Father Leslie Hoppe, OFM

Aug. 6: Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Understanding the Transfiguration                                                        

Dn 7:9-10, 13-14; Ps 97:1-2, 5-6, 9; 2 Pt 1:16-19; Mt 17:1-9

Something about mountains fascinates people. Mountaineers spend thousands of dollars, engage in months of conditioning, and risk their lives to stand at the summit of Mount Everest. Among the most visited national parks are Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park and Yellowstone National Park. Their popularity is partly because of the mountainous terrain of those parks that people can enjoy.

The people of antiquity were awestruck by the beauty and grandeur of mountains, believing them to be the dwelling places of the gods on earth, so they built their temples on mountains. The people of Mesopotamia, an alluvial plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, erected artificial mountains on which to build their temples.

The psalmist praises the mountain on which the Jerusalem temple stood as “the holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, the joy of all the earth” (Ps 48:1), though that mountain is just 2,280 above sea level. Nonetheless, it is a “holy mountain,” God’s dwelling place on earth and the privileged place of Israel’s encounter with the Divine.

Although the Gospels do not name the mountain that is the setting for the story of the Transfiguration, this has not stopped people from supplying this detail missing from the story. For centuries Christian pilgrims have trudged the steep and rocky paths up Mount Tabor, believing it to be the setting for the Transfiguration.

Located in Lower Galilee, Mount Tabor is just 1,886 feet above sea level. Still, it towers above the Jezreel Valley below. The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land built a large church there on the foundations of a Crusader church, which, in turn, was built on the foundations of a Byzantine period church. The Greek Orthodox also have a church on Mount Tabor.

Another possible setting for the story of the Transfiguration is Mount Hermon, located in the Golan Heights. At 9,232 feet above sea level, Hermon is the highest mountain in the Holy Land. It is not surprising that it is the site of more than 30 temples built from the time of the Israelite monarchy through the Roman period.

Snow-covered most of the year, Mount Hermon is 30 miles long and 15 miles wide and is visible from great distances. It is no wonder that the psalmist was awestruck by Hermon’s beauty and majesty (Ps 42:6; 89:12; 133:3).

By asserting that the Transfiguration took place on a “high mountain,” the Gospel tradition is doing more than providing a dramatic setting for the experience of Peter, James and John. For a moment, the veil of the Incarnation is lifted as three disciples see Jesus as someone other than an engaging and authoritative teacher or a compassionate and powerful healer. The disciples saw the glory of the only begotten Son (see Jn 1:14).

The experience overwhelms the disciples, although Peter is bold enough to speak up, recognizing that worship is the only appropriate response to what he had just seen.

Appearing with Jesus were Moses and Elijah, representing the Torah and the prophets. Their presence offers testimony to the theological significance of the disciples’ experience.

What the disciples see and hear is consistent with the revelation found in written form in the sacred literature of ancient Israel. This literature is a witness to the power and presence of God in Israel’s life.

It is a liberating and saving presence that is exemplified in the exodus from Egypt. It reveals a God who demands justice for the poor and oppressed. Jesus, in whom God is “well pleased,” continues to mediate that presence.

At the same time, the presence and power of God is manifested in a new way in Jesus as the transcendent glory of God’s son is revealed amid his incarnate existence. The story of the Transfiguration is an affirmation in narrative form of the two natures of Christ, who is the word made flesh. Through Jesus, all people can experience an authentic encounter with God.



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