Sunday, March 17, is the Second Sunday of Lent. Mass Readings: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27: 1, 7-9, 13-14; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28-36.
“Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep ...” This detail in Luke’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration (9:32) is somewhat surprising, given the gravity of the moment.
As Jesus had done previously, he took Peter, James and John to a private place so as to reveal to them more fully who he was and what he had come into the world to accomplish. Even before the Transfiguration takes place, then, Christ signals that he is about to provide them with an important revelatory experience. And what is their response? In a manner reminiscent of a later episode in the Garden of Gethsemane, they fall asleep.
But perhaps this reaction is not so surprising after all. Anyone who has experienced either the fatigue that comes after great physical exertion or (perhaps more commonly) the sluggishness of a post-banquet food coma, certainly knows the difficulty in trying to stave off sleep, no matter how worthwhile the reason. These apostles’ propensity for falling asleep is, therefore, an aspect of their human frailty, which, although not a moral failing, nonetheless causes them to miss the initial appearance of Elijah and Moses.
But, we might ask, what did they really miss during their mountaintop slumber? After all, they still manage to wake up in time to see the glorious triumvirate of Moses, Elijah and Christ. From Luke’s account, the answer seems to be that the apostles missed out on their conversation regarding Christ’s “exodus,” that is, his exit from the world (Luke 9:31). This intentional use of the word “exodus” links Jesus’ exit from the world, i.e., his passion, death, resurrection and ascension, with Moses’ exit from the captivity in Egypt (Exodus 14:15-31) as well as with Elijah’s exit from the world via the fiery chariot sent by God (2 Kings 2:11-12). Christ’s exodus is a typological fulfillment of these previous two: After the Father raised him up, Christ, like Elijah, ascended to heaven in a glorified state, and through his ascension, Christ, like Moses, led God’s people out of captivity — the captivity of their own sin. Furthermore, it is important to recognize that this exodus of Jesus Christ is completed by an eisodus, i.e., entrance, into the kingdom of heaven. This entrance includes not only Christ himself, but also his entire body, the Church. This eisodus is referred to by St. Peter (2 Peter 1:11) and other ancient Christian writers (Hebrews 10:19; Herm. 89:6) as the exclusive way that we as humans are able to enter into the presence of the Father. The Transfiguration thus offers a glimpse of the destiny of glory into which Christ is leading his people, even as it also subtly portends the means of attaining this glory, namely the passion and death of Our Lord.
Therefore, because of their nap on the mountain, the apostles miss the full significance of the Transfiguration, namely that Christ’s glory entails the exodus of his death on a cross. This lack of understanding led Peter to suggest that they build three tents on the mountaintop. The implication is that Peter wished to remain there, basking in the glory of this marvelous apparition; he did not realize that in order to provide for the eternal enjoyment of this glory for all of his people, Christ must descend the mountain and ascend the cross. This gap in the apostles’ understanding of the Transfiguration is one that is only filled in later when Christ’s exodus was complete.
Despite the initial drowsiness of the apostles, they eventually became fully awake, which enabled them to see Christ’s glory and to be overshadowed by God’s mysterious presence. While Luke includes this detail to underscore the fact that they were not dreaming, and that Elijah and Moses really appeared with Christ, it also prefigures a movement that is part of the spiritual life of many, if not all, of Christ’s followers — the movement from spiritual sluggishness to alertness. At least part of the purpose of our Lenten observance, especially that of fasting and almsgiving, is to facilitate this movement. By detaching ourselves from material realities, we open ourselves to becoming fully awake in a spiritual sense, so that we can become attuned to the connection between loving self-sacrifice and God’s glorious presence and in this way take one more small step on the path to holiness this Lent.
Dominican Father Jordan Schmidt is an instructor
in sacred Scripture at the
Pontifical Faculty of the
Immaculate Conception at the
Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.