The Transfiguration of the Lord, Year A



The Transfiguration of the Lord, Year A

First Reading: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Response: Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 9; Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-19; Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

The Book of Daniel is a response to a persecution of the Jews in and around Jerusalem by the King of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The dates of the persecution are circa 168-164 B.C. The time of composition is about 165 B.C. Though the book responds to this 2nd-century B.C. persecution, the fictitious literary setting is during the exile of Israel in Babylon in the years 598-540 B.C. In the story, Daniel is a brilliant young Jew among the exiles. To him is granted a vision in which four empires, which had oppressed the Israelites in the past and present, are finally brought to judgment.

The oppressors are depicted as horrible beasts rising up out of the sea. The fourth beast is the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great. At his death in 323 B.C., his empire was divided among his generals. One of those generals founded the ruling dynasty in Syria. Daniel sees a little horn growing out of the head of the fourth beast. The little horn is a symbol of the persecutor, King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. What we have before us is patriotic literature akin to the sentiments expressed by oppressed minorities in the U.S.A. in the 20th century A.D. Those sentiments were expressed in the song “We Shall Overcome.” That is a major theme of the Book of Daniel.

The book envisions judgment and destruction of enemies of the Jews; more specifically, the destruction of King Antiochus of Syria. Our first reading opens in a heavenly courtroom. Thrones were set up. The Ancient of Days (God) took his throne. Daniel describes his appearance. His clothes bright white. His hair white as wool. His throne: flames of fire on wheels of fire, a stream of fire going out from the throne. Thousands and thousands attended God around the throne. Court is convened. Books are opened. What happens next is the reason for the selection of this reading to accompany the gospel of the transfiguration. Daniel sees “one like a Son of Man,” that is, “one like a human being.” In contrast to the four beasts that came out of the chaos of the sea, this human-like being comes on the clouds and is presented at the throne of the Ancient of Days. The Ancient One bestows on him “dominion, glory, kingship.” All nations and languages will serve him. His kingdom will last forever. The interpretation of the symbols in the vision is explained to Daniel by one of the attendants at the throne. Christians interpreted very differently from the interpretation given in the book. For them, the Son of Man is Jesus in heavenly power and glory. Therefore, this reading was selected for the transfiguration of Jesus in glory.

Psalm 97 responds to the universal kingdom of the Book of Daniel by proclaiming the Lord God as king, the Most High over the whole earth.  The title Most High is a favorite title (used 14 times) for God in the Book of Daniel. The English Most High translates an ancient Semitic title, El Elyon, (god, the exalted one) for the chief god of all heathen gods. Israelites adapted the title for their own use, applying it to the Lord God as supreme over the idols, the heathen gods.

There are three versions of the transfiguration of Jesus in the gospels: one in Mark, one in Matthew and a third one in Luke. A fourth version is found in the 2nd Letter of St. Peter, and is our second reading for this feast. The author of the letter first notes that some people reject the claim that Jesus foretold the Parousia, the technical name for his return at the end of time. He asserts that “we have been eyewitness of his majesty.” He then describes what Jesus’ disciples saw and heard on the mountain of the transfiguration. He understands the transfiguration as a prediction or preview of Jesus’ final appearance in power and glory at the Parousia. He warns his readers and hearers that they would do well to be attentive to what he is saying.

This year is Matthew’s turn to proclaim the transfiguration of Jesus. As noted above, the Letter of Peter claimed that the transfiguration was a preview of the Parousia. Just as important is the claim that it was a preview of the resurrection of Jesus to heavenly glory. Matthew begins, “Jesus took Peter, James, and John (the two Zebedee brothers), and led them up a high mountain. There he was transfigured (changed in appearance) in their presence.” The three who saw him in glory on the mountain would also see his degradation in his passion and death which, in turn, was a preparation for his resurrection. A description follows. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. Matthew, a learned scribe, is well-acquainted with the Old Testament, as was the author of Mark’s gospel, from which Matthew copied and made a few changes to suit his preferences. Old Testament echoes are heard in the high mountain: the appearance of Moses and Elijah; the suggestion to build three tents or booths; the bright cloud; the voice from the sky; in the words proclaimed by the voice; in the frightened reaction of the dumbstruck disciples; and in Jesus’ comforting reassurance, “Rise and do not be afraid.” All these elements echo the Old Testament.

Whatever they saw in this vision, we can be certain that Old Testament events and phrases played a major role in forming the story of the transfiguration as we eventually have it in our four written forms. It was noted above that the transfiguration was a preview, even a promise, of Jesus’ final return in glory, and that it was a preview of the resurrection of Jesus. It was also a promise of the resurrection. We conclude this from Matthew’s placement of the transfiguration between two predictions of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. The presence of Moses and Elijah are of the greatest importance. Tradition held that Moses was the author of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Thus, he represents the revelation contained in the Torah. Elijah, even though not a written prophet, was, nevertheless, an important prophet. The three major divisions of the Old Testament are called, “Torah, Prophets, Writings (or Psalms).” Christians claimed that all that happened to Jesus was foreseen and foretold in one or all of those divisions (See Luke 24:44-46). The presence of Moses and Elijah representing the Old Testament is the symbolic Amen to that Christian claim. The blueprints were ready. They were fulfilled in Jesus.