Vol. 6, No. 25
On the Second Sunday in Lent, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. There he is transfigured into a radiant glory, and appears with Moses and Elijah.
We ask for the grace to enter into the mystery of the Transfiguration and to make it ours as Mary, our Blessed Mother, made it hers.
“Remember the law of Moses my servant, whom I charged at Horeb with statutes and ordinances for all Israel. Now I am sending you Elijah the prophet, Before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day: He will turn the heart of fathers to their sons, and the heart of sons to their fathers” (Malachi 3:22-24).
Daughters of Mary Instruction
7 March 2017
Lynn D. Clapper
“What is the big deal about Elijah?” This was a question I asked my Old Testament professor after nearly two months of graduate study of the prophets of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. The subject of considerable Biblical lore, Elijah’s importance to the unfolding story of the Old Testament had not been a part of my religious education. My Protestant classmates, however, seemed fully aware of his significance to the prophetic voice. His name was used in conversation, other prophets were compared to Elijah, John the Baptist was asked if he was Elijah, even Jesus was thought to be the ‘new’ Elijah. I did not get it, and so I decided to ask for an explanation.
My professor was stopped cold by this question, and his initial look of surprise slowly changed to one of half amusement. He then looked around the class, and said “Well, class, tell her. What is the big deal about Elijah?”
No one said a word.
In the story of the Transfiguration, Matthew tells us that Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. In front of their very eyes, Jesus was transfigured into a shining radiance, and Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus, conversing with him. As startling as Jesus’ transformation must have been to the disciples, the presence of Moses and Elijah does not appear to disturb them at all. Why is this? What was the importance of these two figures of the Old Testament to Jesus in his public ministry?
We can partially answer our own questions. From our study of the history of the Law of Moses, we know that God called Moses to deliver the ancient Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt and lead them to the land he had promised Abraham. On route, God called Moses up Mt. Sinai and delivered to him the laws that would shape Yahweh’s chosen people. Throughout the centuries of the Old Testament, the Law of Moses became more and more important to the Hebrew people, and by Jesus’ day, Mosaic Law was the defining standard of any person who worshiped the God of Abraham. No one had arisen in Israel like Moses.
But, we might not be as familiar with Elijah’s story, and to understand Elijah’s importance to the history of the Hebrew people we must revisit the early years of the divided kingdom as told to us in 1 Kings. Elijah, whose Hebrew name Eliyahu, means ‘the Lord is my God,’ was a prophet in the northern kingdom during the reign of Ahab in the years 875-854 B.C., some 60+ years after Israel divided into northern and southern kingdoms. Israel had split after Solomon’s reign due to the clamor to reinstate high places of worship to pagan gods and idols in the areas outside of Jerusalem, which began as a result of Solomon’s marriage with women from the surrounding pagan kingdoms. While the temple worship to Yahweh continued in Jerusalem, the kings of the northern kingdom allowed worship at other sites throughout the land, a practice specifically prohibited by the Mosaic Law. Over time, idol worship began to corrupt the worship of Yahweh at these forbidden sites, and following Ahab’s marriage to the Sidonian princess Jezebel, altars to the pagan fertility god Baal appeared along with the altars to Yahweh. Ahab himself began to worship Baal and set up the asherah poles expressly forbidden by Yahweh in his command that the Hebrew people serve him alone. His queen, Jezebel, ordered the slaughter of hundreds of the prophets of the Lord. The reign of Ahab was the worst of times for the northern kingdom of Israel.
It is here that Elijah enters the picture. Confronting Ahab directly with words Yahweh had given him, Elijah declared a drought on the land that resulted in terrible famine. After three years without rain, Yahweh directed Elijah to return to Ahab with a challenge to the prophets of Baal and Asherah, in the presence of all Israel, that they call on Baal to send fire to light a sacrifice prepared just for this test. “You shall call on the name of your gods, and I will call upon the name of the Lord. The God who answers with fire is God” (1 Kings 18:24).
The prophets of Baal built their sacrifice, but did not light it, and called upon Baal to answer them. They called all morning, and at noon, Elijah taunted them to call louder, for perhaps Baal did not hear them because he was sleeping. The pagan prophets continued to call and dance, but no fire came down to light the sacrifice.
Seeing this, Elijah, the only remaining prophet of Yahweh in the land, called on the people to come to him as Elijah repaired a destroyed altar and prepared a sacrifice. He surrounded the altar with a deep trench, and had the people douse the altar and the wood with jars of water until the water overflowed. “Answer me Lord…that this people may know that you, Lord, are God and that you have turned their hearts back to you” (1Kings 18: 37-39).
Yahweh answered Elijah. He sent fire down to devour the burnt offering and to dry up all the water poured around the altar. The stunned people of Israel once again proclaimed the Lord as their God. Rain soon fell, and Elijah called for the death of Jezebel’s pagan prophets. Standing alone and invoking Yahweh’s very words, Elijah had challenged the evil king and his wicked queen, and discredited the gods of Baal. Elijah was prophet like no other.
The story of Elijah does not end there. Scripture tells us how the widow’s bottomless jar of oil sustained Elijah during the drought, how a discouraged and exhausted Elijah listened for the voice of the Lord in the wind and the fire and the earthquake, and how he was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. His ministry was never again as dramatic as his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, but Israel remembered him as the most zealous of prophets who alone spoke the words of the Lord when all Israel had forsaken Yahweh’s covenant. Elijah, it turns out, was a very big deal.
Each year, the story of the Transfiguration is read on the second Sunday in Lent. A miracle in which Jesus shared a vision of himself glorified with three of his disciples just days after he had predicted his suffering and death for the first time, Jesus’ transfiguration is a glimpse of the glory that awaited Jesus after his resurrection. Nodding to the history of law and prophecy that embodied Yahweh’s covenant with his chosen people, Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the prophet, were perhaps telling Jesus that his time had now come, and their work was done. They are the best of the ancient traditions that prepared the way for the promised Messiah.
In a few short weeks, Jesus of Nazareth will make his way to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed by those who knew him best. He will die crucified on a cross, and then he will rise from the dead. Those who followed him did not yet know this story, and the Transfiguration was perhaps a consolation to Peter, James, and John that things would work out in the end. For us, we know, just as Moses and Elijah knew, that to follow the God of Abraham is never easy. But, as Mary Jo will remind us today, transformation comes in ways we can never expect. Jesus of Nazareth is son of Mary, Son of God. He is the new covenant. As he begins his journey to Jerusalem, let us follow him.