Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Ps: 97:1-2, 5-6, 9; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Matthew 17:1-9
In 2017, Americans are not ones to talk about visions. In fact, if someone even talks about a dream they had, it seems kind of odd. We like scary books, we like science fiction, and we like our movies loaded with special effects. But when we mention visions, or the mystical, or we mention a Saint who had visions, someone inevitably rolls their eyes or starts making woo-oo sounds, like a silly old ghost movie.
Our Gospel today has that one little word that I never really noticed before, and hadn’t really taken into account. The last sentence was Jesus saying, “Don’t tell the VISION to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
I can’t think of ever hearing a homily that didn’t treat the Transfiguration as an actual event, the kind of thing you could calendar, google a map for. For sure, Matthew collected every bit of symbolism he could from traditional sources. Examples: the mountain (being higher up makes you closer to God- mountains are almost always the site of important theological events); brilliant lights and white garments (found in most near-death experiences); overshadowing cloud (protecting you from seeing God). Of course, Moses is the symbol of the Law, while Elijah is the prophet of all prophets. There are 3 apostles, symbol of the divine Trinity, and a repeat of the voice of God from when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. Peter suggests 3 booths, or tents, to bring Jewish liturgy of the Feast of Tabernacles in to the mix, recalling the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. You can find all this and more in Matthew 26:37, Exodus 24: 12-18, 1 Kings 19: 8-18, Daniel 10:6, Revelations 4 and 9, Leviticus 23: 39-42, Matthew 3: 17, Deuteronomy 18: 15, Daniel 10: 9-19, as well as in historic Jewish writings on the Last Days which were not included in the Old Testament.
I think it is crucial that we are able to accept that some religious experiences are not the same as “normal” every day life. Perfectly sane and stable people have visions, which are a way for the brain to interpret events and facts beyond their imagination in ways they can relate to. It is really important to not expect that the Bible gives us a detailed video-style account in every passage. The Gospel writers, like Matthew, had a purpose for writing – to record the oral history of Jesus as the eyewitnesses died out AND give us certainty for our faith. The object as stated in our second reading, is to let us know that Jesus was not a “cleverly devised myth”, but real, and the Christian message is “altogether reliable.”
So our primary job is to determine the message the Gospel writer wants to give us. Just from the words used to describe the scene, I think it is fair to say that Matthew wants us to know that while Jesus was a humble itinerant Jewish preacher to his contemporaries, Jesus is also the Son of God; his teachings are divine wisdom, and his miracles are acts of God. Also, since Matthew has placed the Transfiguration in between Jesus’ 1st and 2nd predictions of his suffering, death and resurrection, we need to take special care to view those events in the light of Jesus’ divinity and God’s plan for his people.
By extension, the crucifixion is not shameful, but instead becomes a divine gift and an entryway to holiness for all people who are fully aware of their sins, their un-retractable actions of hurt and pain to others, their crimes and failings. Crucifixion was supposed to put an end to the idea that the actions and teachings of this unique and charismatic teacher could be implemented. Crucifixion was designed as a powerful barrier to following Jesus’ teachings.
But now all can draw strength and courage from his suffering and death. The Transfiguration would be that vision that would be forever burned in the memory of all as God-given proof of who Jesus was and what he had done for us. Matthew presents it as the pivotal point of change in lives and attitudes.
Jesus, then, has foretold his resurrection, and dies making clear that death itself has been overcome. If Jesus had such confidence in God’s desire and ability to turn senseless violence and suffering into triumph, then why should anyone else fear to follow his footsteps?
The Transfiguration is so very much “not normal”; it is so very much designed to startle us and get our attention. It is like a gigantic heavenly spotlight, giving us light, sound, and visuals; we get a clear view of who Jesus is. It sets our understanding straight. St. Peter’s letter makes a point of testifying to the power and coming of Jesus as real; His majesty and divinity are real. Those moments of seeing Jesus in Glory were designed to provide confirmation, certainty, hope and proof. God has the last word: Listen to him!