Sunday, August 6, 2006

The Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

Altar of Transfiguration painting by Raphael, 1520

Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord. A hot, sunny August day when colors are all a bit white, faded by the heat of the sun's ray in summertime, is a great setting for this feast (at least for those of us in the Northern hemisphere). It is, therefore, worthwhile for a little scriptural reflection/comparison/exegesis on the Gospel texts. To that end, I want to briefly compare this pericope as it appears in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

Like all synoptic parallel passages, Matthew and Mark share the same outline and structure. In both of these accounts the event takes place six days after Jesus' first prediction of his passion. On this day Jesus takes Peter, James, and John, who, the author of Matthew tells us is James' brother, "up a high mountain." It is on the mountain that "he [Jesus] is transfigured before them." Both authors describe a change in our Lord's appearance. Mark describes only the dazzling whiteness of his clothes, while Matthew, in addition to describing his clothes, also writes: "his face shone like the sun." In both accounts the disciples, while beholding Jesus' glowing transformation, also see Moses and the prophet Elijah "talking" with him.

Upon seeing this, Peter, in both versions, proposes building three "dwellings" on the mountain: one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. In both narratives a cloud overshadows the disciples and a voice from the cloud speaks. The voice identifies Jesus as "my Son" as well as "the Beloved." Peter, James, and John are given the emphatic directive "listen to him!" In Matthew's telling the voice also says it is "well pleased" with the Beloved, the Son.

It is in the responses of the disciples to the transfiguration that significant differences begin to emerge between these two tellings. In Mark's account Peter is "terrified" by what he witnesses. He seems to make his suggestion about erecting the dwellings because, as the author of Mark writes, "He did not know what [else?] to say." This would make Peter's suggestion far less pious than that of Matthew's awestruck Peter.

The reactions of the disciples to the cloud experience also interestingly differ. In Matthew's story, after hearing the voice, the disciples "fell to the ground and were overcome by fear." Jesus tells them to "get up" and "not to be afraid." By contrast, the story found in the Gospel of Mark, after hearing the voice, the three "looked around" and "saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus." Subtle differences can also be seen as Jesus and the three disciples walk down the mountain. In both accounts Peter, James, and John are "ordered" by Jesus to tell nobody what has occurred until after his death and resurrection. Mark's disciples, despite the preceding prediction of the passion, are left "questioning what the rising from the dead could mean." Compare that to the understanding reception of Jesus' words by Matthew's three. They seem to know what Jesus is talking about, even before the issue of the return of Elijah preceding the advent of the Messiah is raised. From Jesus' answer to the query they comprehend that John the Baptist is Elijah and so what had been revealed on the road to Caesarea-Phillipi is only reaffirmed. Summarily, the differences between the two accounts is that Mark's features much more human disciples and a less wordy, less regal, and, hence, more human Jesus.

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