Brian S. Lowery, O.S.A.
Convento S. Agostino
San Gimignano, Italy
Dn 7: 9-10, 13-14
Ps 97: 1-2, 5-6, 9
2 Pt 1: 16-19
Mt 17: 1-9
Great things can happen on mountain tops. And great things can happen on the plains below as well. Today’s gospel has great things happening in both places.
First, the mountain top. In a totally unexpected gesture, Jesus gives a brief glimpse of his full person to three of his disciples, Peter, James and John. They had come up the mountain with him at his bidding. There they saw his face “shining like the sun” and his clothes “white as light”. Human words cannot adequately describe this experience. These words are the ones the gospel writer settled on.
Two of the most renowned figures in Jewish history, Moses and Elijah, were seen there speaking with him. A voice came out of the cloud above them and said: “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him”. Son of God?
What great thing happened down on the plain? It was different. It involved the same disciples and was equally as unexpected as what had happened on the mountain top. Jesus told them that he would be “raised from the dead”. What could that mean? They were too afraid to ask him. They asked themselves.
The two experiences caused different reactions in Peter, James, and John. Out of witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration and hearing the voice on the mountain top there came a sense of astonishment and great fear. They fell on their faces, Matthew tells us.
I hesitate to use what was once the best word of all for this experience, namely “awe”, because it has been so denatured lately. But I will anyway. Awe is that special and rarely felt sense of wonder that comes when we draw near to the mystery of God. The mystery strongly attracts us and at the same time fills us with fear as we come closer. It is the response the great theologians felt, the mystics, the poets, the prophets, musicians, and many holy shepherds of the Church throughout the ages.
The impact of Jesus’ statement that he would be raised from the dead made the three men begin to question. “What did he mean by that?” “How could that be?” Two of Jesus’ words unsettled them. One was “dead” and the other was “raised”. How did they fit in with the disciples’ experience on the mountain top and with their own expectations of what the coming Messiah should be? That was the great thing that happened on the plain. They began to question.
Today’s gospel is one of the richest passages of the whole Bible. It is read every year on the second Sunday of Lent as the whole Church moves with awe toward the great mystery of Easter. The disciples’ mountain top experience of Jesus has inspired some of the deepest reflection and most exalted expressions of faith in both the eastern and western Church. Their experience down on the plain helps to bring things back to earth again, where death and the wonder about rising is the stuff of our everyday questioning.
This Sunday perhaps it can tell us to be ready for the unexpected from Jesus. The mountain top experience brings out a wonderful sense of awe at the mystery of God within the man Jesus. The experience on the plain can keep us asking hard questions of our faith and accepting hard answers that lead us deeper into God’s mystery and into our own.