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Hold that thought

GOSPEL COMMENTARY LK 9:28-36

Everyone knows that St. Peter is impulsive, prone to speak and act in a hurry. We love to see him walk on the water with Jesus. We see him fall but we appreciate that he was ready to try — and that he succeeded for a time. St. Peter is a fascinating and very real character among the apostles of Jesus. We can learn from his initial impulses.

The accounts of the transfiguration of Jesus are rich in meaning and application for us. This Sunday we hear St. Luke’s version. The three “inner circle” apostles of Jesus know that it is an honor to accompany him as he goes up the mountain to pray. They don’t know ahead of time all they will experience. As they walk with Jesus, their minds and hearts return to the prediction he has just made. He will be made to suffer at the hands of others — to suffer and to die — and he will be raised up. Famously and understandably they get stuck on the suffering part and don’t know how to understand the “raised up” part. We know this particularly about Peter because, of course, he reacts openly and quickly. Jesus invites them to experience a dramatic preview of the whole story. He gives them the reason to trust him through the difficult days to come.

The time of prayer on the mountain quickly becomes mysteriously more than that. We can allow our imaginations to connect the similarities here to the discovery of Jesus’ resurrection. St. Luke begins each moment with two men who “appear in glory.” In this case, they are Moses and Elijah. Knowing the whole story, we can also see a connection to the drowsiness of Jesus’ “top three” apostles. When they become fully awake they find the “star-studded” conversation drawing to a close. Peter, in a characteristically lightning-quick way, understands that this is a very special moment of glory, one they should try to preserve. (In today’s terms, he would reach for his phone to take a photo or a video.) His famous suggestion attracts attention, even criticism, to this day.

“Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Clearly he wants to keep things as they are. We can hear the clicking of his fast-working mind “doing the math” to recognize that they’ve jumped ahead to glory and without the dreaded suffering. Alas, he is interrupted: “But he did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.” It seems that Peter gets the message and we hear nothing more from him. Instead we hear the voice of God the Father: “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my chosen son; listen to him.’”

After the cloud cover and the message from above, “they fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.” Sometimes we are made to be quiet and to ponder things more deeply. What might Peter have pondered at this time? There was a lot of mystery in what they had experienced. Knowing the whole story, we can jump ahead and see that Peter will persist in his instinct and inclination to avoid suffering with Jesus. We can jump further ahead to know that finally he will embrace the cross — after more dazzling experiences, not the least of which will be Jesus’ compassionate and patient way of teaching him.

We know that Jesus fulfills all that Moses and Elijah lived and taught. We can see how fittingly the cloud and the Father’s voice point to Jesus himself as the “tent” Peter wanted, the tent that held God’s presence among us. Thankfully, we can live within the whole story. When we are inclined to flee suffering we can run right to the place Peter wanted before he totally understood it. We can stay with Jesus. Trusting in his victory, we can say, at any point along the way, “it is good that we are here.” 

Fr. Zuberbueler is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019