Pope Francis: Learn from the Transfiguration of Jesus

Pope Francis
Raphael's "Transfiguration of Jesus"

In his message for Lent 2023, which was released on Feb. 17, Pope Francis urged the faithful to “listen to Jesus” as he recalled God the Father’s command to the disciples during the Transfiguration.

In the story, which is proclaimed every Second Sunday of Lent (March 5 this year), Jesus is transfigured on a mountain before the disciples Peter, James and John. Jesus’ face shone like the sun and His clothes became a dazzling white, while the Father’s voice emanated from a cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with Him I am well pleased, listen to Him” (Matthew 17:1-5).

The Pope used the story of the Transfiguration to invite the faithful to find a place and time to be with Jesus and listen to what He tells them through the Scriptures and through others during Lent.

The 40-day Lenten season that began on Ash Wednesday is a time for Christians to reflect and prepare before the commemoration of Holy Week and the celebration of Easter.

‘A place apart’

Pope Francis 2
Mount Tabor in Lower Galilee, Israel —WIKIPEDIA PHOTO

“During this liturgical season, the Lord takes us with him to a place apart,” the Pope said. “While our ordinary commitments compel us to remain in our usual places and our often repetitive and sometimes boring routines, during Lent we are invited to ascend ‘a high mountain’ in the company of Jesus and to live a particular experience of spiritual discipline—ascesis—as God’s holy people.”

It is not named in the Gospel narrative, but Mount Tabor in northern Israel is traditionally believed to be the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is necessary for pilgrims going to its summit, where churches have been built, to transfer from big buses to vans. Tabor is relatively low (1,929 feet, or 588 meters), but the road to its top is narrow and steep. 

It must have been a long and hard ascent for the disciples, but the vision of Jesus they were blessed to see was more than worth it. It made a happy Peter say: “Lord, it is good for us to be here” (Matthew 17:4).  And it seemed that Peter wanted to prolong the good moment when he suggested building tents for Jesus as well as for Moses and Elijah, who suddenly appeared with Jesus.

Pope Francis said the disciples saw Jesus “resplendent in supernatural light.” Others said they had a glimpse of His glory and divinity.

A place to pray

The mountain in the Bible represents a place of intimate encounter with God and a place to pray. In Luke’s narrative of the Transfiguration, Jesus went to the mountain with his disciples to pray (Luke 9:28). It was while He was praying that His appearance changed.

Moreover, the mountain evokes Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.  In the story, Moses and Elijah were seen by the disciples talking to Jesus. They are two of the most important figures in the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures. Elijah is considered the father of the prophets, while Moses is the guardian of the law.  Together, they symbolize the revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The expression “Beloved son” evokes the person of the Messiah Servant (Isa 42:1). “Listen to Him” echoes the Shema—“Hear, O Israel” (Dt 6:4), one of the  most sacred and most often said prayers of the Jews.

These allusions and echoes, among other things, have moved Bible scholars and commentators to say that Jesus stands in continuity with the revelation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Pope Francis has said that the “present-day Church needs once again to discover the absolute authority of the teachings of Jesus.”

In Matthew’s narrative of the Transfiguration, the disciples were so awed by what they had seen and heard that they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  Jesus told the disciples not to fear and to also keep secret for a while what they had seen: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

But the story of the glory of Jesus is not complete if it does not include the story of His cross, which to believers is His act of salvation, His passion, death and resurrection.

‘Ascent’ and ‘descent’

In 2014, the Pope said Jesus’ Transfiguration tells the faithful not only to “ascend” but also to  “descend.”

From one’s busy day-to-day life, one has to “ascend” to his or her own high mountain—that is, find  a space for prayer and for silence to hear the voice of God. But there is likewise a need to “descend the mountain” and return to the plain. 

“Like the disciples, we too must descend from Tabor into daily life where human events challenge our faith,” the Pope said. 

He has also raised the challenge of reading the Scriptures: “We listen to so many things throughout the day, so many things … But I ask you a question: Do we take a little time each day to listen to Jesus, to listen to Jesus’ word? Do we have the Gospels at home? And do we listen to Jesus each day in the Gospel, do we read a passage from the Gospel? Or are we afraid of this, or unaccustomed to reading it?”

The Pope encourages the faithful to read the Bible (at least a passage a day), and to listen to Jesus’ word and make it “the most nourishing food for the soul.”

“It nourishes our faith,” he said.

This report contains excerpts from the teaching commentary written by Minerva Generalao in https://www.ratisbonne.org.il/blog/sunday-readings-commentaries/second-sunday-of-lent-a/. The author is an alumna of the Bat Kol Institute for Christian Studies, now the Jerusalem-based ISPS Ratisbonne Bat Kol-Christian Centre for Jewish Studies. —Ed.

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