by Father Mike Stubbs
Our journey through Lent begins as a tour of various geographical features. The First Sunday of Lent took us to the desert, where Jesus was tempted by the devil.
Now, for the Second Sunday of Lent, we travel up the mountain for the Transfiguration. It is a lesson in the geography of the spirit.
All three synoptic Gospels provide an account of the Transfiguration, that mysterious event through which Jesus is revealed in all his glory to a handful of select apostles while they are on top an unnamed mountain.
We will hear Matthew’s version this Sunday, Mt 17:1-19. All three versions mention how Jesus is changed in appearance, how his clothes become dazzling white.
At the same time, only Matthew’s account specifies Jesus himself as the source of light: “His face shone like the sun.” In the accounts of Mark and Luke, one could just as easily suppose Jesus is reflecting light from another source, not emitting light himself. But in Matthew’s version, we do not find that possibility. Matthew makes it very clear that Jesus himself is the source of the light.
Why is that? I can think of two possible explanations.
First of all, Matthew may be alluding to another prominent figure in the Bible who climbs a mountain to encounter God and whose appearance is transformed in the process: “As Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the commandments in his hands, he did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while he conversed with the Lord” (Ex 34:29). Moses is glowing with the glory of God, to the point that Moses covers his face with a veil because the Israelites are intimidated at the sight (Ex 34:33).
When Matthew describes Jesus’ face as shining like the sun, he may be linking Jesus’ transfiguration to this event in Moses’ life. This would continue an approach characteristic of Matthew’s Gospel — to present Jesus as the new Moses.
But I can think of another explanation that could either supplement or substitute for the explanation just outlined. This second explanation would reflect still another approach typical of Matthew’s Gospel — his tendency to emphasize the divinity of Christ and to downplay his humanity. While Matthew’s Christology does not attain the heights of John’s Gospel, it certainly does exceed that of Mark’s and Luke’s.
John’s Gospel identifies Jesus with the primordial light, who was with God in the beginning and who came into the world through Jesus to reveal God’s glory to the human race: “The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world” (Jn 1:9). Matthew’s description of Jesus’ face shining like the sun suggests a similar belief in Jesus as the light of the world. That is the light which is to guide the disciples Peter, James and John when they have climbed down from the mountain. That is also the light which is to guide us through our journey of Lent.