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An Awesome and Terrifying Mountaintop Experience

July 31, 2017
CNS/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo
Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord - Sunday, August 6th, 2017
The theological meaning of the Transfiguration is central to our understanding of the mission of Jesus of Nazareth. It was not only Jesus who was “transfigured” on Mount Tabor but also Peter, James and John who were transformed with him. Their eyes were opened; their vision widened, enabling them to see without impediment the virtually blinding light of Jesus’ love that flowed from every fiber of his being. Every day of Jesus’ life something of that remarkable brilliance, that stunning passion, and that amazing glory was revealed to people of all ages, stages and states of life. The shepherds and magi saw it in Bethlehem; the elders in Jerusalem’s temple saw it; the guests at a wedding feast in Cana witnessed it; a woman caught in adultery experienced it; a boy possessed by demons felt it; a man born blind gazed upon it; a good thief heard it on Calvary.
For the three apostles, it is an experience of something beyond words: terrifying and yet wonderful that they would wish to prolong it by building three tents – for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Reflecting on the experience, years later, Peter would write so powerfully in his Second Letter (1:16-19)
“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 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.”
The three apostles who would see Jesus prostrate in agony in Gethsemane were given this glimpse of who he really is, to strengthen them for what lay ahead, and also to help them to understand what is revealed in the Passion. Today we could say that Tabor and Calvary are deeply linked together. Mount Tabor is simply a foretaste of Calvary and gives us a deeper vision of the reality of the Crucifixion event.
Matthew’s details of the Transfiguration story
Let us look closely at several of Matthew’s emphases in today’s majestic Gospel story.  Matthew’s account (17:1-9) confirms that Jesus is the Son of God (17:5) and points to fulfillment of the prediction that he will come in his Father’s glory at the end of the age (16:27). It has been explained by some as a resurrection appearance retrojected (read back) into the time of Jesus’ ministry, but that is not probable since the account lacks many of the usual elements of the resurrection-appearance narratives.  Matthew’s account of Jesus atop Mount Tabor draws upon motifs from the Old Testament and non-canonical Jewish apocalyptic literature that express the presence of the heavenly and the divine, e.g., brilliant light, white garments, and the overshadowing cloud. The high mountain has been identified with Tabor or Hermon, but probably no specific mountain was intended by the evangelist or by his Marcan source (Matthew 9:2).  Its meaning is theological rather than geographical, possibly recalling the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:12-18) and to Elijah at the same place (1 Kings 19:8-18; Horeb = Sinai).
The face of Jesus
Matthew describes the face of Jesus that shone like the sun, reminiscent of Daniel 10:6.  Jesus’ clothes “white as light” recalls Daniel 7:9 where the clothing of God appears “snow bright.” (The bright white garments of other heavenly beings, are also mentioned in Rev 4:4; 7:9; 19:14). In verse 4 we hear of the three tents – the booths in which the Israelites lived during the feast of Tabernacles (cf. John 7:2).  The tents were meant to recall their ancestors’ dwelling in booths during the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land (Leviticus 23:39-42).  When Matthew speaks of the cloud that cast a shadow over apostles on the mountain (17:5), it recalls the cloud that covered the meeting tent in the Old Testament, indicating the Lord’s presence in the midst of his people (Exodus 40:34-35).  The cloud also came to rest upon the temple in Jerusalem at the time of its dedication (1 Kings 8:10).
The voice from heaven
The voice of God heard atop the mountain repeats the baptismal proclamation about Jesus (3:17), with the addition of the command “listen to him.” The latter is a reference to Deuteronomy 18:15 in which the Israelites are commanded to listen to the prophet like Moses whom God will raise up for them. The command to listen to Jesus is general, but in this context it probably applies particularly to the preceding predictions of his passion and resurrection (16:21) and of his coming (16:27, 28). Most significant about the statement of the heavenly voice is that here as in the Old Testament generally, “Word” is given priority over “vision.” Matthew alone uses the word “vision” (17:9) to describe the transfiguration.  Seeing Jesus transfigured high atop Mount Tabor has meaning and value only if it leads the apostles and disciples to listen obediently to his divinely authorized teaching.
Witnessing glory and agony
Peter, James and John are with Jesus in this moment of glory on Tabor.  The resurface with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as their master struggles with his fate.  Those who witness his heavenly glory must also witness his earthly agony.  If the followers of Jesus wish to share his future glory, they must be prepared to participate in his suffering. The awesome event and memory of the Transfiguration would serve as a reservoir of grace, consolation and peace for the apostles and disciples of Jesus when in Jerusalem on another hilltop, they would witness that shining face bloodied and spat upon, those dazzling clothes torn into souvenir rags by soldiers who cast dice for them.  Jesus’ face did not shine radiantly on the cross.  Perhaps we may ask ourselves: Why did God hide all the glory on Mount Tabor, where no one could see?  Why didn’t God save it for the cross? And yet the Christian life teaches us that must experience both mountains – Golgotha and Tabor– in order to see the glory of God.  Today we look upon the Transfiguration as the celebration of the presence of Christ that takes charge of everything in us and transfigures even that which disturbs us about ourselves.  God penetrates those hardened, incredulous, even disquieting regions within us, about which we really do not know what to do.  God penetrates them with the life of the Spirit and acts upon those regions and gives them his own face, his consolation and his peace.
