by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Each year on the Second Sunday of Lent, we read one of the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration. It is no coincidence that Jesus invites Peter, James and John — the same three that will be with him in the Garden at Gethsemane — to a mountain where he reveals his glory.
Amongst the Twelve, these apostles have a special relationship with Jesus. Peter was the leader and often the spokesman for the apostles. John is the youngest of the apostles and identified in the Gospels as the “Beloved Disciple.” James the Greater was destined to be the first apostle martyred.
The verses preceding the Transfiguration in Matthew’s Gospel include Our Lord’s questioning the apostles regarding what others believe about him, followed by the more personal and significant inquiry: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responded for the apostles by saying: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus commends Peter for his answer and proclaims him to be the rock upon which Our Lord will build the church. Jesus manifests his confidence in Peter by even entrusting to him the keys of the kingdom!
In the subsequent verses, Jesus begins to prepare the apostles for what will happen in Jerusalem, where he will suffer greatly and be killed. Immediately, Peter graciously takes Jesus aside, not wishing to embarrass Our Lord in front of the other disciples, and proceeds to rebuke Jesus for speaking in such a negative and pessimistic manner.
Our Lord counters Peter’s rebuke with his own by saying: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Peter has gone from rock with the keys of the kingdom to Satan in just a few brief verses.
Next, Jesus tells all his disciples: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.”
Jesus does not promise his disciples that by following him they will be free from problems, difficulties, adversities and suffering. In fact, Jesus tells them just the opposite. If they are going to follow Our Lord, then they must follow him all the way to Calvary. They must be willing to share in the cross.
It is against this backdrop that Jesus allowed Peter, James and John to receive a glimpse of his glory. The face of Jesus becomes as bright as the sun and his clothes become as white as light. They witness Jesus in conversation with two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah.
Peter, always a man of action, responded by proposing to erect three tents: one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus. While Peter is still speaking, a bright cloud envelops them and they hear the voice of the heavenly Father declare: “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
Why does the church, early in the Lenten season, always present to us for our meditation one of the accounts of the Transfiguration? Our journey through Lent will culminate with the commemoration of Our Lord’s passion and death. The liturgy of Lent reminds us that if we wish to be a disciple of Jesus, then we must be prepared to follow him to Calvary and to share in the cross.
During Lent, we need to reflect upon how Our Lord has revealed himself to us. We should meditate on how Our Lord has revealed his love to us. What are some of our mountaintop experiences when we have felt particularly close to Jesus? Perhaps it was a retreat experience, or being overwhelmed by the beauty of creation, or an experience of divine providence, or the birth of a child!
When has Our Lord consoled us with his mercy and compassion? Perhaps it was during the sacrament of reconciliation, or the healing of a damaged friendship, or his consolation at the death of a loved one! For Peter, James and John, Our Lord was preparing and fortifying them for the trauma of his passion and crucifixion. Though Our Lord’s forewarning about his fate in Jerusalem did not prevent Peter from denying Jesus nor James from abandoning Jesus during the passion, it did give John the courage to remain with Jesus on Good Friday and Peter the faith to run to the tomb on Easter.
Our Lord has given us experiences when we have felt his presence and his love. Jesus has given us glimpses of his glory to console and strengthen us during our experiences of the cross.