Gospel for February 21st, 2016: The Second Sunday of Lent
Luke 9: 28b-36
My focus with the transfiguration story has changed with this reading due to the influence of repeated hearings of Bishop Robert Barron’s CD titled, “Who Do You Say That I Am? The Four Great Expectations of the Messiah” (link to CD). I first became interested in the transfiguration due to its place in the rosary as the fourth luminous mystery. The spiritual gift associated with it is spiritual courage. In trying to understand how this story relates to spiritual courage, I focused on the disciples’ direct and frightening encounter with God as a result of their accompaniment of Jesus up the mountain: “[T]hey became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my chosen Son; listen to him’” (34-35). While the wisdom of this incident–that even though our encounters with God will at times be frightening and uncomfortable, we must set aside our fears and concentrate on God’s message for us—is critically important to following our faith, my attention has shifted in this reading to the dismissal by God of Peter’s suggestion to make three tents.
Father Barron outlines the four expectations of the Messiah from the Old Testament as these: The Messiah will gather the tribes of Israel, cleanse the temple, deal with Israel’s enemies, and reign as King of Heaven and Earth. Barron points out that in His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus fulfills all four of those expectations. I think this Christological rubric helps to understand the puzzling question of why Peter felt the need to suggest three tents and why it would have been dismissed by the Father Himself.
According to Luke, Peter, John, and James have been sleeping when Jesus’s transfiguration begin. I imagine their great confusion as they awake to a “dazzling” light and the unanticipated presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus. It would have been understandable under those circumstances to recognize the presence of God and feel the need to act quickly to worship Him in an acceptable manner. Jews meet God’s presence and worship Him in a tabernacle. In the first century, that would have been in the temple in Jerusalem. But they are not at the temple at this moment. Furthermore, their company now includes Moses and Elijah, who have long been perished. How does a good Jew who has been instructed in God’s law solve this problem of right worship? Thinking quickly, Peter sees the need to construct a portable tabernacle, a tent, which would have been how Jews built a space for worship before the construction of the temple. In addition, he has to address the problem of whether the deceased, Moses and Elijah, can worship with the living, him, Jesus, John, and James. So if I may give Peter a lot credit for some fast calculation, I think he suggests the three temples as a solution to the problem of how worship at the moment: a separate temple for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for his group including Jesus. It seems to me this would be a reasonable proposal for a first century Jew who realizes he is in the presence of God, is frightened at what this means, and desperately wants to put him and his companions in a posture of appropriate worship and reverence.
Under the rubric of Jesus as Messiah described by Barron, this solution is misguided, though well-intentioned. Three tents, or three separate places of worship, will not gather the people as Jesus has come to do. The Messiah has come to gather the tribes of Israel, all of God’s creation, under one body. Furthermore, Jesus has come to cleanse the temple by replacing it with Himself. So there should be no reversion back to tents or even the temple in Jerusalem. It is through Him and in Him that right worship and praise will now take place. Therefore, God the Father simply redirects Peter: “This is my chosen Son; listen to [H]im” (35). In other words, Jesus will lead you to a posture of right worship with Me. Focus now on Him.
This Messianic reading of the Transfiguration has implications that move beyond the rather personal concern of my earlier reading focused on spiritual courage for myself. It serves as a reminder of the ever-present mission of the Church to evangelize with an ecumenical spirit. We can never, as I am wont to do frequently, ignore our responsibilities to participate in the gathering of God’s people together under one body, the Church. It is inadequate to only concern ourselves with a personal salvation. Three tents were not in God’s plan, especially for Peter, the future leader of the Church; therefore, I cannot work to build a tent just for myself and my friends only, without concern for those outside the true tent of Jesus and His Church. Evangelization and ecumenism do not come easy to me. I would prefer to leave that responsibility to someone else. However, through prayer and the sacraments, I believe Jesus will show us how to participate in the gathering of Israel if we keep listening to Him. I must be quiet and listen and be prepared to do my part.