Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" - not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
The time reference provides a link with the preceding episode at Caesarea Philippi (though Luke doesn't name the place); the two events are closely related. There Jesus spoke to his disciples about his own suffering and death, and their call to share that path; this he set against a background of ultimate vindication and glory. A week later Jesus takes three of the disciples with him up the mountain, Peter, John and James (named in a slightly different order than usual). In scripture mountains are places of prayer and of revelation, where the divine and the human touch. The mountain in question is probably Hermon, which rises majestically to nine thousand feet, and is located in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi.
Jesus makes this trek because he wishes to pray, a purpose not rendered explicit in the Markan version. In Luke's Gospel there are a number of references to the prayer of Jesus: at his baptism, before the call of the Twelve, before Peter's profession of faith, his prayer to the Father, before teaching his disciples to pray, for Simon at the Supper, the agony, the Calvary prayer of forgiveness, his dying prayer. Luke also provides us with a considerable amount of Jesus' teaching about prayer. And it is while Jesus is praying on the mountain that a transformation occurs. Luke, unlike Mark, does not use the term transfiguration. The appearance of Jesus' face is changed and his clothes become dazzling white, the hue of heavenly garments. It would seem that Jesus is caught up in the presence and love of God, an intense mystical experience which totally transforms his being and his appearance in such a way that the three disciples catch a glimpse of a deeper dimension to his identity. The event is an anticipation of the heavenly glory of the exalted Jesus after the resurrection and his coming at the parousia. It is a sign that his messianic suffering will be vindicated.
At this point Elijah and Moses appear on the scene. As well as being great figures in Israel's past, who had also experienced theophanies on mountains and were thought to have been translated into heaven, both featured prominently in popular expectations connected with the coming of the Messiah and the end-time. Here they are in a state of heavenly glorification. Luke is original in stating that they were speaking with Jesus about his 'departure which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem'. The word used here in the Greek is 'exodos'; its literal meaning is 'departure', but figuratively and euphemistically it can also mean 'death'. But the word obviously conjures up the Old Testament epic of the liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery under Moses, and suggests that the exodus of Jesus in Jerusalem, his 'passing over' through death, resurrection and ascension into heaven, will be the time of the new Exodus, a freeing from a different bondage and a leading into the new promised Kingdom, the new creation.
As in Gethsemane on a later occasion, the three disciples are struggling to keep awake, and fail to hear this conversation. As the vision starts to fade, and Moses and Elijah begin to take their leave of Jesus, Peter gives expression to his wonder at what is happening, and seeks to render the experience permanent by suggesting the construction of three shelters (booths or tabernacles), one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Such shelters made of plaited branches were originally erected in the fields at harvest time. Later they came to be associated with the tents used by the people on their wandering journey through the wilderness, when God was close to them. They were a key feature of the annual week-long celebration of the feast of Tabernacles. One of the many expectations for the messianic age was that that folk would again live in tents, and that God would pitch tent with the people. Luke gently acknowledges Peter's confusion. He is mistakenly placing the three figures on the same level, failing to recognise the uniqueness of Jesus. He is also grasping the glory and side-stepping the suffering.
At this point a cloud comes down upon the three, covering them in shadow, and obscuring them from the disciples' view. In scripture the cloud is the sign of God's presence. Moses and Elijah, symbols of the Law and the Prophets, leave the stage; the old order is passing away, to be superseded by Jesus and what he offers. In him the Law and Prophets are brought to fulfilment. Just as God spoke to Moses out of the cloud on Sinai, so now God's voice reveals Jesus' identity, informing the now fearful disciples that Jesus is 'my Son, the Chosen One', thus echoing God's words to Jesus at the baptism, and correcting Peter's misunderstanding. There is no need for tents as places in which God's presence is enshrined; Jesus is now the focal point of that presence and glory. The voice from the cloud enjoins that the three should 'listen to him', referring particularly to Jesus' words at Caesarea Philippi concerning what lies in store for him, and for them as his disciples. The words of Jesus are authoritative; listening to him entails a response of obedience.
Suddenly it is all over; the voice is silent, the cloud disappears, and Jesus is alone in his uniqueness. His will be a lonely 'exodus'. Luke informs us that the three disciples kept silent about what they had witnessed, telling no one of the experience 'in those days'. Later, after the 'exodus' is fulfilled, and its meaning has become evident, they will proclaim it.
A few verses later in the narrative, Luke states:
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (9:51)
The journey to Jerusalem provides the structural framework for the rest of the Gospel story, but the determination on Jesus' face to make that journey illustrates the impact of the transfiguration event. The occasions in the Gospel story when Luke emphasizes the prayer of Jesus are key or critical moments in the development of his mission. This mountain-top experience has confirmed the words of Jesus to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, that his destiny was to suffer and die in Jerusalem, but that this would be a prelude to glorification. They have caught a glimpse of the glory to come. His choice in the Nazareth synagogue to express his understanding of his mission in the terms of the Isaian Suffering Servant is further clarified and deepened. His prayer on the mountain, his listening as the Chosen One to the Father's love, confirms his identity as Son and steels his commitment and surrender to his costly mission. The disciples are strengthened in their accompanying Jesus on this journey.
In Lent the Church encourages us to deepen our life of prayer. Today's Gospel reading places Jesus before us as our model. It's true that we can pray at all times and in any situation. Clearly, Jesus did. But there were times when he sought silence and solitude. In our hectic and noisy world, we too need 'mountain' moments. I think that Luke is also suggesting that prayer is a creative context for discernment. Through listening in prayer to the Father's love, we can each reach a deeper awareness of our true identity as a child of God, beloved and chosen. We can also come to a clearer understanding of the meaning of Jesus and the implications of discipleship. But, whilst such 'mountain' moments are special, we can't stay there. Like Jesus, strengthened and enlightened, we must come down and continue our journey, a journey which will at times be difficult, uncomfortable, demanding, a journey made under the shadow of the cross.
The voice from the cloud invited the three disciples to listen to him, to take seriously his message, uncomfortable though it was, and to respond to it positively, with openness and trust. For us, centuries later, Lent is above all a time for listening to the word of Jesus. We need to mull over that word, allow it to penetrate mind and heart. We need to seek its meaning and its challenge. It will lead us to deepen our identity as God's beloved children. It will help us to discern the needs of others, to grasp what love is demanding of us. It will lead us to respond with compassion and generosity, courage and hope.
Finally, we are reminded that we move from mountain to plain, on a journey into a future much of which is unknown to us. The prayer and reflection of Lent can give fresh direction and impetus and meaning to that journey. We know that Jesus walks it with us.