en route: and bear them not only with patience and perseverance, but also with joy.
Then the second reading, from St. Paul’s Second letter to Timothy. You’d never guess why that one was chosen for today, if all you had was our Jerusalem Bible translation. The last verse of our passage has the three English words Revealed, and Appearing, and Proclaimed. In the original Greek - it’s perfectly clear also in the Latin - each of these words is to do with light. Mgr. Ronnie Knox gets it perfectly. He translates: “Now it has come to light, since our Saviour Jesus Christ came to enlighten us; now he has annulled death, now he has shed abroad the rays of life and immortality...” So here we have a clear link with the Gospel. St. Paul reminds Timothy that he can bear all hardships, upheld as he is by the light of truth, which is the light of God, the light of glory, and of holiness. This light streams from Jesus Christ: it’s the light into which we are all called to live for ever.
And so we come to today’s Gospel, in which Jesus is revealed as bathed in light. We always have the account of the Transfiguration on the Second Sunday of lent. The vision which was granted to the few chosen disciples is granted now also to us. We need it, as we progress through lent towards the events of Holy Week, and the Passion and Death of Jesus.
The three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke are closely related in their narrative of the Transfiguration. Nevertheless, there are subtle and important differences between them. St. Matthew is the supremely Jewish Gospel, written for Jewish Christians. So Matthew emphasises in particular how Jesus is in perfect continuity with the Old Testament, how he fulfils everything in it, yet also how he surpasses it all, according to God’s foreordained plan of salvation.
So for St. Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses, the new leader and Saviour of the new Israel. The face of Moses shone with reflected light after his encounter with God on Mount Sinai. Matthew alone says that the face of Jesus shone; not just a bit either, but as brightly as the sun. But this was no reflected glory: the face of Jesus shone with his own glory. It’s the difference between the moon and the sun itself. Again, Matthew alone has the disciples falling on their faces in fear. Then he (alone) has the lovely detail: Jesus came and touched them. So it is with us. We need to know that Jesus is divine, the eternal Son of God, our Lord. But he touches us directly through his humanity, through his humility, through his oneness with us; so that we can easily relate to him, know him and love him.
The Transfiguration account very deliberately links back to the Baptism of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, and forwards to Gethsemani and Calvary at the end. The voice of God the Father in the Transfiguration and Baptism scenes is the same. The Holy Spirit is there in both too, though in the Transfiguration he is manifested as Cloud, and in the Baptism as Dove. At the Transfiguration the Father adds: Listen to him. Listen to the teaching of Jesus, especially as given in the Sermon on the Mount. And listen to what he has been saying immediately before in Matthew’s Gospel: his warning about his forthcoming Passion, and his invitation to us to share in it. Listen to him, not only because he reveals the will and Person of God to us, as Moses to an extent did. Jesus does that, certainly, but he also reveals himself; for he is both the supreme revealer, and the one revealed.
At Gethsemani the same three chosen disciples are present, to witness the closeness of Jesus to his Father’s will. Then on the hill of Calvary Jesus will be flanked by two men; not Moses and Elijah, but the two criminals. Of course the contrast is very pointed. Here on Thabor we see Jesus in his majesty and glory. There in his wretchedness. Here in his divinity; there in his humanity. Here in the eternal life and light he shares with his Father and the Holy Spirit; there in his pain, humiliation and death, which he shares with us. So we have here a foretaste of the Paschal mystery: Jesus who died and rose again; in order that dying he might destroy our death, and rising might restore our life.
Today, the Church presents to our astonished and shielded eyes the figure of Jesus radiant in brilliant light. And we ask: Who is he? Who is this man who is to be mocked, spat upon, scourged, crowned with thorns and crucified? He is God’s only and Beloved Son. He is the Messiah promised to Israel. He is our Saviour, our Lord and our God.