In this morning’s Gospel we are privileged to share with Saints Peter, James, and John in the vision of our Lord’s Transfiguration. Pope Saint Leo I explains that what they saw was a vision of our Lord’s glorified humanity, “His kingly splendor, not the Divinity itself, [for] that unutterable and inaccessible vision is reserved for the pure of heart in eternal life.[iii] Our Lord had promised that some of His disciples, still living, would see Him in His kingdom, and Leo the Great suggests that this was the fulfillment of that prophecy.[iv]
Together with these three Apostles we are also face to face with Moses and Elias. Who are these two men, and how do they enter into the story of our salvation; and why do they enter into it so shortly before the Crucifixion?
Last week, I mentioned that the Church has us begin the Lenten season by going back to the Book of Genesis, and reading the account of our creation, and of our first parents’ Fall from grace. We noted that immediately after the fall, God promised Adam and Eve a Redeemer; that through her seed the woman would crush the head of the serpent, the devil who had tempted Eve to disobey God in the hope of becoming a sort of “god” herself.[v] We noted that the wait for the Redeemer would be a very long one indeed—from almost the very beginning of mankind until the beginning of the Christian era, just a thousand years or two ago.
In theory, at least, the descendents of Adam and Eve knew something about God, and about how they were to worship Him, and how they were to behave toward one another. But God took no chances. During the thousands of years between the Fall and the Redemption, God was no stranger to His people. From Abel the Just, through Noe, Abraham, Joseph, and Moses; through Elias, Isaias, Jeremias, and Daniel; God remained in continuous contact with His people, leaving no doubt in their minds what He expected of them. The Old Testament is a rather thick book, but there is no reason to believe that even it represents a complete record of God’s dealing with Israel; no more than we believe that the New Testament records every word and deed of Jesus Christ.[vi]
But of all the great men of the Old Testaments—the “patriarchs,” as they are called—two of them are considered pretty much representative—the two mentioned in today’s Gospel, Moses and Elias.
Moses, of course, is the one who led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt. History might have referred to him as “the deliverer,” had it not been for the fact that God chose to take him up onto Mount Sinai in the desert, and give to him the detailed instructions of the Torah, the Jewish Law, which governed the behavior of God’s people down to minute detail. Moses will be forever known as “the lawgiver,” and, in fact, the Old Testament Law is often named after him: “the Mosaic Law.” That Law would be of tremendous importance, remaining in effect until the time of Christ, when the ceremonial elements of animal sacrifice and human ritual impurity would cease, but the all of the elements of human morality would remain. (One still may not worship false gods, or lie, or cheat, or kill, or steal, for these prohibitions are as unchangeable as God Himself.) Moses represents The Law.
The other Old Testament figure we encountered today is Elias. When we read about him in the Third Book of Kings, we see the classic prophet of the Old Testament. His function was not so much to predict the future (although, occasionally, prophets do that, hence the word “prophecy”)—he, and the other prophets, did three major things: 1) They gave good example to the people by living lives of holy simplicity; downright self sacrificing in many ways. 2) They exhorted the people to follow God’s laws, and particularly to avoid the contamination of following the fictitious “gods” and false religions of the peoples whom they met. And, finally, 3) The prophets sometimes served as direct conduits for the word of God to His people. Elias represents The Prophets.
Today’s Gospel is taken from Saint Matthew’s account (chapter 17), as it is on all three of the occasions throughout the year when the Transfiguration is mentioned—even though there is an account in each of the synoptic Gospels. In my estimation, that is because the Church wants us to recognize it as following Saint Peter’s confession of Christ’s divinity in the previous chapter (chapter 16). That is the chapter in which Jesus asked the Apostles if they knew who He was: “Whom do men say that the Son of Man is? Whom do you say that He is?” And Simon, not of his own accord, but because the Father had revealed it to him, was able to answer: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Our Lord changed Simon’s name to Peter (“the Rock”), announced that He would build His Church on that Rock, and gave Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven; the power to bind and lose the affairs of earth and have them recognized in heaven.[vii]
But even though Peter had shown himself to be something of a prophet (like Elias), and would be something of a lawgiver (like Moses), like them, he remained obligated to fulfill his function strictly within the plans of God. And that can be a very tough assignment for most of us (and we are also required to live our lives within the plans of God). Immediately after receiving this promise—which is the essence of the Papal primacy—Peter began to protest to our Lord that He really shouldn’t go to Jerusalem to be crucified. Our Lord immediately rebuked him, saying: “Peter, you are like Satan, the devil, himself; you are more concerned with the things of men than with the things of God.[viii]
And even that rebuke from our Lord did not really cure Peter, for today we hear him suggest to our Lord that they might put up a few tents on top of Mount Thabor—perhaps they could stay there with Moses and Elias—at least for a few months, or however long it might take for the authorities in Jerusalem to forget about their differences with Jesus! “Let’s stay up here Lord; let’s not go down there”!
Even after the Last Supper, Peter would deny that he even knew Jesus; a fisherman, a physically powerful man, quaking in his boots when a little servant girl challenged him. Legend has it that Peter denied Him again, trying to flee Rome to escape the imperial persecution—only Peter met Jesus going the other direction on the road out of town—“Dómine! Quo vadis?—Lord! Where are you going?” It took our Lord’s answer: “I am going to Rome, where I have to be crucified again,” to get Peter to turn around and accept his own martyrdom. But he did turn around, and “Peter the reluctant” became “Peter the saint.”
Peter came around. It took a little while, but he was the primary prophet and lawgiver of the Church which Jesus would leave here upon earth. The Father in heaven had spoken through Peter to identify “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and, when necessary, the Father would speak through the successors of Peter, the Popes of Rome. Saint Peter and his successors were mortal men; sometimes good and sometimes not so good. Infallible men (under rather carefully defined conditions); sometimes brilliant and holy men to be followed to the ends of the earth under the banner of Christ; and sometimes men filled with human foibles, as Saint Paul says, to be “resisted to their face.”[ix]
Moses, Elias, Peter and the Apostles upon the mountain. God never forsakes His people, but always gives us adequate guidance to know His will; and adequate grace to do His will if we will but cooperate with that grace. And, in the proverbial “nutshell,” that is the purpose of Lent.
And, yes! There was One more. Jesus Christ was on the mountain. And, above all, it is He who never forsakes his people—He remains until the end of time in the Sacraments, the Mass, and the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Above all, it is through Him—through Jesus Christ—that we fulfill that purpose of Lent.
[i] Epistle: 1 Thessalonians iv: 1-7
[iii] Pope Saint Leo the Great, Homily on the Transfiguration, lesson iii at Matins.
[iv] Matthew xvi: 28; Mark viii: 39; Luke ix: 27; Pope Saint Leo, ibid.
[v] Genesis iii: 1-13.
[vi] Cf. John
[vii] Matthew xvi: 13-19.
[viii] Cf. Matthew xvi: 21-23.
[ix] Galatians ii: 11.