Like many biblical passages, this morning's Gospel is best understood when read in context. In this case, that means going back to Saint Matthew's 16th chapter, which should already be familiar to all of us. The disciples are gathered together, and our Lord asks them "Who do men say that the Son of Man is?" In plain language, He is asking them to tell Him what they have heard from the crowds -- "What does the "rumor mill" have to say about Me?"
Their answer is about what you might expect. Though clearly impossible, some think that He might be John the Baptist, back from the dead to finish the business of admonishing King Herod and others in authority.1 Or, perhaps, He is Jeremias or Elias -- one of the prophets of the Old Testament. Elias, you will recall, was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot -- perhaps he did not die, and maybe God has sent him to be the Messias. No doubt the crowds have circulated other theories, even more outlandish than these.
"But who do you say that I am?" He asks. "After all, you have been with me for a couple of years now -- what have you learned about me?" And, Simon's answer is quite remarkable -- beyond what he could have learned by merely associating with Jesus, he recounts something that only God the Father could have put in his mind -- indeed, perhaps something that he didn't even fully understand himself -- "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God!"
It is at this point that our Lord gives Simon a new name, calling him "Peter," -- "Petros," the "rock" upon which He would build His Church -- and gives him the pontifical power of binding and loosing in the kingdom of heaven, even before giving it to the other Apostles. It must have been a moment of elation.
But then the mood changes. From that time on, Jesus begins to speak of the need to go to Jerusalem for His passion, death, and resurrection. Of course, the one word that catches the Apostles' attention is "death." And Peter, as their leader, is quick to stand up and insist that this must never happen, only to be put in place by our Lord: "Get behind me Satan ... thou dost not mind the things of God but those of men." It is one thing for God to refer to you as His "rock" -- but quite another thing for him to call you "Satan."
This brings us to today's Gospel reading. The Apostles, and, particularly, Peter are in a somber mood. They have all heard our Lord predict His own death -- and in spite of the simultaneous prediction of His resurrection, all they can see is a disastrous end to our Lord's perfectly marvelous career of preaching and miracle working, without even trying to drive the Romans from Israel.
"Perhaps" -- Peter might be thinking -- "perhaps this Son of the living God is less interested in earthly things than we thought...." Perhaps it crossed Peter's mind, as it would cross the mind of others who came later, that Jesus was not a human after all; that He was God, but only God, and His human appearance was just an illusion. Peter may not have realized it but that certainly would put a different "spin" on our redemption. A few hundred years later, heretics would preach ideas like this, claiming that Christ lacked a human nature or a human will and casting great doubt on the part played by Christ as a man. And, if that were the case, what would be the point of all this?
But almost immediately thereafter --- six days later -- our Lord took them to Mount Thabor. And He had Peter and James and John accompany Him up to the top of the mountain to witness a miracle. Now understand in advance, that all three of these men knew that it is quite impossible for a man to see God and live. One might see the human aspect of Christ, but it was absolutely impossible to see through it to His divine essence -- at least in this earthly life.
So, what did they see? They saw His sacred humanity -- they saw his face and his garments in shining brightness. An almost overpowering vision of the Son of Man -- and yet, they lived, for this was the glorified human nature of Jesus Christ, and not the divine. And, lest there be any doubt in their minds there appeared two other eminent men as witnesses -- Moses and Elias, representing the Law and the Prophets -- so that on the testimony of two witnesses they would know that what they had seen was real and not imagined.
Note that it was only when they heard the voice of God the Father speak in the midst of the luminous cloud that they became concerned for their safety -- for the Father could have no human form, and the consuming brightness of that cloud might be a reflection of the fatal countenance of God's divine essence.
In a moment it was over and our Lord called them to their feet and cautioned them to tell no one until His resurrection from the dead. Moses and Elias were gone, but Peter might well have reiterated his suggestion about building some shelter on the mountain top -- certainly a more pleasant place to be than on Mount Golgotha. But, somehow, he and the others would now be so much better prepared for the trip to Jerusalem. They would still feel sorrow whenever our Lord spoke about it, but they had come as close to seeing God as any living man can ever come -- there could no longer be any doubt that God had become man and was leading His people to Jerusalem.
So far, this has been a history lesson. But let me conclude by reminding you that Lent is our "journey to Jerusalem." But unlike the Lents of centuries gone by, we are observing it pretty much alone, for the modern world doesn't want to be reminded of things like fasting and prayer and penance. Sometimes the world makes us feel estranged and out of place. Maybe that's why the Church has given us this Gospel to read during the early part of Lent: so that we can know that our God has become man and is leading us to Jerusalem. We are not alone, for even in death we have the promise of resurrection, even as our Lord went to Jerusalem to be put to death and to rise again on the third day.
Keep a good Lent!