Gospel reflection for March 13, 2022, Second Sunday of Lent

As always, the Second Sunday of Lent takes us to Tabor, the mountain of the Transfiguration. Here we stand with Peter, James and John as they encounter Jesus – transfigured – conversing with Moses and Elijah.

Moses and Elijah stand as the pillars of the Jewish faith. Moses was responsible for bringing the Law from Sinai to the people, and Elijah stands as first among the great ecstatic prophets of the tradition. As Jesus is understood as the fulfillment of both the Law and the Prophets, then this encounter signifies that sense of fulfillment.

Peter, James and John are so overwhelmed at the sight of the transfigured Jesus, and the presence of Moses and Elijah, that they really do not know how to react. Peter’s nervous suggestion that they should build three booths is summarily dismissed by the evangelist: “But he did not know what he was saying.” This seems to be a harsh rebuke, as Peter likely thought of the Feast of Sukkot (Booths or Tabernacles) when the Jews commemorate the 40 year sojourn in the desert by building temporary structures reminiscent of those they lived in during that time. While the Gospels of Mark and Matthew recount the subsequent conversation between Jesus and the three disciples concerning the coming of Elijah and the meaning of resurrection, Luke accounts that Jesus and the fell into silence and mentioned nothing to anyone.

Occurring, according to ancient tradition, 40 days before the Crucifixion of Jesus, this is a momentous moment in the life of Jesus and these three disciples. The journey down the mountain, difficult enough on the modern paved road, was a long and hazardous walk. This means that they walked alone, together, in silence, for more than a few hours.

What are we to make of all this silence? We have the impression from the Gospels that Jesus and his disciples usually spoke openly and freely as they walked along together. It was a time for instruction and at times a clarification or explanation of something that Jesus had taught the crowds. However, we can imagine that it was also a time for the practical conversations about where to stop to rest, perhaps where to procure food, and just the ordinary exchange between friends. We know also that they occasionally got rebuked by Jesus for what they were talking about along the way. Therefore, this period of extended silence is a bit more unsettling. Certainly it corresponds well to St. Luke’s frequent asides that Jesus went off alone to pray. It is likely that Jesus used this stretch of time to converse silently with the Father. We also expect that these three disciples did the same.

Doubtlessly the disciples were trying to makes sense of what they just experienced, and pondered what they would say to the others as they came down the mountain. This was unquestionably the most remarkable experience that they have had with Jesus. They have witnessed the miracles, are familiar with his teaching, and have even themselves been sent out to expel demons and heal the sick. However this is a defining moment. What were they to learn? Why was it only those three and not the other disciples who climbed the mountain with Jesus?

This period of silence is very instructive for us. Modern society has lost a sense of reflection and is more anxious about recording and reporting. We have un-reflected communication with the world. Jesus sets before us an example of silence, the time to pause and to understand God’s will and action in our lives. So overwhelmed are they coming down the mountain that we are told they didn’t mention this experience to the others or even speak about it among themselves. On one hand this is shocking. You would think that they would be bubbling over with what they saw. Instead they continue to muse and pray over their experiences with Jesus.

We need to recapture this sense of awe in the presence of God. So often our prayer is filled with words and we overlook the silence and stillness. As the disciples descended the mountain they were necessarily thinking deeply about their experience at the top; what they had seen and heard there. Completely awestruck, they were unable to express their experience in words and so they remained in silence. Even with the natural curiosity of the others who must have wondered why they were gone so long and what happened there, neither Peter, James nor John said a word.

May this Lenten Season be a time to recapture the senses of silence in our lives as we come to appreciate the mystery of the presence of God.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.