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Transfiguration of Jesus


TRANSFIGURATION OF JESUS

The transfiguration of Jesus is such a significant event that all the synoptic gospels and the second epistle of Peter present it (Mt 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 9:28-36; 2 Pet 1:16-18). It is known as the metamorphosis in the Greek Orthodox Church. This is special because, with the exception of a few miracles like this one, Jesus worked all the others to relieve the sufferings of others. Considering the importance of the transfiguration, Pope John Paul II included it among the luminous mysteries of the rosary.

Jesus took with him Peter, James and John to witness this miracle on a high mountain (Mk 9:2). They were fortunate to see the change in the bodily appearance of Jesus. His human form had wrapped around his internal divine shining. Jesus revealed the splendor of his divinity for a brief time to the three apostles.

According to Peter, Jesus “received honour and glory from God the Father” (2 Pet 1:17) that changed his appearance from the human to the divine. Hence, Luke reports, “While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white” (Lk 9:29). Matthew has a stronger presentation: “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (Mt 19:2).

Because of the transformation of Jesus’ human body into a glorious, divine one, the appearance of his clothes also changed (Mk 9:3). His dress of an ordinary Jew shone in front of the three apostles. The rays of his internal glory penetrated through his body and passed through his clothes, making it bright and shiny. The ordinarily colored garb of Jesus had changed its colour to a dazzling white, the whiteness shining with an unusual illumination. So, the evangelist reports that even a professional cleaner’s bleaching could not enhance such a glare.

According to Luke, Moses and Elijah appeared in glory and were conversing with Jesus on “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). He further elaborates, “Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him” (Lk 9:32). The reason for the disciples’ snooze was probably because of the intense shine of Jesus like the sun, and the glory of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. The disciples’ human eyes could not adjust at first to such a bright light!

Elijah and Moses appeared to them Moses and Elijah represented the Old Testament because Moses was the lawgiver and Elijah was the most prominent prophet. Their appearance representing the Old Testament was to bear witness to Jesus as the Messiah. The witness of the two was enough to prove the truth. The three representatives of the disciples got convinced of it.

DISCUSSION OF MOSES AND ELIJAH WITH JESUS

Luke specifies their discussion. They “spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). The first exodus was from Egyptian slavery to Canaan, the Promised Land. The new exodus they discussed was the liberation from the bondage of Satan to the Kingdom of God, starting with the Church and ending in heaven at the second coming of Christ. Both exoduses were initiatives of God the Father. The first one was under the leadership of Moses and the second was under Jesus. That was also the fulfilment of the Law and the prophetic teachings.

The exodus here literally means departure. It was the departure of Jesus from earthly life to heaven through his sacrifice on Calvary. That was a convincing answer to the objection of Peter to Jesus’ voluntary acceptance of his suffering and earthly failure. It is also an assurance for his followers that, when they depart from this life of suffering, they will also reach heaven because of the merit of his sacrifice and their sacrificial discipleship.

TRANSFIGURATION VS METAMORPHOSIS

Some believers use the term metamorphosis instead of transfiguration. Though they have a similar meaning, ‘transfiguration’ is more appropriate because of the difference in the implication. The zoological connotation of metamorphosis is the transformation of insects and amphibians from the larval stage to adulthood, resulting in a different bodily form. Metamorphosis can mean the change of a person or anything from one form or nature to another by natural or supernatural means. In literature, its usage is for degradation from one state to another. It cannot reverse its form to its original state.
Though transfiguration also implies a change of form or appearance, it is to a higher or spiritual level. So, unlike degradation in metamorphosis, transfiguration is an exaltation or glorification. Jerome used transfiguration in his translation of the Bible. The word metamorphosis is of Greek origin and transfiguration is of Latin origin. That must be the reason for the Greek Church to use the term metamorphosis.

TRANSFIGURATION AND RESURRECTION

According to Origen of Alexandria (185–253), the transfiguration was a foretaste of the glorious resurrection of Jesus. He observed a link between the two because of their heavenly splendor. The later fathers of the Church followed this view. The transfiguration was a visual affirmation of Peter’s declaration of the divinity of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi. It is also an assurance that holy lay people can attain such a state in heaven.

MOUNTAIN OF TRANSFIGURATION

The gospels do not specify the name or location of the mountain where the transfiguration took place. Peter mentions it as “the holy mountain” (2 Pet 1:18). So, people during the apostolic times knew the mountain. In later times scholars differ on the location of the mountain where the Transfiguration took place. The two major considerations are Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon.

