No one knows which mountain it was on which Jesus was transfigured; but from the fourth century, the traditional site has been Mount Tabor, smack in the middle of the Valley of Jezreel. Dome shaped, looking much as if an ethereal ice cream scoop might once have scraped it from the crust of the earth and plopped it down atop an otherwise level plain, Mount Tabor has been the destination of pilgrims and tourists for centuries. Our bus took us from the Bedouin village at the foot of the mountain to a parking lot perhaps a quarter of a mile up. We spilled out of the bus and into a half dozen beat-up taxis, therein to be transported up the mountain in a series of switchbacks, with nary a guardrail in sight. Flying up the mountain at breakneck speed, our Palestinian taxi driver knew how to handle his old Mercedes, and knew as well how to give travelers fits. At every hairpin turn exclaiming, “Hallelujah!” and chuckling, he had every one of us laughing and screeching like kids on a roller coaster.
It didn’t do a lot for my devotional life. By the time we reached the windswept summit, my major connection with the Transfiguration was the fact that we were white as bleached sheets. I lamely suggested that we build three booths and avoid the trip down. But the trip is worth the effort, white knuckles and all. Atop the ruins of a fourth century basilica (can you imagine hauling all the stone for a church up such a peak?) twentieth century Franciscans built a magnificent edifice designed by the brilliant architect Antonio Barluzzi. He depicted the Transfiguration with bi-level altars. The upper altar, reached by side stairs, beams with magnificent mosaics like a jewel, symbolizing the divine nature of Christ. Those mosaics catch the western sun just right on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, and become totally resplendent with light. Below, is a much simpler altar, made to recall Christ’s human nature. And in the towers on the north and south sides of the church are two chapels, one for Moses and one for Elijah.
It would be easy, and maybe a little cheap, to go down the path of exploiting the irony of the church and its three naves, mirroring the rather stupid remark of Peter suggesting the building of three booths, perhaps for the Feast of Tabernacles. But alternatively I would like to focus on how the Transfiguration of Christ, his own seminal religious experience, if you will, and how it somehow called for witnesses.
You have noticed, perhaps, that within the band of The Twelve disciples there was an inner circle consisting of Peter, James, and John. The first three gospels tell several stories of how Jesus chose these three taking them with him on some occasions, of which the Transfiguration is one. Nothing in the story suggests that Jesus was at all aware of what was about to happen to him. What the narrative does suggest, however, is that there is a link between what had happened about a week before. Jesus and his group had gone far out of their accustomed circuit to the headwaters of the Jordan at the foot of Mount Hermon, the highest peak in the country. According to Mark and Matthew, at a place called Caesarea Philippi, associated with the Greek god Pan or Baneas, Caesar, and the House of Herod the Great whose son was the Philip who built the city there in honor of Caesar Augustus, Jesus asked the question, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” The place itself, though perhaps on the much-used highway to the sea, no stranger to rumbling armies, was rather desolate and still is. Awash in all the symbols of power and tradition—Roman, Jewish, and the waters in which Jesus himself had been baptized—Caesarea Philippi became remembered as the place where Peter confessed the answer to Jesus’ question: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” And all the gospels say that Jesus heard that response and immediately—“sternly,” they say—ordered his disciples to tell no one, explaining that ahead of him lay the road of suffering and death, not the glorious kingdom expected to be assumed by Messiah.
So what is that all about? It seems to me that Jesus was struggling with identity and vocation, a somewhat familiar struggle to many of us. Who are we and what does our life mean? If you read the gospels, especially the first three, you can see how deeply Jesus wrestles with those questions, although many of us miss that, imagining that he was somehow immune to human struggles. In Luke’s narrative, although Caesarea Philippi is absent from the tale, Jesus is praying with his disciples near him when he asks that question, suggesting that the question itself might have been the subject of his prayer. Who am I? And if I am Messiah, the Chosen One, how does that square with this sense of destiny I have to suffer, to be rejected, to be killed, and to rise again? There are no maps telling me how to get there, and I am not sure how to do it.
After this episode of prayer, as happens in both Mark and Matthew, Jesus selects the inner three and takes them with him to a high mountain, apart. And there something very strange happens. We call it the Transfiguration, but in many ways it was Jesus’ confirmation. It was his own unique spiritual experience that springs from the roots of this question, “Who am I?” Christian theology takes the route of understanding Christ as one person of two natures, divine and human. Do with that what you will. The struggle of the self, his Self, is in some sense the struggle of the world of the crowds, Caesars, and gods of the nations wrestling with and against the divine world of God. The scriptures today remind us that transfiguration is something that had happened before, to Moses, for example. And Christian history contains other examples of similar, if not identical, experiences of ordinary people, St. Seraphim of Sarov being one. Be that as it may, when they arrive on the mountaintop, Jesus enters into prayer again, and in that moment his appearance changes and even his clothes become radiant. The story tells us that not only Jesus is different but that somehow the veil separating the world of the crowds from the world of the divine is pierced. So Moses and Elijah appear, not to Jesus only, but to the on-looking disciples. It is the realm of eternity, not time, where past and future have no meaning. Moses and Elijah are speaking of what we would call future—the “departure” that Jesus was to accomplish in Jerusalem—but they know as much about the future as they do the past, which is to say that they belong to that timeless realm that is then and there on the mountaintop colliding with the realm of flesh and blood that is generally ignorant of any other realm than that of common, everyday goings-on.
There are lots of things to be learned and gleaned from the story of the Transfiguration. Almost always we naturally focus on Jesus, which is doubtless the point of the whole episode. But notice the obvious. Jesus took with him three disciples. Thus there is an audience for this great epiphany, and a community to share it. Why did he take them? Perhaps for company—reason enough if you are going to hike all the way up Mount Tabor or some similar peak. But the story is reminiscent of Mark’s account (which Luke had read) in which Jesus called these three out from among the others and took them with him deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane where he prayed in his agony to be spared his time of trial. Jesus felt the need for company during critical hours. And simply because they are there on the mountain, Peter, James, and John themselves get swept up in the overshadowing cloud, terrified as they find themselves in that awful space where time runs into eternity and flesh is saturated with glory. The voice that comes out of the cloud, unmistakably the same voice that spoke on the day of that other epiphany, Jesus’ baptism, speaks not to him but to them. “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!” Listen to him. Open your hearts, your minds, your souls so that you can not only hear but pay attention, and follow. The road downhill will be harder than the climb, because it leads to suffering and rejection, denial and cross. The Chosen One is chosen not for domination but for submission, not as ruler but as servant. And if the Chosen One chooses you, it is so that you may be like him. Get your cross and take it up and follow him. Listen to him.
They kept silent and told no one in those days anything that they had seen. What else could they have done? Those whose minds are sealed in the world of the crowds and crows and Caesars are seldom impressed with tales of glory. And even if they be enchanted, they ponder the unearthly, rarely imagining that transfiguration or any such thing could be for them. Peter, James, John, their fellow disciples, and countless others were soon to come to see something more magnificent than the Transfiguration, namely Jesus’ Easter, his spring, his Resurrection. They would only get there by listening to him and following him on the road that led through Gethsemane to Calvary, through agony and death. But they would catch on in due time to the fact that what had happened to Jesus on the mountain was their destiny too. Time would come when they would tell freely what they had seen there, convinced that the world of the divine penetrates the world of the crowds on every level. The day would dawn when they and their sisters and brothers would be the community showing what could happen to the world when it but listens to the Chosen One, takes up its cross, and follows him in the way that seeks Love in an exhilarating journey where there are no guardrails, only grace.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013