As a diptych to the story of the temptation of Jesus, the Transfiguration is always proclaimed on the Second Sunday of Lent. The title masks its deeper meaning, since the earliest English use of "transfiguration" is for the feast, and the word rarely appears in "secular" discourse. A better translation of the Greek would be "transformation" of Jesus, which evokes the words of the hymn in Philippians: that Jesus "took on the form of a slave, coming in human likeness" (Phil. 2:7). The verb is found in only two other places: in Rom. 12:2, "do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind," and in a passage from 2 Cor. 3:18, which shaped the theology of Irenaeus of Lyons and of Eastern patristic thought: "All of us gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is spirit." The manifestation of Jesus’ glory is also a promise of transformation of his followers.
The Transfiguration comes at the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, which he has just predicted will end in a horrible death by crucifixion. Here a voice from heaven pronounces, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," echoing that same proclamation at Jesus’ baptism (Mt. 3:17). Jesus is the beloved Son not only when he announces God’s mercy and love in the Sermon on the Mount and enacts God’s victory over evil through his healing ministry, but also when he enters into the mystery of suffering.
In preaching on this feast, Karl Rahner reflected on what the event meant for Jesus himself: "This then is the meaning of the transfiguration for Jesus himself: in the dark night of hopelessness the light of God shines, a human heart finds in God the power which turns a dying into victory and into redemption of the world" (The Great Church Year).
At the beginning of Lent, the feast is also about the journey of Jesus’ followers. Shortly before the ascent to the mountain, Simon Peter confesses Jesus as "Messiah, Son of the living God," and Jesus promises that he will be Peter as the rock on which his church will be built and that God’s power will safeguard his mission. Yet when Jesus talks about his coming death, Peter takes him aside and says: "God forbid, Lord!" No such thing shall ever happen to you. But afterward, gazing upon the glory of Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah, Peter wants to build three dwellings and rest thereno more talk of crucifixion. Peter’s request is answered by a voice from a cloud-enshrouded mountaintop proclaiming Jesus, as at his baptism, beloved Son and charging Peter, "Listen to him." Peter’s "peak experience" is not an assurance of divine consolation, but a mandate to follow the very path of suffering discipleship that he earlier resisted. Yet that will be his ultimate destiny.
I have been writing these reflections on the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. Thinking about the mountaintop, I read again his last speech given the night before he died (April 4, 1968), a day that has seared my memory like the other horrors since that moment when, as a little boy, I heard first the words "day of infamy," unaware of how many such days lay ahead. Martin Luther King spoke with still unparalleled eloquence of the need for justice through nonviolence for the African-American people, and especially for the exploited sanitation workers of Memphis. He spoke of the hopes of his people, not only for "long white robes over yonder," but for "suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here." At the end of the speech, he said that he had been "to the mountaintop" and, prophetically, "I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you," but even so "mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." Now 34 years after his death, our nation must again "listen to him," and heed his message to follow the nonviolent quest for racial and social justice. His life, like that of Jesus, ended in a brutal and violent death. During this Lent, when violence and injustice are so much part of the air we breathe, we are challenged again to listen to both of these prophetic voices.