Just as the first Sunday of Lent is dedicated to the temptation of Jesus in the desert, the second Sunday is traditionally marked out by the reading of the transfiguration’s gospel. This should help us to realize that Lent is not only a time of penance, but also a time of contemplation: we not only are called to follow Jesus into the desert, to fast and to be put to the test with him; we are also invited to follow him upon the mountain, to gaze at his glory.
This year we read the account of this event according to Luke. As we have already noticed, Luke’s gospel is one of the three synoptic gospels, and so it is very similar to the other two, Mark and Matthew. But Luke has often some peculiarities that distinguish his gospel from others. First of all, he never uses the verb transfigure, in Greek metamorphóo, that is, “to transform”, “to change in form or figure.” Why? Because that verb was used by pagans, and so Luke does not want his readers to think that a metamorphosis is happening, like in the world of pagan deities. He simply says: “His face changed in appearance.” But what was that change? What did the disciples see? Luke tells us soon after: “They saw his glory.” In this short sentence, used only by Luke, there is the essence of the transfiguration: Jesus manifested his glory, that is, his real identity, his divine nature.
But there is another small detail, that the other evangelists do not emphasize. The transfiguration happened “while he was praying.” This is a peculiarity of Luke’s gospel: in all important moments of his life, we always find Jesus praying. It had happened at the baptism and before the choosing of the twelve apostles; it will happen before his passion, in Gethsemane. Prayer is for Jesus the moment of his encounter with God, the mysterious talk between the Son and the Father. It is during this conversation that Jesus’ face changes in appearance, since it reflects the divine brightness.
All the evangelists say that Moses and Elijah appeared and that they were conversing with Jesus. But only Luke tells us what was the topic of that conversation: they “spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The transfiguration takes place shortly after Peter had recognized Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus had announced for the first time his passion. The transfiguration is a confirmation for both these events. Jesus is really the Messiah; indeed, he is the Son of God. But, at the same time, against the common idea of the Jews, he is a suffering Messiah: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” To speak of what is going to happen in Jerusalem, Luke uses a significant term, exodus, which literally means “way out.” It is the phrase we use to refer to the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt and their journey to the promised land. This means that Jesus’ death and resurrection will be a “new exodus,” that is, the rescue of humankind from sin and the gift of the true promised land, the kingdom of heaven.
By his transfiguration Jesus wants to prepare his disciples to face his imminent passion, so difficult for them to accept. He shows them his glory, to assure them of his identity; but, at the same time, he wants them to understand that only through passion it is possible to attain the glory of the resurrection. For them to accept this hard truth, Jesus calls some privileged witnesses: Moses and Elijah, two of the most significant figures of the Old Testament, representative of the law and the prophets respectively. Moses and Elijah vouch for Jesus: what Jesus had said about his future passion and resurrection is true. You can trust him.
But, at a certain point, Moses and Elijah disappear; all those present are plunged into a cloud and from the cloud comes a voice: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” It is the voice of God; there is no need any more of a human testimony; it is God himself that testifies for Jesus. Just as in the baptism, God confirms the divine nature of Jesus; but now he adds an invitation for us: “Listen to him.” If he is my Son, you must trust him. You have just seen his glory; now please listen to his word.