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Friday, March 6, 2020

"Let's Build Three Tents!" - 2nd Sunday of Lent

Matthew 17:1-9
Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
“Rise, and do not be afraid.”
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.


Every teacher has ― at some point in their career ― stood silently before their students and, egging them on, hoped that someone would shout out a brilliant answer to their question. Every teacher has ― at some point in their career ― seen this go disastrously wrong. I taught religion: “Jesus!” some student inevitably shouts, certain that cannot be incorrect. “No,” I reply. … “Covenant!” shouts another, remembering something from last week. “No. You didn’t read for today, did you?” … “Wait is this that stuff about Napoleon?” “No, Garrett. You’re using the wrong notebook again. You’re in your religion course right now.”

I know it doesn’t seem like it, but this is sort of what Jesus experienced with Peter, James, and John when he brought them up the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus ― the rabbi and teacher ― brings his students up to the mountain. We read that Jesus was “transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light;” Moses and Elijah appeared alongside him (Mt 17:2). It’s at this moment that the attention shifts to Peter ― the attention shifts from the teacher to the student. And what does Peter blurt out? “Lord ... If you wish, I will make three tents! One for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mt 17:4). 

This is ― to be honest ― a very silly suggestion. Peter is referring to a specific Jewish celebration ― the “Feast of Booths” (or Tents). This was a weeklong event where the Jews prayed in makeshift booths in order to commemorate the time that they wandered through the desert while living in tents. But here’s the thing: the Jews were not, at this moment, celebrating the Feast of Booths. So why in the world would Jesus want a tent made for him?

In Peter’s defense, it is worth pointing out that, when Mark records this same story in his Gospel, he explains that Peter “did not know what to say; for he was exceedingly afraid (Mk 9:6). But, having been a teacher, I find it hilarious that the text says the voice from heaven interrupted Peter “while he was still speaking” (Mt 17:5). He was speaking nonsense; there was no need to hear more. But we should look closely at what that voice says when it cuts Peter off: “This is my beloved Son… listen to him. In other words: stop talking, Peter, and listen.

We too often think of Lent as a time of “doing, of piling up sacrifices for God. “What are you doing for Lent?” we always ask. Sacrifices are good, as far as they go. But the Church places the Transfiguration before us this week in order to recall that Lent is also a time of listening. Indeed, when Peter started blathering on about his project for Jesus ― “let’s build three tents!” ― God just cut him off: Listen to him.” 

It is the same with us: “I am giving up chocolate; I am giving up coffee...” That’s all fine and good ― it’s much more intelligible than Peter’s suggestion. But don’t be surprised if God cuts you off and suggests you also simply “listen to him.” Indeed, perhaps the question we should be asking is not “what am I doing for Lent?” but “what is God trying to do in me for Lent?” That is what we should be listening for. 

Peter saw Jesus transfigured before him, and all he could talk about was building tents. What is it about your world right now, for better or worse, that is being transfigured before you? Is there something in your heart that is being reshaped, painful or pleasant as it may seem? Those are the ways in which God speaks to us. In what ways have we made Lent a time of listening to all that, of listening to what God is speaking to us, rather than — like Peter and my dear old students — a time of shouting out all the things we’re going to do, hoping it’s the correct answer?


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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