By Fr. S. G. A. Luff
Visiting Nazareth recently, I stayed at the Melkite Seminary. From the terrace outside my room I looked by night over the lights of the modern town and thought how much they resembled those of my home parish in the Surrey Hills.
In the morning there was an addition to the scene — the solemn presence of a mountain, well, a hill, a distinguished hill rising from the Plain or Esdraelon. A good description would be "a high place apart."
I rambled on the limestone uplands south of Nazareth and . looked down on the plain that Mary crossed to visit cousin Elizabeth — the high place of Thabor loomed closer. So next day 1 rose before dawn and set out on foot, down the dizzy path to the plain, through Arab (Mahommedan) villages. and climbed the "holy mountain" (St. Peter's expression) of the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration is told by three evangelists but is omitted by John. Of Mark, thought to be Peter's Gospel-writer, you might expect virtually first-hand reporting. Maybe it is, but this version is the barest.
Peter, James, and John Were taken apart. These three were also privileged witnesses of a .resurrection — the raising of the daughter of Jairus, and they were to be witnesses too of Christ's agony and desolation in Gethsemane.
What Mark says of "transfiguration" is just that the Lord's clothes dazzled white beyond any natural whiteness. Moses and Elijah appeared speaking with him. There is no appearance to parallel that elsewhere in the Gospels.
Peter was "frightened" and made an unconsidered suggestion to put up three shelters for the Lord and his heavenly guests. The cloud came, its shadow covered them, and then the Voice: "This is my Son, the Beloved; hear him."
A moment later Jesus stood there, normal, alone. On the way down he spoke about his Passion and Resurrection and also discussed Elijah. In Jewish tradition, he was to return to prepare the way for the Messiah. And so he had, said Jesus — he had already been among them in the person of John the Baptist.
Matthew adds details — that Christ's face shone like the sun. and that the cloud, though it overshadowed them, was radiant, a cloud of glory. At the Divine Voice they fell on their faces. Jesus touched them and told them not to fear, but to stand up. Matthew's special contribution to the theme is light.
Luke, the third evangelist, had undertaken a checked and detailed version or what was, basically, already told by Matthew and Mark. He had a flair for reportage that qualified him well for this. All his details are significant.
They went up the mountain to pray. We know that once before Jesus had disappeared at night and it was "Peter and his companions" who set out to find him. They must have had some idea where to go, They found him in prayer.
Luke mentions that the apostles were sleepy at the time of the Transfiguration. We may . . _ fairly conclude that it happened at the end of a night of vigil. In fact, Luke reports that Jesus was transfigured "as he prayed." Luxe had made the same contribution to the account of the I.ord's baptism in Jordan. The Father spoke, and the Spirit appeared, as he prayed. Moses and Elijah also appear glorious. Luke reveals the subject of Our Lord's conversation with them — it was about "the passing he was to accomplish in Jerusalem."
Peter spoke up only when Moses and Elijah were leaving: perhaps that explains his suggesti6n. The cloud cot only overshadowed the apostles but they "went into it. 4' You infer from this version that the Divine Voice spoke as the I.ord stood there alone in his glory, without his Old Testament witnesses. I.uke's speci51 contribution to the theme is prayer.
We are often reminded that the Gospels follow no strict. sequence — theirs is not a full chronological biography. But they keep to a timetable here. All three explain that the Transfiguration happened a week after Peter's Profession of Faith with the Lord's accompanying First Prophecy of his Passion.
Jesus foretold his Resurrection as well, but they hardly noticed that. Peter insisted that Jesus had better change the whole plan.
In this light we can sec in the Transfiguration, with its second prophecy of the Passion in a context of revealing glory, Our Lord's attempt to really help his three cardinal witnesses. They had to believe that he spoke not of defeat but of victory, that his "passing" through suffering and death were as scriptural as the popular Jewish idea of a messianic kingdom of this world — hence Moses and Elijah.
When they saw the desolation in Gethsemane they were to remember the Cloud of Glory and the Divine Witness. Peter did. Years later, beginning his Second Letter, he explains that as an apostle he must write as a witness to facts and not to "cleverly invented myths. Yet there are critics asking us to credit that this is exactly what the apostles were doing, with the most enlightened intentions.
And of all his experience the event Peter chooses to illustrate his point is precisely that night on Thabor. On the "holy mountain" they had "seen his majesty for themselves", and they had heard the witness spoken "from heaven, by God the Father, the Sublime Glory."
Thabor seems to have held the glory of the Transfiguration through the centuries. Franciscans now own part of the level summit. Since the fourth century there has:been a church there.
The present splendid basilica was designed by that Italian genius of the Holy Places, Antonio Barluzzi. assisted by his brother Julius, and completed in 1924. Barluzzi's talent is always to capture the atmosphere of a place. His church inCorporates fragments of three more ancient "tabernacles."
The friars run a pleasant guesthouse. In the panorama viewed from its terrace you pick out it whole range of biblical sites. At the time of my visit a young Israeli officer was ex plaining to his men how the Syrians might break through the Golan Heights. History had seen that before.
The other part of' the summit is property of the Greek Orthodox with a church dedicated to St. Elijah and, surprisingly, a cave venerated as a
sometime dwelling of Melchizadech.
The Feast of the Transfiguration will fall this year on Monday next, August 6.