The Gospel writers Matthew, Mark and Luke each included the event of the Transfiguration in their Gospel. Each of these three Evangelists personalizes their account. I will explore this a bit later in the commentary.
The Transfiguration event has a prominent place in our present Catholic Lectionary. Each year the Second Sunday of Lent features the Transfiguration account of one of the three Evangelists. August 6th each year is the day on which it is celebrated. This year August 6th falls on a Sunday and the readings for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time are replaced by the readings for the feast of the Transfiguration.
In 1517 Cardinal Giulio de’Medici commissioned Raphael to paint the Transfiguration. As the copy of the painting below reveals, Raphael chose the account from Mark’s Gospel as his inspiration.
The composition of the Transfiguration is divided into two distinct parts: the Miracle of the Possessed Boy on a lower level; and the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor, in the background. The transfigured Christ floats in an aura of light and clouds above the hill, accompanied by Moses and Elijah. Below, on the ground, are his disciples. Some are dazzled by the light of glory, others are in prayer. The gestures of the crowd beholding at the miracle link the two parts together: the raised hands of the crowd converge toward the figure of Christ. This was the last painting of Raphael’s brief life. On 6 April 1520, precisely 37 years after he was born, Raphael died in Rome, the city that he had helped make the most important centre of art and culture that had ever existed.
The Gospel passage for today’s celebration is taken from Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew is the only one of the three to describe this experience as a “vision”.When Matthew describes what happened to Jesus he says, “His face became as dazzling as the sun.” This specific description of what happened to Jesus is only in Matthew. Matthew is conscious that we read in Exodus 34:29 “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. Verse 33 reads “he put a veil over his face.” And in the vision of Daniel (10:6) the heavenly person is described, “his face shone like lightning.”
In Matthew’s account when Peter speaks after the appearance of Moses and Elijah he refers to Jesus as Lord. In Mark Peter refers to Jesus as Rabbi, In Luke as Master. Peter also portrays a submissive attitude before God for Matthew says, “with your permission…” After the voice speaks from the cloud Matthew tells us, “When they heard this the disciples fell forward on the ground, overcome with fear.” NABR “they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.” These emphases of Matthew turn the picture of Jesus to accent his divine majesty. At the beginning of Mass we pray “Lord have mercy”, we do not pray teacher or rabbi have mercy.
Matthew gives another particular emphasis to the Transfiguration scene as Matthew paints the picture. Only Matthew informs us, “Jesus came toward them and laying his hand on them, said ‘Get up! Do not be afraid.” NABR “But Jesus came and touched them saying, ‘Rise and do not be afraid.'” Matthew is careful to portray Jesus in his majesty but also in his tender compassion. Peter would like to stay on this mountain but Jesus goes down from the mountain with the disciples as he also does in Mark. Following this experience the miracles of Jesus decrease. Jesus tries mightily to convince his disciples of the kind of Messiah he must be, to give his life for others.
Finally I would like to recall this historical event.
August 6, 1945, a blinding light transfigured the citizens of Hiroshima, Japan. On that day the Catholic Church was celebrating another transfiguration, the transfiguration of Jesus. The anniversary of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima reminds us of the destructive transfiguring power (intelligence at the service of power). The opposite is the creative Transfiguring Power of Life in Jesus (intelligence at the service of love).
We will share moments of transcendence but must return to earth to combat evil.
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