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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Harvey

The Transfiguration: Who is Jesus? - Sunday Gospel Reflections with Dr. Brandon Harvey

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2024 Second Sunday of Lent’s Gospel: Mk 9:2-10 

(From the shining cloud the Father's voice is heard: This is my beloved Son, listen to him.) 

Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them. As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant. 

Who is Jesus?  

The event of Jesus’ transfiguration is of great importance and must be understood as a sensible glimpse into his identity. Prior to the transfiguration the disciples wrestled with Jesus’ identity, coming to know him as the Messiah/Christ and the Son of Man (Mk 8:27-30, 38). Jesus does not want them to interpret his Messiahship incorrectly, to think in worldly terms, by seeing him as one that will free them from Roman oppression, from political suffering, in order to usher in an age of material prosperity. To teach them this valuable lesson he decides to shock them to the core. He predicts for the first time that he will suffer at the hands of worldly rulers, be executed, and then he will be raised from the dead. Peter then rebukes Jesus for this divine plan and Jesus responds to the rebuke by calling Peter “Satan” for “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mk 8:33). Peter is clearly struggling with how to understand and respond. This is the context for Mark’s transfiguration account. 


To help strengthen Peter’s faith, as well as two other leaders of the early Church, Jesus takes them up a mountain. It is there that he and his clothes changed appearance. Saint John Chrysostom explains, “He disclosed, it is said, a glimpse of the Godhead. He manifested to them the God who was dwelling among them.” Chrysostom notes that the description about Jesus’ appearance is meant to articulate to us that we could compare the experience to this or that brightness or light, but it is a limited analogy. If it were as white and bright as the analogy explains, the three disciples would not have struggled with the experience because it would have been comparable. This transfigured One was beyond an exact comparison. 


Jesus’ divine majesty is shining through his created humanity in a way that overwhelms their senses. This shows them that while Jesus is a different kind of Messiah, he is also different in another way. He is God in the flesh. Nearly every detail in this scene reveals Jesus’ divinity. Although it is not my goal to examine each of these, let us consider a few in order to be strengthened in our Lenten journey.


The event taking place on a mountain coupled with the appearance of Moses and Elijah are a good starting point. Mountains in the Old Testament, especially for Moses and Elijah (Exodus 24, 1 Kings 19), are a place of encounter and closeness with God. As Benedict XVI noted in his Jesus of Nazareth series, mountains in the gospels are central to encountering Jesus as well: the mountain of temptation, the sermon on the mount, his mountain locations for prayer, the transfiguration, the mount during his agony, the place of the Cross, and at the ascension. Jesus continues to make mountains a place of encounter and closeness with God, but now it is closeness with God in the flesh.


Besides mountains, Moses and Elijah have something else in common. For these two figures who died a long time ago, their past encounter with God on the mountain did not result in the beholding of God’s face in the way they would have liked (cf. Ex 33:18-23, 1 Kings 19:9-13). At the transfiguration, they stand beholding God’s face, because God now has a human face (cf. Jn 12:45).


Mark also tells us that God the Father spoke and an overshadowing cloud was present. These details, along with Jesus’ transfiguration, also hint at the revelation that God is a Trinity of persons: the Father’s voice, the Son is transfigured, and the Holy Spirit in the cloud. The Father’s voice makes clear that his relationship with Jesus is unique. Saint Augustine noted, “The voice did not say: these are my beloved sons. For One only is the Son; others are adopted” (Sermons on NT Lessons). Jesus is "God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart” (Jn 1:18). The description of the overshadowing cloud mirrors the Greek description of the holy cloud, the Shekinah, in Exodus. Instead of the Holy Spirit appearing like a dove, as he did at the baptism of Jesus, here his presence is mysteriously experienced as the new holy cloud.


Who is Jesus? Jesus is God in the flesh, the second person of the Trinity, the fulfillment of the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah). Just as Peter struggled with his response to the revelation of Jesus’ suffering, Peter struggles here to say and do the right thing. Who would not struggle to find the right words following the revelation of Jesus’ divinity at the transfiguration?


I would like to make one last point. Notice how Jesus’ created human nature, even his clothes, become instruments for shining forth his divine glory. This is why Catholics put so much emphasis on beauty in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: beautiful vestments, buildings that resemble heaven on earth, golden vessels, sung prayers, decorated walls and windows, murals and other works of sacred art, incense, bells, gestures, processions, a variety of postures, etc. The beauty of the Mass is the use of created things to shine forth the majesty of what is happening invisibly at Mass. Like those who witnessed the transfiguration, our senses are often overwhelmed at Mass, and we struggle to find the perfect words. We know that at Mass we too have encountered God, we too have gone up the mountain to be close to Jesus, and like them we too must then go and continue the work of building up the kingdom.

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