‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone. There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light.’ (Matthew 17:1-2) It’s quite easy to get caught up in the marvel of all this, as Peter was. (Matthew 17:4. C.f.: John 2:23-24) But the word, ‘Look!’ punctuates this story, to draw our attention to what we are to see in this dazzling light that is Christ: ‘Look! Moses and Elijah talking to him;’ ‘Look! A bright cloud overshadowed them;’ and, ‘Look! There was a voice out of the cloud.’ (Matthew 17:3, 5) St Matthew is intent here on presenting Jesus as a Moses-like figure: Moses with Elijah symbolises the Law and the Prophets, God’s revelation to Israel, and they are in conversation with Jesus, putting him in their prophetic line as Mediators of God’s Word and covenant, that covenant that was first given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and which at that time was overshadowed with the cloud of God’s presence. When Moses entered that cloud to receive the Law, his face, too, shone after speaking with YHWH. (Exodus 34:29-30) The words spoken here in this cloud are the same as God spoke to Jesus at his baptism: “This is my Son” … and ‘his face shone like the sun.’ (Matthew 3:17) The Cloud of the Presence went on to guide the People on their exodus journey across the wilderness to the Promised Land; here the voice from the cloud says to those who would follow his Son, “Listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5) This Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, reinterprets for us the Law and the Prophets for a New Covenant (Matthew 5-7. C.f.: Matthew 22:36-40), giving us a new Law, which will guide us in our wanderings in the wilderness of this world and bring us into the promised Kingdom of God; this is why we listen to him. ‘And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem,’ where we must follow. (Luke 19:28; John 12:26) Jesus is the new Moses, … and more: he is God’s Son leading us to the new, heavenly Jerusalem in his Father’s Kingdom. (C.f.: Matthew 16:21; John 20:17) What we are to see in this divine light is a light that will guide our steps.
The context of this revelation is Peter’s profession of faith: “You are the Christ,” he said, “the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) Following this, Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16:21) Though he confessed him as ‘the Christ,’ Peter will not accept this teaching of the Christ and is rebuked for it: “The way you think is not God’s way.’ (Matthew 16:23) Then Jesus reiterates his teaching, saying, “If anyone want to be a follower of mine, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” — his followers are now to do as he himself proposes to do as well! (Matthew 16:24; John 12:26) This is the context in which we now see Christ’s face shine like the sun. St John describes this brightly shining light as: “a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness cold not grasp.” (John 1:5) ‘This light has come into the world,’ he says, ‘but people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:19-21) If we are to be followers of his, we are to come to this light, and let its light shine in us, too. (C.f.: John 1:6-8) Those doers of evil will not appreciate our shining a light on what they are doing any more than they did in Jesus’ day; they will hate us for it. This is the cross we will have to bear for doing what is true; this is what we are called to do, if we are to be followers of his; we can expect to be treated no differently.
The witness we are called to give by being Christ’s light in the world, is well portrayed in Terrence Malick’s film, A Hidden Life, a film about Franz Jägerstätter, a nobody from the back blocks of Austria who refused to cooperate with the Nazi evil by serving in Hitler’s army in World War Two, though to do so would cost him his life. Much was made of his seemingly futile and ineffectual witness: Who will see your protest? Of what use is it, if no one knows? Who will even remember or care about what happens to an unknown peasant farmer from the remote parts of rural Austria who made an anti-nazi protest? And, it will do nothing to change the course of the war! This very small light that shone in the darkness of World War Two was snuffed out on the 9th August, 1943 (c.f.: John 1:7-8), … yet his light shines even still. It can be seen in the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes, for it was greatly shaped by his solitary witness, where it helped our Church to change its teaching on war and peace, conscience, and individual responsibility. More recently he has been beatified by our Church, held up to us as a model of sanctity. On the day of his beatification Cardinal Schönborn said, “Franz Jägerstätter is a living page of the Gospel. The Gospel is not only an authoritative report of that which was taking place at that time in Galilee and in Jerusalem. It is a living book … Franz Jägerstätter was and is for me the most concrete and illustrative commentary on the Beatitudes that I have ever read.” His was a light shining in the dark that the darkness could not overcome. We, too, are similarly called to be living pages of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Though ours be the smallest of small lights shining in the darkest of dark nights, we, too, are called to let Christ’s light shine in us, that those who see it will see not us but God’s Son (Galatians 2:20), and hear in our witness the compelling voice: “Listen to him.”
And we are called to likewise believe that the darkness will not be able to overcome our small witness either, that we may not be afraid to let his light shine in us. (C.f.: Matthew 17:6-7). This is the cross we are called to carry in following Jesus, though it may cost us everything. We will be able to do so because, like Peter, we know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, because we, too, have answered his call to go up the mountain ‘to be with him … that he might send us out’ to ‘be his witnesses,’ to proclaim the Good News in the way we live. (Mark 3:13; John 15:27; 10:37-38; Matthew 17:1)
By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO