August 9, 2017 Length: 15:39
Let’s consider why these three disciples—Saints Peter, James and John—were chosen by Jesus Christ to come up with Him to this “high mountain apart” from all His followers. Let’s consider also the response of St Peter as the spokesperson for the three disciples.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God is one. Amen.
In the Gospel today from the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew, Saints Peter and James and John see Jesus Christ transfigured—that is, changed in appearance, becoming beautiful and glorious. The face of Jesus Christ shines “like the sun, and His garments become white as light.” Furthermore, the three disciples see Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus Christ. Let’s consider why these three disciples—Saints Peter, James and John—were chosen by Jesus Christ to come up with Him to this “high mountain apart” from all His followers. Let’s consider also the response of St Peter as the spokesperson for the three disciples.
St John Chrysostom offers us a comprehensive answer as to why Jesus Christ chose these three disciples. St John preached: “Why does [Jesus] take only these three with Him? Because each one of these three was elevated above the rest. Peter showed his pre-eminence [that is, his high standing among all the followers of Jesus] by exceedingly loving Him; John by being exceedingly loved by [Jesus]. James showed his superiority by his ready response to his brother [telling Jesus] we are able to drink the cup and by his works and by doing what he said” [end of quote]. It seems to me that what Jesus Christ is saying both to these three favoured disciples and to us is: “Look, this is how each of you can join Me in being glorified by our Father. Love Me with the sincerity and depth of St Peter, even if you make mistakes in your life as did St Peter. Understand that I love each of you with the great sincerity and depth that I loved St John the Evangelist. And in the midst of My love for each of you, and your love for Me, follow the example of St James.”
Now what did St James do that so impressed Jesus Christ? St John Chrysostom points out three important actions of St James. First, St James said that he was ready “to drink the cup”—that is to suffer for Jesus Christ. Second, St James served Jesus Christ and fellow human beings “by his works.” And third, St James did “what he said” he would do—that is, suffer and serve Jesus Christ and live out his promise. Surprisingly, that is what each of us can do now to experience the Truth and Beauty and Glorification of Jesus Christ in our own lives—be ready to suffer for Christ, serve Him and do what we say we will do. That’s enough—to reject a life filled with comfort and pleasures and instead be willing to suffer for and serve Christ, and to do what we say we will do.
Now, the Transfiguration took place 2,000 years ago in a very different culture than the culture in which we live today. The Transfiguration occurred in a rural Jewish culture on the Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkot—an agricultural festival celebrating the harvest. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, writing in The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, sees Sukkot as reliving the Exodus from Egypt—the long period in the desert, living and eating outside in the midst of the heat and the rain and the drought—seeking to understand the meaning of “wandering” and the relationship between “mobility and rootedness”—between moving on to new places in our lives and staying put where we are. Sukkot is primarily a joyful festival of freedom. However, as Rabbi Greenberg points out, and I quote him at some length, because I find his advice challenges me and perhaps you.
He writes: “The real achievement of freedom does not come in one day… The liberated person is the one who learns to accept the daily challenges of existence as the expression of self-fulfilment and responsibility. Sukkot,” comments Rabbi Greenberg, “commemorates the [maturing] of the Israelites, achieved not in crossing the Red Sea but in walking the long walk to freedom. It is relatively easy to rise to one peak moment of [self-sacrifice] and courageous commitment. It is more taxing and heroic to wrestle with everyday obstacles…. True maturity means learning to appreciate the [small, limited] rewards of every day along the way.” The rabbi concludes with a comment about family life, because it is the Jewish family that celebrates Sukkot together, eating meals in the outdoor booths or tents built of greenery and fruit and vegetables. “Some parents,” comments the rabbi, “receive no pleasure from their children because they are overwhelmed by the constant anxieties, conflicts and potential setbacks of the growing-up process. Parents are far happier—and children feel much better about themselves—when the simple joys of every day are shared and appreciated.”
I think that is what St Peter was trying to do—to share and appreciate with Jesus Christ the simple joy of seeing Christ transfigured, talking to Moses and Elijah. St Peter suggested to Christ, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish I will make three booths here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” However, as so often, St Peter got it completely wrong. The Transfiguration here is not solely a celebration of a Jewish festival, but a statement that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, now lived on earth. Therefore, as the Gospel states: “[Peter] was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”
After much prayer, St John understood the meaning of what had happened at The Transfiguration. In his Gospel, chapter 1, verse 14, St John wrote: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” The Greek words translated in English as “dwelt among us” are kai eskēnδsen en hemin, which mean literally “tabernacled in us.” When St John wrote that “the Word became flesh and was tabernacled in us,” several early Church fathers have pointed out that “the whole person is indicated by ‘flesh.’” In other words, St John understood that Christ—the Word—had become the whole human person, Jesus Christ; and that the Lord dwells with each of us in our own tents, that is, our own homes, our own “tabernacles of life.”
Understandably, the three disciples were shaken up and afraid because of witnessing this divine intervention of the Father in the life of His Son and in each of their lives. As the Gospel states: “When the disciples heard [the voice from the cloud], they fell on their faces and were filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise and have no fear.’” God the Father was saying to the disciples and to us, “Look to the future, not the past. The time of celebrating the success of the Exodus is over, because now you can experience the fullness of God’s intervention in human life and in the Creation.”
To conclude, I strongly believe that the message of God the Father to the three disciples at the Transfiguration 2,000 years ago is the precise message that the Father wishes all humanity, including, of course, all of us, to hear today: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” The response that we are asked by Jesus Christ to make to God the Father is the same response that Christ asked of the disciples: “Rise and have no fear.” Christ can touch us today, just as He touched the disciples. The Exodus was a long journey over many years; and each of our lives are long journeys over many years. But we can rejoice—we can be glad—because the Transfiguration is a continuing event and our response can be to pick ourselves up from the problems of life, to become liberated mature Christians touched by Christ, to “rise and have no fear,” and to listen to Christ, “the beloved Son” of God the Father.
And so, we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.