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. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Mt. Tabor is a large, round hill in central Galilee. It’s the place that pious tradition tells us is the site of the Transfiguration. When you go there today with a party of pilgrims, you have to get out of your bus and take a taxi to the top. They say that God is especially pleased with Mt. Tabor taxi drivers, because more praying occurs in the few minutes hurtling up and down those narrow mountain roads than in all the rest of the day or probably the week. Aside from being a holy place, the view is spectacular.
Jesus and his three friends, Peter, James and John, obviously didn’t take a taxi and they didn’t go up the mountain for the view. On top, they experienced something so very extraordinary, so hard to believe, that even the most skeptical New Testament scholars agree that something historical happened there. There is no doubt in the mind of the Church that something profound occurred and it is proper for us to reflect on it and revere it this day.
Few incidents in the gospels are so difficult to speak about as is the Transfiguration; it is a great mystery. It’s not that we can understand nothing about it, but what we can understand will always be less than the whole. The Transfiguration yields its secret only if we embrace the mystery. To do so we must reflect on the symbols. We’ll look at six:
the high mountain;
the appearance of Moses and Elijah;
the three tents or booths which Peter wants to erect;
the heavenly voice and the consequent affirmation of Jesus’ authority
the dazzling whiteness of Jesus’ clothes and face.
In the Bible, mountains symbolize both remoteness from ordinary worldly affairs, and nearness to God. Moses received the Ten Commandments atop Mt. Sinai. Elijah staged his dramatic battle with the false prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus ascended a mountain to teach his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5-7). And in John’s Gospel our Lord withdraws to a mountain to pray following the feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness (Jn 6:15).
At the Transfiguration, Moses symbolizes the Law and Elijah the Prophets, the two great sources of authority in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. Together they point to Jesus as the one who fulfils all the hopes and expectations of God’s people. Jesus is greater than either of them, greater than Moses and Elijah together, greater than even the Law and the Prophets.
The three tents or booths Peter wants to erect are reminiscent of the Jewish Feast of Booths, a joyful autumnal celebration that recalls the time when God’s people lived in tents during their desert wanderings. The Feast of Booths also looks forward to the joy of the end-time when God will visit his people and complete the blessings promised in the covenant he made with Moses in the wilderness.
The cloud is most striking. Repeatedly in the Holy Scriptures the cloud symbolizes God’s presence. During their desert wanderings the Children of Israel were led onward by a cloud. Mt. Sinai was enveloped in a cloud when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. A cloud received the risen Lord at his Ascension.
The voice from the cloud on Mt. Tabor repeats the words heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Here, however, the words are addressed not to Jesus, but to his disciples. The concluding words, “Listen to him,” remind us of Moses’ prophecy: A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kindred; that is the one to whom you shall listen.(Dt. 18:15)
The Transfiguration of Jesus himself is the most striking of the symbols. It is a great mystery because, though it happened in time, it opens a window onto a world beyond time. For a brief moment, there on the mountain, the veil between time and eternity, the sacred and the profane, between earth and heaven, is lifted. Peter, James and John catch a glimpse of the invisible world of God. The concluding words, “Listen to him,” express the significance of the mystery for all of us.
We, the friends and followers of Christ Jesus are the company of those who listen to his words, who follow his instructions. Jesus does not grant to us, demand of us, any more than he granted to and demanded of Peter, James, and John. We live less on the mountaintop of great spiritual experiences, and more in the valley of life’s ordinary duties. So very, very infrequently do we see dazzling visions from beyond. Instead we listen for Jesus’ voice.
Jesus speaks to us in many ways: in the Scriptures, in prayer, in the teaching of his Church, through the circumstances of daily life, especially in the lives of the poor and homeless. He speaks to us in the promptings of conscience.
In the world to come, it will be different. There we shall see the Lord. In this world, however, we live by faith, and not by sight.
For a moment, before the descent of the cloud, the three disciples of Jesus saw their Master transformed beyond anything they could have imagined. It was as if his humanity and divinity had no limits. The Transfiguration is a manifestation of Christ’s divinity, from a moment breaking through the veil of his humanity. But it is more. It also shows us our potential to become holy. As we are told in 2 Peter 1:4, we are to “share in the divine nature.” It is something that happens to saints and eventually to all the Faithful—if not here, then in purgatory.
If the goal of the spiritual life is to grow in holiness, then the more we progress, the more we participate in God’s own life. When our journey reaches its end, and we have been stripped of all the obstacles to holiness, God’s life will become our life, and we shall be one with Christ, one in Christ. It’s what it means to part of the Body of Christ. It’s what it means to be crucified with Christ. St. Paul said: I live no longer… but Christ lives in me [and I in him] (Gal. 2:20)
We eagerly anticipate that day when our earthly pilgrimage beneath an often overcast sky will yield to the uninterrupted vision of God’s glory. We too shall shine with an unearthly light, the light that shines from the face of Christ Jesus: our Master, our Savior, our Redeemer, but also our best friend. We shall have reached our true homeland, the heavenly city which (as we read in The Revelation to St. John of Patmos) needs neither sun nor moon, “for the glory of God gives it light, and the lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21.23).
But until that day our holiness is not complete. So now I invite you to consider a seventh sign: It is the interlocking of the Transfiguration with the Crucifixion:
It’s really quite striking. Envision yourself here on Mt. Tabor. You are with Peter, James and John and this time you are here for the view. Suddenly Jesus glows with glory; it is overwhelming. And then mysteriously you look across the way and into the future to Golgotha. There you see Jesus is revealed in shame, executed like a common criminal. Here on Mt. Tabor his clothes are shining white, there they have been stripped off and soldiers are gambling for them.
Here he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes, representing the Law and the Prophets, there he is flanked by two brigands, representing the level to which human beings have sunk in rebellion against God. Here a bright cloud overshadows the scene, there darkness has come upon the land. Here Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is, there he is hiding in shame after denying he even knows our Lord. Here is a voice from God himself, declaring that this is his “Beloved Son,” there, a pagan soldier declares in surprise, that this is “truly the Son of God.”
In many ways, Tabor explains Golgotha and the Crucifixion explains the Transfiguration. We can better come to grips with each of them if we ponder them side by side. We learn to see glory in the Cross, and we learn to see the Cross in glory.
This story of the Transfiguration is a story of beauty and laughter and above all love. And as we know, the Crucifixion seems to bring ugliness and grief and despair, only to be transformed three days later by the greatest example of beauty and laughter and love, the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus.
We must embrace both if we are to be truly holy. And the Glory of God and the humiliation of the Cross must be clasped together, so we can have a deeper understanding of what it means to be holy. Let us embrace this especially as we continue on our Lenten pilgrimage.