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In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus prayed at every critical moment of his life. He prayed at his baptism (3:21) and after healing the sick (5:16). He prayed the whole night before choosing the twelve apostles (6:12). During his prayer, he asked the disciples about his identity according to people’s opinion and then revealed to them his upcoming Passion (9:18-22). Jesus even prayed before teaching his disciples how to pray (11:1). He prayed in the joy of the Holy Spirit (10:21) and during his agony on the Mount of Olives (22:41). Even though the word “to pray” was not used, Jesus, when he was on the cross, prayed to the Father for the forgiveness of those who maltreated him (23:34). And so, prayer structured the whole life of Jesus on earth.
Faithful to his style, Luke placed his account of transfiguration in the context of prayer: “Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying his face changed in appearance.” For Luke, the purpose of Jesus’ ascent to the mountain was to pray. And it was during the prayer that Jesus’ face was changed in appearance. Luke even did not use the expression “being transfigured” to describe Jesus’ transformation. He focused less on the phenomenon itself in order to emphasize the importance of the prayer and its transformative power. It is also in a spirit of prayer that we are going to look at the particularities of the Lucan account.
Glory and exodus
Luke was the only evangelist who mentioned the glorious appearance of Moses and Elijah: they “appeared in glory.” This glory was associated with the glory of Jesus that the three disciples contemplated: “they saw his glory and the two men standing with them.” By using the same word to describe the appearance of Jesus and that of Moses and Elijah, Luke showed that Moses and Elijah shared with Jesus the same glory, the glory that he would obtain through his death and resurrection. In a passage immediately preceding today’s reading, Jesus was talking about the condition of discipleship. He related this condition to the coming of the Son of Man in his glory (9:23-27). Later, in the wake of his Passion, the risen Lord will explain the necessity for the Messiah to suffer in order to enter his glory (24:26). And so, Luke considered Jesus’ glory at his appearance with Moses and Elijah to be a foretaste of his upcoming glory.
Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke made known the content of the conversion between Jesus and Moses and Elijah. They were talking about Jesus’ exodus, namely his death and resurrection. Jesus will indeed inaugurate a new exodus. This new exodus has something in common with the old one which is the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt. Like the Israelites in the past, the disciples will not be ready to accept Jesus’ exodus as an act of salvation because it will be marked by violence and cruelty. Like the Israelites, the disciples will see trials as the sign of God’s abandoning them. Beyond this misunderstanding, however, Jesus will accomplish his exodus in Jerusalem by himself and ask his disciples to continue it to the ends of the earth. A new exodus will start from Jerusalem to go everywhere.
Cloud and voice
In Mark, the disciples were afraid when they saw Elijah and Moses dialoguing with Jesus. Their reaction was mentioned before the cloud came. In Luke, the disciples were terrified when Moses and Elijah “entered the cloud.” This reminds us of Moses who “entered into the midst of the cloud and went up on the mountain” (Ex 24:18). Everything was happening as if the giver of the ancient law needed to enter the cloud in order to give way to the new legislator. From now on, the new Moses will endure his suffering. And then people will see him “coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).
The fear of the disciples leads us back to the initial theophany narrative of Exodus 20. There, God delivered the Ten Commandments to his people. And “as all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blast of the shofar and the mountain smoking, they became afraid and trembled” (Ex 20:18). That is why they implored Moses: “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we shall die” (v. 19). In Luke’s account, after Moses and Elijah entered the cloud, a voice from the cloud said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Unlike Matthew and Mark who used the term “beloved Son” to designate Jesus, Luke employed the expression “chosen Son” to talk about the Son of God. Jesus was chosen in order to endure his suffering and to be crucified. If we want to enter the heavenly glory of which Jesus’ transformation on the mountain gave us a glimpse, we are to listen to that suffering Savior in his exodus.
One witness and another
As we can see, all three evangelists Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Moses and Elijah witnessed to Jesus’ Transfiguration. Unlike Mark, however, who mentions the presence of only one man at the empty tomb, Luke talks about two men there. Luke also specifies that there were two men who witnessed to Jesus’ Ascension (Acts 1:10). And so, for Luke, there are always two witnesses at Jesus’ Transfiguration, Resurrection and Ascension. The Lucan particularity helps us to see the link between those crucial events in Jesus’ life. Like the disciples, we are condemned to be silent if we do not see Jesus’ Transfiguration in the larger picture of his whole life.
The witness of both Moses and Elijah, however, was not simply about a number. Their presence at Jesus’ transformation on the mountain shows us the continuation and the renewal of God’s desire for humanity in the course of history. As a new Moses and a new Elijah, Jesus will realize God’s salvation plan for the whole world. If Moses stood up before Pharaoh to request the deliverance of Israel, Jesus will stand up for the salvation of all peoples. If Elijah stood up on mount Carmel to defend God’s honor against the followers of Baal, Jesus will stand up on his cross to show his absolute trust in the Father.
In prayer, let us listen to the chosen Son of God in order to share his exodus. The cloud passes and the voice from heaven ceases. Jesus himself is found alone and lonely. Far from tempting the Lord with the idea of making tents on the mountain as Peter did, we are to walk with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. It is there that God’s plan of salvation will be realized and it is from there that the Good News of the Resurrection will be brought to the whole world.
Prayer: God of transformation, help us to commit ourselves to change our earth into heaven.
Resolution: Get started on my own exodus to bring the salvific joy to those I meet.