“Donec a mortuis resurgat”: What Rising from the Dead Meant

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Lord’s Transfiguration. For those not familiar with the story, here is a brief summary: Peter has acknowledged Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, and Jesus has begun predicting His Passion to His disciples. Some days later, Jesus takes Peter and the brothers James and John up “the mountain,” His favored place to pray. While they are there, Jesus prays and as He does He begins to change before their eyes: He radiates light, His garments are dazzlingly white, even His face appears to be different. He seems almost to have stepped straight out of the pages of the richly symbolic apocalyptic literature that was still popular at the time. Then they see Moses and Elijah, the great Prophets of old and friends of God, appear on either side of Him and begin to speak with Him. Not knowing what else to do before such an awesome sight, Peter offers to construct booths for Jesus and His two companions. Then the disciples hear a voice speak from the clouds: “This is my beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!” When the voice stops, Jesus is alone and the glory has departed. This mysterious incident–the climax, as I see it, of Jesus’ earthly ministry–is related in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, alluded to in the Gospel of John, and spoken of in Peter’s second letter.

I have always enjoyed this marvelous story, but I enjoy the ending most, because for me the whole point of the incident is in the ending. The Gospel of Luke states that the three disciples did not, at that time, speak of what they had seen to anyone (including, presumably, the other disciples). In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, an explanation for this silence is provided; Jesus instructs the three disciples not to speak of the vision to anyone “until the Son of Man rises from the dead.” They also state that the disciples went down the mountain wondering to themselves what “rising from the dead” was supposed to mean. When I first began to study the story, their wondering struck me as odd. After all, Jesus had told them a few days earlier that He will be arrested and killed, and then rise after three days. This claim caused some consternation among the disciples, particularly Peter who himself had just confessed his revelation that Jesus is the Messiah. The Messiah was expected to restore the kingdom of Israel and to establish its dominion for all time.

Yet for all his rebuke of his Lord talking of His death, Peter doesn’t question there what it means to “rise from the dead.” The idea of resurrection was part of Judaism at this time. In the Gospel of John, when Jesus assures Martha that her brother Lazarus will rise again, she says, “Yes, Lord, I know: in the resurrection on the last day.” And the disciples themselves had been witness to Jesus’ power of raising people from the dead, particularly the daughter of Jairus in an early Gospel episode. So of course Peter would not question what it means to “rise from the dead.” But now he has seen Jesus standing in the glory of God as “the Son of Man,” the eternal king of Israel prophesied in the Books of Enoch and Daniel, whose dominion cannot be taken away. Surely He cannot “rise from the dead,” because He would have to go down to the dead first–that is, He would have to die. The eternal king, die? Surely then, “rising from the dead” must mean something else. …Right?

The meaning of this story, and why I call it the climax of Jesus’ ministry, is that it is the ultimate standing of expectation on its head. He made a career out of doing that for three years, subverting the way the Pharisees all too strictly observed the Law, teaching the people a new and more effective way to pray, shattering the dreams even of His own followers in talking of His forthcoming rejection and execution. But it is here, in this wacky incident viewed only by three people–not even all of the Twelve, just three of them–that the full gravity of the reality of Who Jesus Is makes them question everything. In one breath almost, they see the shining splendor of the “Son of Man,” standing with the most revered of the ancient Prophets, and they are told to keep quiet about it until after He “rises from the dead.” For these three people, and for us who read their story, the entire incident changes everything we take for granted about life and death.

“God’s ways are mysterious, ” a friend relayed to me recently, “and always wise” (note: not “but;” “and”). The seed of an idea had been planted a few days earlier when Jesus talked of the Messiah being rejected and killed, but now that idea becomes rooted in their minds for the first time. After Jesus’ trial and death and Resurrection, the seed which took root starts to flower: that eternity is not so much about quantity as it is about quality, that a truly eternal life is one where death itself is trivial. In the face of something as brilliant as the life of the “Son of Man,” how could death have any real power? And if we have been blessed to share in that life, and we take the initiative to strive to do so, what have we to fear from death? Only in the light of Jesus’ Resurrection does this event we call the Transfiguration make true sense. And so after the Resurrection the disciples could, with the Holy Spirit as their advocate and guide, go out into the world and begin to speak even of this strange and incredible incident, secure now in the knowledge of what it means to “rise from the dead.”

I think we should go do, and celebrate, the same.

“We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory: ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come down from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” – 2 Peter 1:16-19

Author’s Note: This was originally posted as a Facebook Note last year. I have edited it slightly for posting here.

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