Before Jesus underwent His terrible ordeal leading to His crucifixion, three apostles witnessed an amazing event in His life – the transfiguration. Today’s Gospel reading describes what happened thus: “His face shone like the sun and His clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared and they conversed with Him… Then a cloud cast a shadow over them and from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to Him’” (Mark 9:2-5; 7).
Many commentators on this Gospel passage say that Jesus allowed Peter, James, and John a glimpse of His glorious divinity because He knew how easily they would lose heart once they saw Him betrayed, tortured, insulted, and crucified on the cross like a criminal. By giving them a sneak peek at what would happen after His death, He was telling them: “Look beyond the sorrow, pain, and misery that disfigured me and recognize who I really am!”
Recognition is crucial in believing because God does not always appear in easily recognizable ways. In the Old Testament, He often appeared as a God concerned with wrath and retribution, who flattened cities and raised floods to teach stubborn creatures to repent. In Bethlehem He appeared as a helpless infant born in poverty. In the Parable of the Last Judgment, He came in the form of the most marginalized and disadvantaged. In the Eucharist we encounter Him as bread and wine. In our darkest nights, He can appear as a gentle voice that stirs up hope, or as a deafening silence that heightens our hopelessness.
Indeed, Jesus, whom we often think as a God easy to understand, often confronts us in mysterious, surprising ways not only to reveal who He is, but to help us recognize who we really are.
In the transfiguration, Peter was so dazzled by the spectacular vision that he saw that he wanted to prolong it for as long as he could. He told Jesus: “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” His recognition of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law (represented by Moses) and the fulfillment of prophecy (represented by Elijah) must have erased at that moment all his doubts about Jesus’s identity. Such certainty gave him great joy which he did not want to end.
But Peter showed a different reaction during another event when Jesus revealed who He was. In the Gospel of St. Luke, Peter and the other disciples went fishing, but they caught nothing. Jesus told them, “Put out into the deeper part, and let down your nets for a catch.” (Luke 5:4). When they obeyed Him, they caught such a large number of fish that the net began to break.
The miraculous catch of fish elicited a different reaction from Peter. Unlike in the transfiguration, Peter fell down at Jesus’s knees and said: “Go away, leave me, Lord for I am a sinner” (Luke 5:8). Seeing who Jesus was led Peter to a painful self-recognition.
Let us pray to God to open our eyes so we might recognize Him in the many ordinary miracles that He does for us every day. For, unless we do so, we can easily live as though there is no God. We can drown in our sins, full of anxiety, despairing, looking for thrills to make us feel alive, angry at being wronged or not appreciated, frustrated, or depressed. The transfiguration reminds us that despite the darkness that engulfs us, Jesus remains gloriously triumphant, and moving everything according to His will.