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The evangelists did not say on which mountain the transfiguration actually took place but from the days of Origen and St Jerome in the fourth century Mt.Tabor has been accepted as the mountain referred to in the gospels.
The Importance of the Transfiguration
The major theological point of the scene is the manifestation of the identity of Jesus. He is more than Moses, he is more than Elijah; he is God’s beloved Son. This had been said already at his Baptism (Mt 3:17). But now here he is seen in glory. The splendour of the divine shines forth in his face and through his garments. The mountain is reminiscent of Mt. Sinai where Moses had received the Law (Ex 24:1ff.); his face too had been suffused with light (Ex 34:29ff.). In the Old Testament: God had revealed himself through the Law and the Prophets. In the New Testament Jesus is the revelation of God in his own person. He is of unique and unparalleled importance. Later on in Matthew’s text, Jesus will correct the teaching of Moses, on the issue of divorce, (Mt 19:9ff.), and he identified Elijah with John the Baptist as already come and rejected (Mt 17:13). Descending from the mountain he tells the three of his forthcoming death. In seeing his glory they had had an anticipation of his resurrection, but, despite the real opposition to him, the dreadful trauma of his death was still before them. The evangelists seriously criticise the reaction of the Twelve before and when it happened. Peter’s failure was especially underlined. At least St. Matthew is kinder to Peter than St. Mark; he always is. On the mountain of the transfiguration Peter had wanted to do the will of the Lord: ‘if is your will I will set up three booths for you’. Mark simply writes that Peter did not know what to say because they were afraid (Mk 9:6). We recall that earlier at Caesarea Philippi, according to Matthew Jesus had called Peter ‘Satan’. Peter had refused to accept that Jesus would suffer (Mt 16:18ff.). Now in the trans-figuration scene Peter’s confession of faith then is vindicated : You are the Christ the Son of the Living God.
St. Matthew certainly wrote his gospel to provide the historical background of Jesus, and also to show what it all meant in God’s eyes. It was instruction for his own community, to help believers with their witness to the faith. He began it with the words: ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham’. With the baptism and the transfiguration he shows him to be the Son of God. The voice of The Heavenly Father himself proclaims this truth. In everything Jesus says and does he is the perfect obedient Son of the Father. This was all revealed to the disciples. They had to absorb further that the way of the cross is the way of discipleship. The Lord of glory had died ignominiously. The resurrection manifested it all as good news… with the command to make disciples of the whole world (Mt 28:20).
“Get up and do not be afraid” was the encouragement given to them by Jesus after the transfiguration experience (Mt 17:7). This would be recalled by them later in time of trouble. We read in the Second Letter of Peter: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.…..we were with him on the holy mountain…” (2 Pt 1:5-7; 16-19). The three apostles had been given a glimpse of heaven. But like Jesus they too would suffer. Often when people suffer greatly, as we know, they still radiate peace with gratitude. They can still say: ‘it is good for us to be here’. Christian hope is founded on faith and love and perseverance.
The pictorial description of the transfiguration is one of splendour and beauty. In the bible nature has always played a major role in showing forth the glory and majesty of God. Persons are the crown of creation (Ps 8). Human beings at their very best, at their most perfect are a synthesised harmony of loveliness and loveableness. Beauty and goodness belong together. That day on the mountain Jesus is experienced as perfect beauty and perfect goodness. His face shone like the sun, his clothing was as bright as light. One is reminded of the answer he gave to Philip’s famous demand: only show us the Father. “He who sees me sees the Father” (Jn 14:8). We ourselves can talk of breath-taking beauty. We are even able to say some things are simply divine, like a marvellous female opera singer, the diva! It is due often to what we see and what we hear in nature, views that transport us, marvellous music that makes us cry. Happily the word glorious has not been hijacked. It is a wonderfully evocative word. Glory to God in the highest. We know what it is even if we may not be able to do much more than look and listen undisturbed, speechless when experiencing it. It elicits wonder and praise straight from the heart. Glory, majesty, splendour are words all applied to the most awe inspiring created things to direct the mind to their origin. Reverence and silence are integral to such experiences. People do not chatter in the presence of the sacred and the beautiful, what must be received with all our uninterrupted attention.
The liturgy, especially our Mass, belongs in the category of the beautiful: adoration and worship, and awe and mystery, in the sacred presence of the Risen Lord. Any trivialisation of it would reduce to banality what is intended to be and is extraordinary. Hence the careful arrangement of prayers and readings, participation and silence, and solemnity. ‘Through him, and with him and in him, all glory and honour is yours, Almighty Father, for ever and an ever’. This encapsulates it all. One might just think that Mass celebrated in this way is like reliving, with the apostles, the experience of the transfiguration. No wonder we should take very great care of its celebration, and when so celebrated it is a perfect synthesis of everything that is true and good and noble and lovely. A happy Sunday to you all. Amen.
Father Richard J.Taylor
Spiritual Advisor, MaterCare International