Stop Being Afraid
There is a mysterious story in 2 Kings that can help us understand what is happening in the transfiguration. Israel is at war with Aram, and Elisha the man of God is using his prophetic powers to reveal the strategic plans of the Aramean army to the Israelites. At first the King of Aram thinks that one of his officers is playing the spy but when he learns the truth he despatches troops to go and capture Elisha who is residing in Dothan. The Aramean troops move in under cover of darkness and surround the city. In the morning Elisha’s servant is the first to discover that they are surrounded and fears for his master’s safety. He runs to Elisha and says, “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” The prophet answers, “Don’t be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” But who would believe that when the surrounding mountainside is covered with advancing enemy troops? So Elisha prays, “O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the Lord opens the servant’s eyes, and he looks and sees the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6:8-23). This vision was all that Elisha’s disciple needed to reassure him. At the end of the story, not only was the prophet of God safe but the invading army was totally humiliated.
This story can help us understand what is going on in the transfiguration because at this stage in his public ministry Jesus is very much like Elisha, hemmed in on every side by his foes. His disciples, and Peter in particular, feel very much like the servant of Elisha, afraid and anxious for their master’s safety. Remember that just before the transfiguration Jesus asked his disciples whom the people and they themselves think he is. When Peter gives the correct answer that he is the Christ, Jesus congratulates him and then proceeds to warn them and prepare them for his unavoidable suffering, death and resurrection. But Peter is so unprepared for this that he protests visibly. He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he says. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus sharply corrects him, telling him that he is seeing things from a purely human point of view (Matthew 16:13-23). Like Elisha’s servant, Peter needed a vision from God’s point of view, to see that in spite of the death sentence hanging over the head of Jesus, God is still with him, God is still in control of events, God will see to it that in the end he triumphs over his foes as Elisha did. What Peter and his fellow disciples needed was for God to open their eyes and them give them a glimpse of God’s abiding presence with their master Jesus. The transfiguration is that experience.
A certain missionary on a study trip to the Holy Land was visiting Jaffa (Joppa) where Peter was residing when he baptized Cornelius (Acts 10). The breath-taking beauty of this small seaside town was such that it inspired him to come up with this joke:
At the transfiguration Peter offered to build three tents, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Jesus said, “And what about you, Peter?” And Peter replies, “Don’t worry about me Lord, I got a better place in Jaffa.”
We tend to think that when Peter said, “It is good for us to be here” he was thinking about the beauty of the place. But Peter was probably thinking not of the beauty of the mountain top but its safety for his master. He was preoccupied for the safety of his master just as the servant of Elisha was. But when his eyes were opened at the transfiguration and he saw his master Jesus bathed in the glory of the divine presence his fear evaporated. And Jesus turns to him [them] and says “Get up now, stop being afraid.” This is a more exact rendering of the Greek present tense imperative of prohibition.
Every time we gather for the Eucharist we experience a moment of transfiguration where our divine Lord is transfigured before our eyes in the forms of bread and wine. May the reassurance of God’s loving presence with us at communion take away all fear and doubt from our hearts and strengthen us to get up and face with courage the challenges and trials, sufferings and, yes, death, that we must pass through before we can share in the divine glory.
Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, cssp