Transfiguration: context

Transfig28 About eight days after he said this, he took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. 29 While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. 34 While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” 36 After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen. (Luke 9:28-36)

The Transfiguration event is also described in Mt 17:1-9 and Mk 9:2-10 – readings that are traditionally proclaimed on the 2nd Sunday of Lent in their own respective liturgical years as well as on the Feast of the Transfiguration each August 6th. The Lenten use of the reading, following the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert by the devil, breaks up the flow of Luke narrative. Perhaps a summary of what has transpired since Luke 5 (5th Sunday of Ordinary Time) can fill in the gap:

Luke 4:14-9:50 is generally described as the Galilean Ministry with large sections further labelled:

  • Preaching in Nazareth (4:16-30; 3rd and 4th Sundays)
  • Teaching and healing in Capernaum
  • Calling and Forming the Disciples (5:1-6:16; 5:1-11 is the 5th This longer section includes cleansing a leper, healing the paralyzed, debates with scribes and Pharisees, calling of Levi)
  • Sermon on the Plain (6:17-49; Lucan version of the Sermon on the Mount appears in the 6th-8th Sundays)
  • Miracles and healing – One greater than the prophets (7:1-50; appears in the 9th thru 11th Sundays)
  • Parable of the Sower and the Seed / Gerasene demoniac / Jairus’ daughter (8:1-46)

Prior to our gospel narrative, in Luke 9 we encounter

  • Jesus’ commission of the Twelve for mission (vv.1-6)
  • Herod’s questions about Jesus (vv.7-9)
  • The feeding of the 5,000 (vv.10-17)
  • Peter’s Confession of Jesus as the Messiah (vv.18-21)
  • Jesus’ first prediction of his passion, death, and resurrection (vv.22-27)
  • The Transfiguration (vv.28-36)

Luke 9:50 is considered the end of the Galilean ministry. In v.51 Jesus turns towards Jerusalem.

One lens with which to view Chapter 9 is the quest to identify Jesus. The chapter begins with Jesus giving the twelve power and authority over all demons and diseases and sending them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal. They go about curing diseases everywhere. Their experience of that power and authority should give them insight into Jesus’ identity. In contrast to their power and success, Herod is perplexed about Jesus and wants to see him.

When the twelve return from mission they arrive at a scene where a multitude has gathered around Jesus. As Stoffergen writes: “It is getting late. The disciples tell Jesus to send the crowd away so that they might find food and lodging. Jesus tells these men, ‘You give them something to eat.’ The twelve wonder, ‘Who us? How can we feed all these people?’ Their mighty bubble is burst. They have just come back from their glorious missionary journey. They had been performing miracles right and left. They had been preaching God’s message. All the glory of the past is wiped out with one question, ‘You give them something to eat’ (vv. 12-17). They have gone from being powerful to being powerless.”

The crowd is like Herod – not quite sure about Jesus. But Peter steps forward and answers the identity question: “The Messiah of God.” (v.2). It is then that Jesus predicts his passion, death and resurrection, showing what it means to be Messiah in this world – whereupon Jesus shows the disciples what it means to be the Son of God in his glory: the Transfiguration.

The location of the mountain is not given anywhere in the Gospels. Some have thought that it was a part of Mt. Hermon, near Caesarea Philippi, since the transfiguration occurs shortly after Peter’s confession there in Mark. On the other hand, since the time of Origen, the mountain has been identified as Mt. Tabor, near Nazareth, but the significance of the location may actually lie more in its parallel with the experience of Moses and Elijah on Mt. Sinai and Mt. Horeb.

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