Feast of the Transfiguration
In the ancient world, a mountaintop was believed to be the closest point to heaven. So it is not surprising the moment when Jesus, before his Resurrection, showed three of his disciples a glimpse of divine glory. Throughout the history of salvation, the top of a mountain symbolized the place where God would speak directly to his people. The symbolism is so strong that many churches with steeples recreate the point of divine connection. The steeples rising to the sky are the axis mundi, the center of the earth and the place where heaven and earth meet.
A week after Jesus had accepted Peter’s acknowledgment that he was the Messiah, he took Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain, believed to be Mount Tabor, and was Transfigured before them. Two ancient figures joined them and were recognized as Moses and Elijah. Moses died on a mountain, and Elijah was taken up to heaven by a whirlwind. On the mountain, the two men of God spoke to Jesus about the departure, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem, that is—his death. Their conversation with Jesus certified the unity between Jesus’ message and the Law and the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. It also showed that Jesus’ fate was not simply in the hands of the high priests or the Roman governor. All were known to these celebrated figures, sent from heaven as witnesses that Jesus was God’s beloved Son.
Before the Transfiguration, the mountain imagery was important in salvation history, especially with Moses and Elijah. Three months after the Israelites left Egypt, Moses ascended Mount Sinai to be told by God that he would enter into a covenant with his people. Later on, on that same mountain, Moses was given the Ten Commandments.
On Mount Carmel, the prophet Elijah challenged the ancient god, Baal, to do the things a god should do, but Baal did nothing asked of him. Of course, the pagan god was an illusion, and Elijah revealed that the only true God was the God of Israel. So, it was no surprise that Jesus decided to show a glimpse of glory to his chosen disciples on a mountaintop.
The three figures playing an essential role in salvation history are critical to our understanding of the importance of the Transfiguration. Elijah, the Old Testament Prophet; Moses accepting the Law; and Jesus, who would fulfill the old prophecies and incorporate the Law into the New Covenant. No wonder Peter exclaimed it was good to be there, for he saw briefly the whole story of salvation almost in an instant.
Peter did not realize that the moment he experienced could not last until Jesus gave up his life on the cross. Herein lies one of the most significant doctrines of Christianity. People desire peace, to revel in grace, and to feel complete contentment. Those moments when we feel God’s presence and peace when His grace is abundant in our lives, we respond like Peter, “that it is nice for us to be there.” But we also know that those moments are few and far between, not to mention fleeting when they occur. But our faith tells us that instead of becoming despondent, we have the hope and courage that the promise of Christ will come true, even though it is not so evident or apparent in a life filled with many problems and anxieties. There is a tension between the reality of this tainted world in which we live and the beauty of the peace of Christ.
Christians know the only way to access the beauty of grace is when the desire for eternal bliss is translated into relating with the eternal God outside of themselves. Our relationship with God gives the desire a direction and, therefore, does not become debilitating. However, the never-ending desire for eternity can only be satisfied when we live in heaven with God. Christians understand this tension, for they know the world can never totally satisfy their desire for eternity. Being patient, having a relationship with God, and living in the world with one foot in heaven is how we are to live.
Others, however, who choose not to believe in God still have this drive but try and satisfy this longing with things of the world. Too often, many individuals find their peace not on a mountaintop with God but through amassing material goods, “good times,” and dangerous adventures. These substitutes become their ‘quick fix’ for the nagging of an eternal soul searching to find its home.
The Transfiguration was meant to give the disciples hope before they experienced the scandal of the cross. The same holds for us as well. No matter how bleak or hard our earthly lives can be, our faith tells us there is glory waiting for us in the divine embrace of heaven which will ultimately quiet our restlessness.