In today’s readings, Jesus, Peter, James, and John ascend a mountain in which they witness Jesus’ transfiguration. Matthew’s gospel is clear in trying to show that Jesus is the new Moses, who ascends the mountain and is changed fundamentally by the experience in a way that also transforms the entire community. In the arc of the larger Gospel, this passage serves to reinforce that just as Moses came to bring freedom to the people of God, so too does Jesus come to liberate.
I am intrigued, though, by the disciples’ responses. When they ascend the mountain and see Moses and Elijah, Peter wants to build tents, resting places to stay and to commemorate this most amazing of historical events. God, though, has little interest in tent building or public displays that honor the presence of past prophets or the divine among them. Instead, God speaks from the heavens and says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” God redirects their attention to being attentive to Jesus and to following the words that he offers as a guide for life, and also names Jesus as God’s beloved.
While the heavenly voice surely directs the disciples—and we as readers—to all that Jesus will say and do, as a model to follow, it’s interesting to see what Jesus does, in fact, say at this particular moment. What is it that Jesus says, here and now, that we ought to listen to? Jesus tells his friends on the mountaintop “Do not be afraid.”
Fear is an obstacle to love: to love of God, to love of others, and even to love of oneself. Jesus’ primary words here are to not act in fearful ways that will limit how well we love, but rather to be courageous with respect to how we speak and how we live. Jesus says, “Rise and do not be afraid.” Rather than living in fear or in subservience, Jesus calls his friends to recognize that the Lord is a loving God, not interested in harm or obedience for its own sake, but in love and in living authentically. Jesus encourages us each to “stand up,” to speak authentically but lovingly, and not to be fearful in expressing our lived realities as Christians. God does not come to condemn, but rather to set us free.
Jesus also gives the reason why we are not to be afraid: he points ahead and says not to talk about the events until after his resurrection. That is, the transfiguration is a prefiguration of the passion and death of Jesus and the Resurrection. Eventually, the disciples will understand that suffering and death are transformed into new life. For us, too, God promises that every crucifying experience will be transformed into new life: the illness of a family member; the grief of death of a loved one; broken trust in a relationship; or even our very own deaths some day. Jesus’ resurrection is not only his resurrection, but also a promise of our own.
Jesus’ transfiguration, then, is also a transformation of the disciples, too, away from fear and into trustworthy and courageous living a life of love and fidelity to the Lord.