One Like a Son of Man
“One like a Son of Man” is a phrase we hear from time to time in the Bible. It’s not a common term used for the men of those ancient times, though all are children of men (and women). Son of Man has a very particular meaning in Scripture. The reading from the Book of Daniel on the feast of the Transfiguration introduces this character.
Daniel described visions he had which made clear that the God of Israel was and is greater than any others who might claim that position. In this reading, Daniel speaks of the Ancient One whose clothing was bright as snow and hair white as wool. He sat on a great throne and wondrous power flowed out from him. As is the case in most royal courts, large numbers of people were present to meet his every need and carry out his orders. This Ancient One is meant to be understood as greater than the rulers of all the countries that had conquered Israel in its history. The most powerful God and ruler of all.
Then there is a bit of a shift. Another individual comes onto the scene, one who looks like a human man. Yet this man doesn’t come walking, or riding a horse, or in other ordinary means of travel. This one comes “on the clouds of heaven” and is presented before the Ancient One. And what does the Ancient One do? He gives this Son of Man “dominion, glory, and kingship” over all the world. This dominion is not going to end, nor will it be destroyed. It is to be everlasting.
The language of the Book of Daniel sounds very similar to that of the Book of Revelation. They are the same type of literature, apocalyptic. Both works speak of the end times and of the coming trials and hardships that will mark the end of the world. So why do we hear this one on the Feast of the Transfiguration?
When Jesus took Peter, James, and John up onto the mountain top to pray, they certainly did not expect what was going to happen there. Mountain tops are places traditionally known for meetings with God. But it doesn’t happen all that often! At least not obviously and dramatically. But this time was not to be the quiet, predictable, boring trip up the mountain of ordinary life.
On the mountain, they saw the appearance of their friend and teacher, Jesus, become totally different from a normal human being. “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” Remember the description of the Ancient One and the brightness of the light shining out from his clothing? This is a different reality than the everyday Jesus they knew and loved. Peter recognized immediately the meaning of the brightness of light and the presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus. He offered to set up three tents, not unlike the tent in which the Ark of the Covenant rested until the Temple was constructed in Jerusalem. Tents for representatives of the Lord God, the Ancient One.
A bright cloud appeared over them all and a voice spoke from the cloud. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.”
The apostles did the most reasonable thing possible at that point in time. They immediately bowed down prostrate on the ground, fearing for their lives. Who could see God and live? They didn’t know if they would ever return to the bottom of the mountain and ordinary life. It might very well all end there.
But the next thing they knew, Jesus touched them and he looked completely normal again. Everybody else was gone. He told them to get up. As they went back down the mountain, he cautioned them not to share the vision they had seen with anyone else “until the Son of Man has been raised form the dead.”
I suspect we can all understand why they might have been just as happy not to need to tell anybody what they had seen. It would have sounded absolutely preposterous and pretentious. Such things don’t happen to ordinary people. Who are you to claim to have seen Moses and Elijah and heard the voice of God? Crazy men, that’s all…. And rising from the dead? Really? Totally crazy.
And yet… Jesus did die and he did rise from the dead. The Son of Man, the one to whom the Ancient One had given dominion, glory, and kingship, was their teacher, the very same person whom the voice from the cloud had described as his beloved Son.
The disciples shared the story of what they had seen. It became part of the teachings of the early community. The author of the second letter of St. Peter speaks of this event, as an eyewitness. This is not something made up to try to fool the superstitious or poorly educated common folk of the time. This had truly happened. So pay attention. It’s like a lamp in the darkness or the dawn breaking through the darkness of night. The Lord, the beloved Son, has been honored and praised by God the Father.
We don’t hear these readings often at Sunday liturgies, especially not in August. The Gospel readings describing the Transfiguration are more typically part of the Lenten Sunday cycles. However, when August 6 falls on a Sunday, it takes precedence over the regular celebrations of Ordinary (counted) Time. We take a day to ponder the great love of the Father who sent the Son, becoming a Son of Man, a person like each human being. He lived a normal human life and gave us a glimpse of the wonder of the sharing in God’s life that we too receive.
Let’s take a moment today to relax in the beauty of creation and the presence of the Son of Man. Crazy things can happen on mountain tops. Sometimes, we should just take a moment to savor the memory.
For a fun activity to celebrate this feast, check out this puzzle in our OFS – Other Fun Stuff section of Theologika.net.
Readings for the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord – Cycle A