What a difference a week makes! From temptation in the desert to Transfiguration on the mount; from supernatural battle with Satan to supernatural glory before the disciples. It is a striking contrast between the Gospel readings for last Sunday and today. But while the temptation in the desert is obviously Lenten, why is the Transfiguration a part of the Sunday readings during Lent?
Of course, the actual time between the temptation in the desert and the stunning event on the mountain was about two years or so. But just a week before the Transfiguration, Jesus had asked the disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Lk 9:18). After Peter made his famous declaration, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16; Lk 9:20), Jesus began to tell them that he would soon suffer many things, be rejected by the rulers, killed and then “on the third day be raised” (Lk 9:22). In Matthew’s account, the intrepid Peter, stunned by this revelation, rebuked Jesus, only to be rebuked, in turn, in no uncertain terms: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mt 16:23).
In sum, Jesus had directly confronted and demolished any false notions the disciples might have had about the nature of his mission. He strongly expressed his unwavering commitment to offering himself as a sacrifice for the world. His kingdom was not of this world, and he was not a political leader or a military warrior; he was not promising comfort and wealth. On the contrary, Jesus was promising a cross: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).
We can only try to imagine how disorienting and confusing this had to be for the disciples. Suffering, rejection and rapidly approaching death were not parts of their plan! In the midst of this confusion and anxiety, Jesus took Peter, John and James up to the mountain to pray, ascending, as it were, toward the heavenly places. There, above the tumult of the world, Jesus revealed his glory and gave them a dazzling glimpse of their eternal calling.
But the glory witnessed by the apostles was not just about the future. “The Transfiguration,” notes Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis in “Fire of Mercy, Heart of the World” (Ignatius Press, $31.95), “is the experience of the fullness of divine Presence, action, communication, and glory now, in our very midst, in this world of passingness and disappointment.” It is about the fullness of life now — not ordinary, natural life, but extraordinary, supernatural life. The Transfiguration is about the gift of divine sonship, which comes from the Father, who says of Jesus, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
St. Thomas Aquinas observed that since Jesus exhorted his disciples to follow the path of his sufferings, it was right for them to see his glory, to taste for a moment such eternal splendor so they might persevere. He wrote, in the third part of his Summa Theologiae : “The adoption of the sons of God is through a certain conformity of image to the natural Son of God. Now this takes place in two ways: first, by the grace of the wayfarer, which is imperfect conformity; secondly, by glory, which is perfect conformity.”
The disciples had to learn that Jesus’ death was necessary so his life could be fully revealed and given to the world.
A week ago we entered into the desert of Lent; today we get a glimpse of the glory given to every child of God — glory conforming us to the Son.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.