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Transfiguration: 2nd Sunday of Lent


by Sr Jadwiga Swiatecka o.p.

Transfiguration of the Lord
Transfiguration of the Lord (photo by Lawrence Lew o.p.)

Matthew 17:1-9:  Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone. There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light. Suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to them; they were talking with him. Then Peter spoke to Jesus. ‘Lord,’ he said ‘it is wonderful for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow, and from the cloud there came a voice which said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.’ When they heard this the disciples fell on their faces overcome with fear. But Jesus came up and touched them. ‘Stand up,’ he said ‘do not be afraid.’ And when they raised their eyes they saw no one but only Jesus.
As they came down from the mountain Jesus gave them this order, ‘Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.’

Apparently, the most commonly repeated phrase in the whole Bible, in both the Old and the New Testament, is “Have no fear!” or “Do not be afraid!” There are also about a dozen or so times when Jesus is said to touch those he is about to cure. 

In this passage of the Transfiguration, we see Jesus saying: do not be afraid, and then touching the disciples who are afraid, as if fear itself were a kind of illness which needs to be cured.  Fear can, indeed, be debilitating: in common parlance, we can be paralyzed by fear; or/and we can do silly things which we will later regret – Peter’s suggestion of building three booths and staying on the mountain can be seen as one such consequence of fear, even if – as elsewhere – the fear expressed here is, perhaps, more akin to awe rather than terror.

So perhaps, as this is Lent (and not the Feast of the Transfiguration when we have the same reading) we might consider what things we, each individually, are afraid of: illness? death – ours or someone else’s? – ridicule? failure? inability to cope? change? monotony: a lack of stimulus or meaningful objectives? the possible bleakness of our own future? war?...

 But the story of the Transfiguration points us also to another side of this somewhat bleak endeavour, namely to attempt to discover those moments of our lives when we are most open to the touch of Jesus – perhaps in the Mass at Communion, or perhaps in the stillness of our own room (to which, Jesus suggests elsewhere, we should retire to pray in secret) perhaps when we look out on a daily changing landscape, or…whenever…For the touch of Jesus can also rid us of our crippling fears and transfigure our lives by his radiance; it can make us more like him in whose image we are made. And even if the apostles were overcome more by awe than by terror, it is also from the kind of awe which keeps us at a distance from Christ that we must be cured, for – in the words of St. Richard of Chichester - he is our friend and our brother whom we need to know more clearly, love more dearly and follow more nearly day by day. 

And was it because Jesus did not wish his other disciples to be overawed that he forbade the three with him to tell the others of this incident till after his death, for would the telling not have made them apprehensive, unsure, disturbed?