MOUNT TABOR

This mount is in Lower Galilee, twenty-four kilometers west of the Sea of Galilee. Though it is only six hundred meters (1968 feet) high, it stands prominently on account of its location in the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley. Important Biblical events happened here like the Battle of Mount Tabor between King Jabin of Canaan, his army led by captain Sisera and the Israelite army led by Barak and Deborah (Judges 4 & 5). During the ministry of Jesus, Tabor was an important junction on the Roman Highway, “Way of the Sea”.

The reasons for considering Mount Tabor as the mount of the Transfiguration are:
1. This mount was Biblically a sacred place because of certain Old Testament events. Hence, Jesus would go there for prayer.
2. Jesus would have passed often through the junction of the “Way of the Sea” at the base of Mount Tabor.
3. The mountain peak was accessible for Jesus and his disciples to climb because of its low altitude compared to Mount Hermon.
4. More Jewish people lived near this mountain compared to the pagan concentration at Hermon. Jesus focused his ministry on the lost sheep of Israel.
5. Even from the third century, starting with Origen, Christians identified Mount Tabor as the location of the Transfiguration which continues being as a pilgrimage site to date.

Cyril of Jerusalem and Jerome confirmed Mount Tabor as the mountain of the Transfiguration in the succeeding century. Origen’s views on the transfiguration became the basis of Transfiguration Theology of the Church fathers, like Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Augustine. The tradition continued throughout the centuries without variant views. Christians even built churches on Mount Tabor in the fourth century. The Fifth Council of Constantinople erected a See at Mount Tabor in 553 (https:// www.newadvent.org/cathen/15019a.htm). Crusaders had their fortifications here. At present there exist a Franciscan church and a Greek Orthodox church here.

MOUNT HERMON

A few modern scholars uphold Mount Hermon as the site of the Transfiguration, stating that Mount Tabor had a fortress on the top built by Antiochus the Great in 219 BC that could be occupied during the time of Jesus’ ministry. If that is true, Jesus would not prefer it because he wanted to be alone with the three apostles. However, there is no proof of inhabitation on the top of the mountain, especially during the period of Jesus’ ministry. Other suggested mountains are Mount Meron and Mount Nebo.

The favorable factor for considering Mount Hermon as the location for the Transfiguration is that Jesus and his apostles were at Caesarea Philippi at that mountain prior to the Transfiguration. Since there were mountain peaks there, it could possibly have happened at that mountain without travelling far south to Mount Tabor.

Considerations against Mount Hermon and for Mount Tabor as the location of the Transfiguration are:
1. Since the transfiguration happened six days after the first event, Jesus and his disciples had enough time to travel to Mount Tabor.

2. Mark documented his gospel based on the preaching of Peter in a theological order and not in the chronological sequence of what happened in the ministry of Jesus. Mark’s intention was to connect the events at Caesarea Philippi to the Transfiguration experience. Matthew and Luke followed the same order as Mark. Hence, the location of the Transfiguration could differ from Hermon.

3. Hermon is the northmost border of Palestine near the ancient city of Dan. It was a location of the pagan worship of the Greek god, Pan. The ancient Canaanites had built a sanctuary for Baal here. King Herod the Great had built a magnificent white marble temple in front of the cave honoring Emperor Augustus in gratitude for giving him power over Paneas in 20 BC. Herod’s son Philip rebuilt the town of Paneas as his capital city, naming it Caesarea in honour of the then Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar. Jesus took his disciples to the “Gates of Hades” giving authority to Peter stating, “upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). Thus, Jesus expressed his sovereignty over the evil and over hell at the sinful town of pagan worship and at the popularly believed gate of the netherworld. Jesus would not continue there for six more days, suspending his ministry among the Jews. Jesus would not go to that pagan religious location for prayer.

4. Mount Hermon was too steep and high to climb (2,040 meters) compared to Mount Tabor’s peak that has low altitude. The top of Mount Hermon has snow during most months.

5. The event that happened when Jesus and the three apostles came down from the mountain of the transfiguration is unfavorable for Hermon. When they came to the valley, a crowd was waiting for them, along with a man who complained that the disciples of Jesus could not cast out the demon from his lunatic son. Jesus cured that boy (Mt 17:14-21). There is less possibility for this to have happened at Hermon.

6. If Hermon were the mount of the Transfiguration, there would have been traditions based on that and pilgrim centers might have developed there after Constantine gave freedom to Christians in the Roman empire in the fourth century.


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