Mount Tabor today
During my years of study in the Holy Land, my frequent visits to Mount Tabor always left me with a great sense of awe, wonder, mystery, fear, and reverence before Jesus. Each time I visited Mt. Tabor and the beautiful church depicting the three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, I was also keenly aware of the memory of Pope Paul VI who had a very special place for the mystery of the Transfiguration in his own prayer and pontificate. He climbed Mount Tabor as a pilgrim in 1964 during his historic visit to the Holy Land. On August 6, 1978, Solemnity of the Transfiguration, Pope Paul VI died at Castel Gandolfo. This year on August 6, we remember this great Pope on the thirty-ninth anniversary of his death. He closed his eyes on “this stupendous, dramatic temporal and earthly scene” on the very feast that so marked his life and Petrine ministry. At his funeral mass in St. Peter’s Square on August 12, 1978, the then Dean of the College of Cardinals, Carlo Cardinal Confalonieri described him with these words:
His greatness of soul was seen in his lively intelligence and a heart filled with goodness that opened up to the spiritual needs of his sons and daughters… He became a real prince of peace. He established with pressing solicitude a continuing dialogue with all peoples. He gave his attention with all affection and hope to the weak and defenseless, the poor and those in want of every assistance. He conversed with all in order to strengthen them in faith…
History is now teaching us that the patience and wisdom of Pope Paul VI, especially in the aftermath and implementation of the Second Vatican Council, was a great gift to God’s people and to the world. Pope Paul VI did not see dialogue merely as an instrument but as a method. He was close to people, especially to those who were distant or who opposed him in theory or in practice. He also loved the Holy Land, and desired that the greatest possible number of people should have the experience that was his as a pilgrim to the Land of Jesus in 1964.
At his Beatification Mass at the Vatican on October 19, 2014, which took place during the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the Family, Pope Francis spoke about his predecessor in these moving words:
When we look to this great Pope, this courageous Christian, this tireless apostle, we cannot but say in the sight of God a word as simple as it is heartfelt and important: thanks! Thank you, our dear and beloved Pope Paul VI! Thank you for your humble and prophetic witness of love for Christ and his Church!
In his personal journal, the great helmsman of the Council wrote, at the conclusion of its final session: “Perhaps the Lord has called me and preserved me for this service not because I am particularly fit for it, or so that I can govern and rescue the Church from her present difficulties, but so that I can suffer something for the Church, and in that way it will be clear that he, and no other, is her guide and saviour” (P. Macchi, Paolo VI nella sua parola, Brescia, 2001, pp. 120-121). In this humility the grandeur of Blessed Paul VI shines forth: before the advent of a secularized and hostile society, he could hold fast, with farsightedness and wisdom – and at times alone – to the helm of the barque of Peter, while never losing his joy and his trust in the Lord.”
Blessed Paul VI now lives in the Resurrection of Jesus, in whose glorious Transfiguration sign he closed his eyes on this day in 1978. Pope Paul VI let us feel on earth the joy and glory that awaits each of us in the New Jerusalem. Christ’s transfiguration was in the past. The God, whose Light breaks into the earth on this feast, is present. Let our prayers today be that the world will see the Light, the Light of healing and reconciliation. Let us strive to be counted among those who listen to Christ’s Word and are transfigured by it.
Our moments of transfiguration
In the past, every icon painter began his or her career by reproducing the scene of the Transfiguration. We could say that the destiny of every Christian is written between two mountains: from Mount Tabor to Calvary. The awesome Gospel story of the Transfiguration offers us wondrous moments of light as well as plunging us into sorrow and darkness. The wonder of eternity and the daily facts of life reveal the tensions of our life. The story of Jesus, the prophets and his friends atop Mount Tabor also reveals the temptation to want to stay put and the difficulty of moving on. How often we remain stuck in our stories. This mysterious story gives us an opportunity to look at some of our own mountain top experiences. If so many others could recognize Jesus’ glory in a flash, a glance, or a touch, why might Peter, James and John have required such extra effort in helping them to see it? Perhaps it was because they were so close to Jesus; perhaps it was because they were with him every day; perhaps it was because, on some level, they had somehow taken his glory for granted. What about us? Do we recognize that same divine glory present in us, visible in others, so obvious in creation, deep within the simplest and most ordinary, everyday experiences of justice, truth, healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion? Or do we too take it for granted?
How have such experiences shed light on the shadows and darkness of life? What would our lives be without some of these peak experiences? How often do we turn to those few but significant experiences for strength, courage and perspective? When we're down in the valley we often can’t see Christ’s glory. We can only see it when we have climbed a mountain like Mount Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration. We can only see him when we go together with others up on the mountain. How have we shared those moments of grace and light with others?
[The readings for the Transfiguration are: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; 2 Peter 1,16-19; and Matthew 17:1-9.]