54. Mountaintop Meetings (Matthew 17:1-13)

“If he were not of the same nature as ourselves, his command to imitate him as a master would be a futile one.” – St. Hippolytus

Matthew 17:1-13: Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone. There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light. Suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to them; they were talking with him. Then Peter spoke to Jesus. ‘Lord,’ he said ‘it is wonderful for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow, and from the cloud there came a voice which said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him.’ When they heard this the disciples fell on their faces overcome with fear. But Jesus came up and touched them. ‘Stand up,’ he said ‘do not be afraid.’ And when they raised their eyes they saw no one but only Jesus. As they came down from the mountain Jesus gave them this order, ‘Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has risen from the dead’. And the disciples put this question to him, ‘Why do the scribes say then that Elijah has to come first?’ ‘True;’ he replied ‘Elijah is to come to see that everything is once more as it should be; however, I tell you that Elijah has come already and they did not recognize him but treated him as they pleased; and, the Son of Man will suffer similarly at their hands.’ The disciples understood then that he had been speaking of John the Baptist.

Christ the Lord This scene, known as the Transfiguration, directly reveals Christ’s Lordship. For a moment, Jesus removes the humble veil of his earthly attire to reveal his true glory as Son of God and King of Kings. He converses with the two greatest figures of the Old Testament: Moses, the lawgiver, the one through whom God established the covenant; and Elijah, the holiest of prophets, so holy that he did not die, but was assumed into heaven. Jesus Christ has come to establish a new covenant and to fulfill all the ancient prophecies – he is Lord not only of the present and the future but even of the past.

The Church’s liturgy presents this passage to the faithful during Lent (and also on August 6th, the annual Feast of the Transfiguration), as we prepare to celebrate the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ during Holy Week. Both the brilliance of Christ’s future glory and God’s wise preparation through the first covenant, each evident in the Transfiguration, thus remind us that the pivotal events of Holy Week, the highpoint of God’s self-revelation in Christ the Lord, are the culmination of his marvelous plan of salvation, begun so long ago and destined to last for all eternity. There is simply no limit to Christ’s glory: “The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and of civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings” (Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 45).

Christ the Teacher The Church has always recognized the Transfiguration as a theophany, a visible manifestation of God. Christ himself is the Second Person of the Trinity; the cloud represents the Holy Spirit, the Third Person (who “hovered over the waters” before creation, cf. Genesis 1:2); and the voice is God the Father, the First Person, speaking as plainly as we could ever ask for, in order to teach us the one for post on Matthew 17:1-13necessary lesson: “Listen to him [Christ].” It is the same lesson that came at the theophany during Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, the new Elijah who was to usher in the age of the Messiah. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, God the Father speaks only twice from heaven and says essentially the same thing both times. It behooves us to consider deeply what that saying really means.

Listening to Christ means getting to know him, understanding his heart, and heeding his call in our lives. Jesus Christ is God’s own Son, sent by the Father to be our guide to fulfillment, to the meaning and happiness we all long for. There is “no other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12). Christ alone is the answer, the secret to a life lived to the full. All we need to do is listen to him, to turn our gaze to him. How? By spending time in heartfelt prayer, by delving into the marvelous teachings of the Church, by steeping ourselves in the priceless living waters of the Gospels and the rest of Holy Scripture, by experiencing Christ himself truly present in the Eucharist, and most of all by doing his will each day with faith, hope, and love, no matter what the cost.

Christ the Friend A detail of this passage shows us what a sensitive friend we have in Christ. This event took place just a little while before his crucifixion. He knew that his passion and death would be a blow to the faith of his disciples, so he gave them this glimpse of his glory beforehand, to help them persevere during the upcoming trial. He often does the same with us. The cross is a necessary element in our Christian lives – we cannot reach Easter Sunday without going through Good Friday. But in order to support us in the dark moments, he gives us moments of light and grace, mountaintop experiences of his love and power that can serve as reference points in times of turbulence – if we keep them fresh in our minds.

His admonition to the disciples not to mention this event until after his resurrection also shows something of his sensitivity. He knows what we need and when we need it. Our life of faith is a journey, a pilgrimage to our eternal homeland; it is a gradual growth in knowledge, love, and imitation of Christ. Sometimes we become impatient, but Christ knows what he is doing, and we need to trust in his timetable, even if we don’t always understand it.

Christ in My Life You are the Lord of life and history. I believe in you, Lord. I believe that you are the focal point of all human history. I put my life in your hands. I want to serve you, to walk with you, to help build your kingdom. I want to follow you, Lord, today, tomorrow, and every day of my life, no matter what you may ask of me…

Sometimes I wish that you would show yourself to me as marvelously as you did to these three Apostles. Wouldn’t that make it easier to follow you? But you know exactly what I need. All of your life, your doctrine, and your love are mine. I have the Gospels, the Church, the Eucharist, my spirituality. I have your forgiveness, guaranteed. Lord, the time has come for me to stop complaining. Christ, be my life…

The cross still frightens me. I want things to go smoothly; I want to stay on the mountaintop. But you didn’t. How much rejection, envy, and betrayal you suffered! And you did it to teach me what love really is: self-giving and self-forgetting. You love me with a personal, determined love. Teach me to love like that, with fidelity in tough times, with sincere deeds, no matter what the cost. Jesus, I trust in you…

PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.


Art for this post on Matthew 17:1-13: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. Partial restoration of Landschaft mit Verklärung Christi [Landscape with Transfiguration], Francesco Zuccarelli, by 1788, PD-US published in the U.S. before January 1, 1923, Wikimedia Commons.

Profile photo of Fr. Bartunek

About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, “Inside the Passion”–the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”. His most recent books are “Spring Meditations”, “Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength”, and “Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions”. Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction.

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