Jesus said to Peter, James and John, ‘Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.’
Peter had recently acclaimed Jesus as God’s anointed Messiah. James would be the first apostle to witness to Jesus by his martyrdom. John in the Gospel says Jesus is the Word incarnate and God’s uncreated light, life and love. None of the apostles imagined that in a few weeks’ time Jesus would die in agony on a cross in Jerusalem. Jesus himself expected that. He had several times told the apostles but they made nothing of it.
To strengthen these disciples in their faith in him, Jesus led them up a mountain to witness an unearthly, terrifying vision: Jesus talking with two prophets, Moses and Elijah, who had both died centuries earlier. Tradition held that they had not in fact died a normal death but had been caught up to glory in heaven. The three apostles would also see Jesus unimaginably more splendid and glorious than the two prophets. A brilliant cloud overshadowed them and they hear God the Father declaring Jesus to be his dear Son and telling them to listen to Jesus. The vision pointed forward to the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross. It revealed the reason why death could not hold Jesus in its grip.
At the end of 1999 I visited the Holy Land with a group of pilgrims. While in Galilee we went to Mount Tabor, the mountain where according to tradition Jesus was transfigured. Its sides are very steep and for several centuries an Arab family escorted pilgrims to the summit. At one time they used camels but we were driven up in rather battered seven-seater Mercedes. I sat at the front with the elderly Arab driver, who all the way up shouted Alleluyas while tapping my knee. He was right. It was an Alleluya experience.
At the top we entered the Catholic church to celebrate our Mass. There is an Orthodox church nearby as well. The Catholic church is like a huge cave with rows of steps to seat the congregation, leading down to the altar. The wall above the altar depicts in gold mosaics the theophany of the Transfiguration. Moses and Elijah are shown standing either side of a large green cross, representing Jesus. The Lord wearing brilliant, white, shining clothes is impossible to depict although many artists have tried. The cross reminds us that one evangelist says that the two prophets were talking with Jesus about his forthcoming Passion and death in Jerusalem. It is a cross of living wood showing that the Lord is living, no longer dead. How could he not be for God the Father would certainly raise his beloved Son to eternal glory?
Next Wednesday we begin the penitential season of Lent when we confess our sins and have ashes placed on our heads to remind us that we are mortal. We spend forty days of spiritual combat with fasting, much prayer and good deeds. We remember the Lord’s spiritual combat in the wilderness of Judaea. In the last great week of Lent, we recall the suffering Jesus endured for our salvation, culminating in the silence of his grave on Holy Saturday. Then on the first day of the new week we celebrate Easter as the vision of the Transfiguration anticipated. The Church gives us that vision in today’s Gospel to encourage us and strengthen our faith to help us persevere in our Lenten disciplines until we come to Easter.
Fr Crispin CR