Today’s Feast of the Transfiguration was celebrated as far back as the 4th century by the Syrian church. Then, it spread to other eastern churches, and finally in the 15th century came into our Roman liturgy, probably through western pilgrims to the Holy Land who visited the great mountain shrine of the Transfiguration in Galilee and brought the feast back to Europe. Some of our feasts have come to us like this– from pilgrims to the Holy Land.
All three synoptic gospels have the account of Jesus ascending the mountain with Peter, James and John after he has announced his passion and death. He’s transfigured before them. His face is changed in appearance,“dazzling like the sun,” Matthew’s gospel says. “His clothes are dazzling white;” the other gospels say, reflecting a body we can’t look at directly. It happens “while he was praying,” Luke says, who always sees prayer opening up the mysteries of God.
The mountain in the scriptures is a favorite place where God reveals himself. It’s where you can take in everything, everywhere. Later this week in our readings from Deuteronomy (4,32-40), Moses tells the children of Israel to remember that God’s voice came from the heavens and spoke to them from the mountain of Horeb and led them by a cloud to a land that was their heritage.
Now, God speaks from the Mount of Transfiguration. A cloud envelopes Jesus and his disciples. “This is my chosen Son; listen to him,” God says. “Keep this mystery in mind,” Peter says in his letter; it’s “like a lamp shining in a dark place, until the first streaks of dawn appear and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
Our liturgy today tells us that Jesus “revealed his glory to his disciples to strengthen them for the scandal of the cross,” that’s the dark place God wishes to lighten. “His glory shone in a body like our own, to show that the Church, which is his body, would one day share his glory,” our liturgy says. So our bodies share this mystery with him.
Moses and Elijah are there speaking to him, Luke says, “about his passage, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.” The passage from Egypt to the Promised Land will take place now through the mystery of his passion and resurrection.
The disciples fall silent after experiencing this mystery. They can’t explain it, even if they wanted to. So they fall back on the familiar stories of Moses and Elijah who spoke to God face to face. The mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mystery we anticipate, we cannot explain. Later, his disciples will say simply: “We have seen the Lord. He is risen, as he said.”