Each year on the Second Sunday of Lent we hear an account of the Transfiguration. Since this is “Year C” we listened to St. Luke. He offers a couple of details found in neither Matthew or Mark. All three mention Moses and Elijah, who converse with Jesus. Only Luke tells us the topic: “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” (9:31) In other words, they talked with Jesus about his approaching passion, death and resurrection - that is, his Exodus.
For Jewish people the greatest event was the Exodus: their liberation from slavery by which they became a sovereign people. But now there is a new Exodus - this one will be definitive, not just for Jews, but for all men. And it will be perfect.*
The first Exodus was a confrontation between God and Pharaoh, who at that time was the most powerful man on earth. It has been said that in ancient Egypt there were really only two classes: Pharaoh and everyone else. He held absolute authority over his subjects. Only God could directly take him on. “I know what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them...” (Ex 3:7)
Jesus likewise came down (Jn 6:38) to bring liberation. The new Exodus would be a struggle between Jesus and the prince of this world. Satan holds a power over his subjects which subtler than Pharaoh's and, as such, more all pervasive. Jesus alone can confront him head on.
Many of you have seen a movie which shows this struggle – The Passion of the Christ. It realistically depicts the horrible violence done to Jesus in the last twelve hours of his life. The film presents the passion as the culmination of his life long battle with the Evil One. It has rightly been called a manly movie. Jesus is not a dreamy figure offering cheap grace.** On the contrary - although he has no enmity against his human adversaries - the movie shows him as a man locked in a struggle against the fierce powers which dominate this world.
Some people have asked me if I thought the movie were too violent for children or even teenagers. I would say that the most disturbing part is not so much the physical violence (horrendous as it is) but the portrayal of Satan. He is an androgynous character who lurks in the background, confident he can break anyone, even Jesus. In one scene he holds in his arms a distorted child. I wanted to turn my head away. The movie also shows devils in the guise of young boys. To see innocence suddenly change into hideous cruelty is a shocking depiction of evil. I advise parents to see it first themselves and then decide if they wish to take their children.
Last Sunday we heard about how the devil tried to induce Jesus into an act of despair. “Throw yourself down from here.” The movie has a horrific scene where the demons – transfigured into taunting boys – drive Judas to despair and suicide. Peter himself almost takes the same route, but instead of putting an end to his life, he throws himself before Mary whom he calls, “Mother.”***
The Virgin Mary also provides support for her son in his agony. We Americans like songs which speak about going it alone. “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley. You got to walk it by yourself.” There is noble truth in that song, but, historically speaking, Jesus had a number of people who walked the way of the cross with him. First and foremost, of course, is Mary, but the movie beautifully brings out the compassion of others: Veronica, Simon, Mary Magdalene, John and religious leaders like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Even certain Romans: Pilate’s wife Claudia provides towels for Mary to take up some of the precious blood and various soldier glimpse not just the humanity of Jesus, but something much greater.
Given the fact that so many people stood with Jesus during his cruel suffering, it should not surprise us that two Old Testament figures appeared to converse with him about its deeper meaning. With four weeks remaining until Holy Week, we ask for some understanding of this new and perfect Exodus. And like Mary, John and the others to somehow participate in it.****
*As the Jerome Biblical Commentary notes, “Moses and Elijah see the real and perfect Exodus in the passion and resurrection.”
**Some reviewers complained that The Passion tells us so little about Jesus' "teachings" ("his message of love"). They seem unaware that Jesus had no moral teaching which cannot be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, indeed in most great religions. The novelty of Jesus is not his teachings, but his person and his mission.
***Perhaps some of the power of this scene comes from the fact that Mel Gibson himself was tempted to despair and suicide. He credits the Virgin for interceding for him.
****I saw The Passion with our RCIA class. Like most people, we left the auditorium in silence. We gathered and I asked them if they wanted to say a prayer together. Most of our group was either preparing for the Easter sacraments (baptism, confession, confirmation and Eucharist) or sponsoring someone who was in that process. We joined hands, a circle of about twenty. Other moviegoers stood around us. I said a prayer thanking Jesus for so much love in suffering for us and asked for both forgiveness and help to be able to love like he did. Then we said an “Our Father,” and, conscious of her role in our redemption, we prayed a “Hail, Mary.”
Homilies for Second Sunday of Lent ("Transfiguration Sunday")
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Mark Shea, Financial Statistics, Infant of Prague Novenal, The Passion)
"WHY DO THE HEATHEN RAGE?" (Barbara Nicolosi's reflection on The Passion)
My review of The Passion of The Christ