The readings for the Second Sunday of Lent are available HERE
I will never forget the day my mother told me she had a cancerous tumour on her lung; the doctors had decided they could not operate, as the tumour was too close to the lymph glands. Many of you will have had similar news about your wife or husband, about another member of your family, about one of your friends or about a good neighbour. It is very hard to accept, and at first you don’t want to believe it. When you do begin to believe it, it can be very hard to think logically. Some of us feel the need to blame somebody; even for people who don’t think of God very often, it is easy to shout and scream at God for allowing such a horrible thing to happen to someone they love. This is the angry phase, the beginning of the process of grieving. The fact that it is completely normal does not make it easier to bear. When it happens to you, in the midst of all the emotional confusion, never forget that it is normal. Nasty, but normal.
This morning, we listened to the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel. It begins with the phrase “six days later”, because, six days before this, Jesus had told his disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised”. Peter was so angry that he probably didn’t hear the words about being raised, whatever that could possibly mean. No, he was infuriated, like many of us when we get the horrible news about someone we know getting cancer. So Peter started to say things that show he was denying what Jesus had said: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you”. So many times, in hospital, people who have been given bad news about a person they love have said “do you think the doctors have got it wrong?” It is absolutely normal to grasp at any possibility that what we have been told is not right. Things can’t possibly be so bad. This is what Peter was saying to Jesus.
But Jesus seems to have felt very frustrated by Peter’s reaction, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do”. Then Jesus looked at the rest of his disciples and said this: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”. And don’t forget that what he said to them is meant for us, too.
So, six days later, Jesus took Peter and James and his brother John up a high mountain where they could be alone. They had no idea what was going to happen next, but we know that Jesus wanted to tell them something incredibly important. The important thing is that Jesus said nothing in this story until they were on their way back down the mountain. Words were much less important than what the three friends of Jesus were privileged to see. “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light. Suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to them; they were talking with him”.
Peter, James and John must have been completely surprised. But, as good Jews, they would understand the meaning of the meeting on top the mountain. The centre of their faith as Jews was the Law of Moses and the Prophets. Moses brought the Law to God’s chosen people, and Elijah was the greatest of the prophets; the fact that they were talking to Jesus was the clearest sign possible that Jesus was part of the same faith. God was telling Peter, James and John, that they should have confidence in Jesus. What they saw was an incredibly powerful guarantee that Jesus was the person to follow. To confirm this, God spoke to them, as well, and reassured them with these words: “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him”. When they were going down the mountain, Jesus said, “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead”. Once again, Jesus said that strange thing about “rising from the dead”. His three friends had no idea what it meant, but Jesus had said it before, so it must be important.
For many centuries, Christians have heard the story of the Transfiguration and wondered what it means. At the centre of our Mass today, we hear these words, which were written in their original form more than a thousand years ago:
“After Jesus had told the disciples of his coming death, on the holy mountain he manifested to them his glory, to show, even by the testimony of the law and the prophets, that the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection.”
This is an astounding act of divine kindness. Jesus wants to prepare his friends and disciples for the terrible days that lie in the future, when Jesus will be arrested, put on trial, sentenced to death and executed. It is important to remember that they have no idea about all that. Those things had not yet happened, and they could never have imagined them all. It is different for us. We know what happened, and we also know the end of the story. What happened on Calvary looked like a disaster, but, when Mary Magdalene met the man she thought was the gardener, she could see that the Passion of Christ led to the glory of the Resurrection. The one she loved so much had come back. She was not on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured, but she was the one chosen by God to bring the news to Peter, James, John and all the others. What God had shown them on the mountain was all about this. Praise God!
Peter does a strange thing when the three friends of Jesus see him talking with Moses and Elijah. He offers to erect three tents, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Here is another absolutely normal human reaction. When we experience joy or a really happy moment, we are sometimes tempted to make it permanent. We would love to freeze the moment and make it last forever. But it is not long before we realise that it is impossible. In fact it is madness. But it is absolutely normal. When the normal routine of our lives is interrupted by joy, happiness or even a revelation of God’s glory, it is so beautiful that we want to keep hold of it. Jesus must have heard Peter talking about the tents, but this time he says nothing. Instead, the bright cloud covers them all with shadow and they all hear the voice of God.
Once again, Peter’s reaction is just like our own when a special moment is about to end, or when we realise that someone we love is not going to be with us for ever. It is absolutely natural and normal that we want to keep hold of magic moments, and the people who have brought magical moments into our lives. The sad reality is that no moment lasts, and no human life lasts for ever – neither the lives of people we love, nor our own life. Peter, James and John had to let go of that amazing experience on the mountain. They had no idea what was going to happen to Jesus so soon, but that is good. God gave them this special glimpse of who Jesus really is to strengthen them for the bad days that were coming, but they had that peculiar hint from Jesus that, after all his suffering and after his death, he would rise again – whatever that could possibly mean.
I hope what I am going to say next does not make you angry. But I have to ask you to consider what you can learn in your own life from the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain.
I began by telling you of the day my mother told me she was terminally ill with cancer of the lung. My sister and my father were both very angry. I think my brother was just bewildered. I was very sad, but I have been blessed with strong faith, and I believe that the last day of our life on earth is not the end of us. There is more to come. I believe in the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. We say those words in the Profession of Faith, the Creed, every Sunday, but when people close to us are close to death, we suddenly realise whether we believe words which are so easy to say, but hard to believe. The same happens when we ourselves become seriously ill, and we recognise that our own lives could end earlier than we had thought or hoped.
On the mountain, God allowed the three close friends of Jesus to see for a wonderful moment that they should stay close to Jesus and learn from him, whatever happened, so God gave them a reason to be strong. I worry that many of us are almost destroyed by seeing people we love suffering and even dying. In theory, we should be strong, but most of us are not. All I can offer you is a suggestion. Please don’t ask God to take away things that cannot be taken away, but ask God to make you strong enough to live through the terrible experiences. If you have children, ask God to make you strong enough to be strong for them. If you have hope, hold on to it – very tightly.
Fr. Peter Fleetwood