Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Matthew 17:1-9 – NRSV).
Matthew is dependent on Mark 9:2-8. See also Luke 9:28-36. Peter also refers to this event – see 2 Peter 1:16-18.
These three – Peter, James and John – seem to form an inner circle. Jesus takes the three with him when he is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37); they were also among the first disciples whom Jesus called (Matthew 4:18–22). “This is the only place where Matthew links Peter, James, and John, but the other Gospels make it clear that the three formed something of a unit and that they were especially close to Jesus. In the Greek they are linked by a single definite article; Matthew regards them as in some sense a unity.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 438.)
a high mountain: Theophanies usually occur on mountains. Sinai is perhaps the most significant such mountain in the tradition. Jesus has given the Beatitudes on the mountain (Matthew 5:1). After the resurrection the disciples gather at the mountain where Jesus had directed them (Matthew 28:16).
Transfigured: “There on the mountaintop Jesus was transfigured. There is a variety of translations; for example, GNB reads ‘a change came over Jesus’, and Cassirer, he ‘was transformed’. I have retained the conventional and somewhat obscure word transfigured because in fact we do not know exactly what happened, and this word at least brings before us the truth that Jesus underwent a unique transformation before the disciples. Matthew selects two features of this change, the first being that Jesus’ face shone like the sun. This is a detail we owe to Matthew; Mark says nothing about Jesus’ face, and Luke tells us that while Jesus was praying the appearance of his face ‘became other’ but he does not tell us in what way it was ‘other’; only Matthew speaks of it as shining. He goes on to say that Jesus’ clothing became white as the light. The shining of the face indicates unusual radiance. It is perhaps curious that his clothing became white as the light, for we do not normally regard light as being white (though we can use the expression ‘white light’). The meaning appears to be that even Jesus’ clothing became splendid in appearance. J. Behm understands this as the ‘transformation from an earthly form into a supraterrestrial’, and he explains further, ‘Before the eyes of His most intimate disciples the human appearance of Jesus was for a moment changed into that of a heavenly being in the transfigured world’.” (Leon Morris, op cit, 438-439.)
Moses and Elijah: There was a tradition among the Jews that, at the end of time, the great figures of Jewish history would re-appear. Moses is the great lawgiver, Elijah is the great prophet. This is the “end time” and Jesus stands at the centre of it: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Peter is gob smacked! In this state of stupefaction he makes an absurd suggestion: “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’.” We are reminded of the theophany involving Isaiah: “The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’” (Isaiah 6:4-5) This lends a particular tenderness to Jesus’ response: “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid’.”
“Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead”: As the little group is “coming down the mountain” – and that is a highly symbolic note in the drama being described here – Jesus speaks of this event as part of the total saving event of his life, death and resurrection. In particular, they will remember this moment of glory when he rises from the dead.
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 17:1-9 – we find a thoroughly normal human instinct at work: “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’”. Yes, it is good for them to be there. But “there” is not the place of “arrival” so much as yet another place of “departure”. Jesus and his disciples are on a journey. That journey is into the depths, the extreme depths of human existence. It must go via Calvary, but not even end there. Beyond Calvary is “the descent into hell (which) brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #634). Then – and only then – we have the resurrection, the manifestation that all is done.
Our yearning to settle down, “to make dwellings here”, must be dealt with in a broader context. The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), when speaking of the reason for philosophy, points to that broader context that in fact is relevant to us all, not just philosophers, not just disciples of Jesus:
“University philosophers will never understand what Novalis said: ‘Philosophy is, strictly speaking a homesickness’. …. We are without a native land and are restlessness itself, living restlessness; it is because of this that it is necessary for us to philosophise…. And we are not allowed to let it pass away, to comfort ourselves in an illusion about totality and a satisfactory infinitude. We must not only bear this restlessness in us but accentuate it …. only then are we in a position to be ‘gripped’. And when we thus make ourselves ‘grippable’, by handing ourselves over to reality, our homesickness makes us into human beings” (Martin Heidegger cited in A. Naess, Four Modern Philosophers, University of Chicago Press, 1967, 174). This is reminiscent of St Augustine words at the outset of his Confessions: “Yet we, as part of your creation, wish to praise you. You arouse us to take joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”.
Clearly, Peter, James and John are “gripped” by what they have witnessed on the mountain. Peter is to recall the event years later: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’. We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).
Are we too busy, too distracted, perhaps too fixed on “doing the right thing”, to be “gripped” by God? What do you think Martin Heidegger means when he writes: “When we thus make ourselves ‘grippable’, by handing ourselves over to reality, our homesickness makes us into human beings”?