This Sunday repeats the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent (Am. 3/11), while the first two readings are selected for the feast. Though celebrated from the fifth century in the Eastern church, the Transfiguration was introduced into the Western calendar only in 1457, to celebrate the victory over the Turks at Belgrade (not recommended as a topic for homilies). The Gospel recounts a vision given to the disciples of the transformed Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah and the sound of a heavenly voice proclaiming divine approval of my beloved Son. It serves as a message of hope to earthly disciples who have just heard Jesus proclaim his coming death by crucifixion.
The reading from Daniel provides another vision of such hope. Though narrated as an event in the reign of Belshazzar (the last king of Babylon), this section of Daniel reflects the persecution of the Jewish people under Antiochus IV, Epiphanes (divine manifestation), in 167-64 B.C. In 7:1-8, Daniel interprets the king’s dream of four great beasts, which symbolize the succession of the four empires of the Babylonians, Medes, Persians and Greeks, with the final vision heralding the destruction of Antiochus IV. Today’s reading depicts a session of the heavenly court and the granting of power by the Ancient One (God) to one like a Son of Man, who approaches the Ancient One on the clouds of heaven and receives dominion, glory and kingship.
This section of Daniel had immense influence on the New Testament and is the source of the repeated self-description of Jesus as Son of man, as well as the source of an avalanche of scholarly studies debating the identity of one like a Son of Man in Daniel. One convincing interpretation is that the figure stands for the persecuted people of the holy ones of the Most High (Dan. 7:27), those Jews who suffered martyrdom rather than apostatize under Antiochus and who also receive an everlasting kingdom. Thus interpreted, the narrative serves as a beacon of hope to a persecuted people that they will be vindicated.
Ironically then, for a feast that originally celebrated a military victory, the theology of both Daniel and Mark is distinctly pacifist. History is under the control of God, who approves the way of suffering of his beloved Son, who dies under imperial edict. The mightiest of empires will fall, while those who die as martyrs will reign with God. The Transfiguration therefore has a special significance today, when we think of the many martyrs for justice of recent decades, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, the religious men and women of El Salvador, the silenced martyrs in China and countless others known only as the people of the holy ones. Empires exercise brutal power, but they fade, while the hope of a transformed humanity remains.