Updated: Oct 13, 2021
As we approach the Feast of the Transfiguration, it may serve us well to revisit “generic homilies.” Texts in multiple attestation (differing narratives relating to a “held-in-common” event) should not be melded together into one generic sermon. Yet again and again, when occasions are approaching in which multiple biblical narratives shape the texture of the event, we hear some colleagues celebrating that “I have a homily on that.” The “that” typically relates to lections from the Synoptic Gospels and include such liturgical occasions as the Baptism of the Lord, the Temptation, the Transfiguration, and the Palm/Passion Sunday recital of the Triumphal Entry, as well as such Synoptic parables as the Sower, the Mustard Seed, and the Wicked Husbandman. In every case, the distinctive elements of each rendition are smoothed away in favor of a generic homily, one whose sensitivity to narrative context is set aside. Having only one sermon on the Transfiguration (here in Year B, Lent 2, Mark 9:2-10) will both erase distinctive and important features of each Evangelist’s narrative and, possibly borrow from among the three accounts to shape a generic Transfiguration story.
Some distinctive aspects of the three Transfiguration narratives are obvious in their respective emphases. As the moment of Transfiguration erupts there on the mountain, Mark sets an apocalyptic tone, Jesus’ clothes “becoming dazzling white” (Mark 9:2b). A foretaste of the Parousia is provided to the three disciples and to us. In Matthew’s rendition, the dazzling white clothes remain a feature of Jesus’ transfiguration. However, this Evangelist adds that “his face shone like the sun,” a clear typological linking of this event with Moses’ meeting with God on Sinai (Exod. 34:29). St. Luke typically describes significant events in Jesus’ ministry as beginning with prayer. So it is not surprising that Jesus brings the three disciples to the mountain to pray and that as he was praying “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). Digging more deeply into the various narratives, only Mark notes that “Elijah with Moses” appears to Jesus and the three disciples (Mark 9:4), thereby reversing the “Law and Prophets” motif provided by Matthew and Luke. Only Luke recalls that Jesus was talking about his “departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem” Luke 9:31). The Greek word translated “departure” in the NRSV is “exodon,” a clear signal of the Exodus that Jesus was to accomplish in his death and resurrection. Moreover, only Luke speaks of the disciples “being weighed down with sleep” (Luke 9:32), although, oddly, they remained awake.
In all three accounts of the Transfiguration, there is the sudden appearance of the overshadowing cloud and the voice from the cloud echoing the announcement at the Baptism of the Lord—Jesus is the beloved Son. But at that point in Matthew’s account, the three disciples fall to the ground in great fear. Immediately, Jesus “came and touched them, saying “Get up and do not be afraid” (Matthew 17:7). Only St. Matthew includes this tender and pastoral moment including Jesus’ touch of the three disciples. The scene ends suddenly, Jesus is alone with Peter, James, and John, and they descend from the mountain. Notice that these distinctive, and important, elements of each Evangelist’s telling of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration would typically be set aside in any generic sermon on the event. Put simply, to say “I have a homily on that” when someone asks about the Transfiguration will be less than thirty-three percent accurate!
Each Synoptic narrative within the “held-in-common” texts basically retells the broad strokes of the story while adding particular images, words and actions that are uniquely those of that one Evangelist. These distinctive elements then provide particular theological meanings, also proclaimed by each Narrator. Resorting to generic homilies detracts from the distinctive identity of Jesus as witnessed by Matthew, Mark, and Luke; a generic sermon sadly yields only a generic Jesus!