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Ovid and Jesus: Transfiguration

Apollo and Daphne - a story recounted by Ovid

Mt 17:1-9

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and do not be afraid." And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, "Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

At the beginning of Ovid’s Metamorphoses – he speaks of his desire to speak of forms changed into new entities. There is often violence in the poems of Ovid. There is a thematic tension between art and nature, as well as a recurring theme of hunter and hunted. The person being pursued may shift his shape, in order to escape the attacker, as in the story of Apollo and Daphne. Here the transformation is related to the fact that she changes into a laurel tree, just as Apollo catches up to her. Bernini captures this moment in a masterful sculpture preserved in the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

The same Greek word, metamorphoo, appears in today’s Gospel, speaking of the transformation of Christ on Mount Tabor, which we know as the Transfiguration. There is also a transformation, but much deeper and with a deeper meaning than escaping a too-persistent suitor. The Transfiguration is a show and a promise of our future glory.

Mount Tabor is a few miles from Nazareth and a so two or three days walk from Caesarea Philippi. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The geography of the Holy Land makes it that people are always walking up to Jerusalem, adding to the sense of spiritual pilgrimage. Along the way, Jesus stops off at Mount Tabor, knowing that this mountaintop would be the setting for a powerful spiritual experience for his disciples. Why is he transfigured, and what does it mean for us?

“They saw no one but Jesus only.” What does this mean? When the Apostle was read, you heard, “For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.” And “tongues shall cease,” when that which we now hope for and believe shall come. When they fell to the earth, they signified that we die, for it was said to the flesh, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But when the Lord raised them up, He signified the resurrection. After the resurrection, what is the Law to you? what is Prophecy? Therefore, neither Moses nor Elias is seen. Only He remains for you, He who “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” He remains for you, “that God may be all in all.” Moses will be there, but now no more the Law. We shall see Elijah there, too, but now no more the Prophet. For the Law and the Prophets have only given witness to Christ, that it befits Him to suffer, and to rise again from the dead on the third day, and to enter into His glory. (St. Augustine of Hippo)

Jesus teaches the Disciples to look with faith

What we know during this life is hard to understand fully, even more when we are dealing with the things of faith. As St. Paul would, teach, we see as if through glass. We are waiting for the day when we will see clearly, thanks to our faith. Greek mythology was often focused on the “mystery.” But they were mostly made-up stories. For us, the reality is so awesome that we cannot comprehend it fully. But nothing is made up. The mystery of our faith is wonderful. If we are going to understand the world in which we live, we have to appreciate and accept the mystery.

Jesus is revealed as greater than Moses and Elijah

When the disciples fall to the ground, they live out what we experienced on Ash Wednesday. We are dust, and we will return to dust. But when Jesus commands them to rise, it is as if they experience the resurrection, just as we will one day experience the resurrection. Jesus is bringing to fulfillment the prophecy of the Old Testament and is instituting a New Law. Appearing with Moses and Elijah emphasizes his continuity with them, as well as a certain break and surpassing of what they had given to the people of Israel. It is of Jesus that it is said that he is “The Word” and that the Word was with God and indeed was God. He is not another prophet or another lawgiver. He is God himself, about whom others have prophesied and the foundation of the law.

Jesus strengthens the faith of his disciples

For the disciples, it was an amazing opportunity to get a peek into the heart of Christ. This is one of the things that we want to do during Lent: take advantage of each day to grow in our knowledge of Christ. They were meeting some of the greats of all time: Moses and Elijah. These were huge icons for them. And they recognized the importance of Jesus, clearly giving him the central role. This helps the disciples to recognize a little more the greatness of this teacher who was in their midst.

As we celebrate the Second Sunday of Lent, it is important to imagine ourselves at the feet of Christ, alongside the disciples, seeing his transfigured body. May this bring us faith and hope, so that we can love him to the bitter end.

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