Message from the Mountain
[Dan.7:9-10,13-14; 2Pet.1:16-19; Mt.17:1-9]
The Holy Land is quite a hilly place, so it’s not surprising that the Bible mentions hills and mountains more than 500 times.
Indeed, mountains play an important role in the unfolding story of God’s love for us. Moses, for example, receives the Ten Commandments on Mt Sinai. Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel, and Solomon’s Temple is built on Mt Moriah.
Mountains are also where people go to pray and find safety; they are where God reveals himself to people, and they feature prominently in Jesus’ life.
Jesus is tempted on a desert mountain. He preaches on the Mount of Beatitudes. He prays on Mt Olivet and is crucified on Mt Calvary. And in today’s Gospel, Jesus visits Mt Tabor with his disciples.
There, for just a moment, Peter, James and John see who Jesus really is: the Son of God. His face shines like the sun, and his clothes are as white as light.
Fulton J Sheen says that this luminescence isn’t because of a light shining on Jesus. Rather, it’s because of his divine beauty shining from within him. [i]
The disciples see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah. But why is he talking with them rather than someone else? It’s because Moses and Elijah are the greatest of the Old Testament saints.
Moses is the lawgiver who gave God’s law to his people. His appearance today tells us that God’s laws are central to Jesus’ mission, for ‘he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it’ (Mt.5:17).
Elijah is the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, and a prophet’s job is to remind the people how God wants them to live. His appearance today reminds us that this is Jesus’ job, too: to show us how to live.
Together, these three ‘spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.’ The Old Testament has always anticipated the Messiah’s coming and suffering on the Cross, and this meeting highlights the fact that Jesus’ mission began with these two great saints.
God has spoken through Moses and through Elijah, and now he’s speaking through Jesus Christ, so listen to him!
The disciples are amazed by this experience, and Peter wants it to last forever. So, he suggests that they erect three tents – one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
But such mystical moments aren’t meant to last; we’re all meant to return to ordinary life, and that’s what happens here. Jesus leads his disciples back down into the valley.
Through the ages, people have long associated mountains with the spiritual life. Perhaps it’s because mountains are ‘close to heaven,’ and ideal places for quiet prayer and reflection. But they also have something to teach us.
Firstly, it’s significant that today’s story begins with Jesus and his disciples going up to pray. Something always happens when we pray. Sometimes the effects are subtle and internal (we are changed from within), and sometimes they’re more obvious and external, like Jesus’ Transfiguration. But the point is that something always happens when we pray.
Secondly, some people think they can never be as good as the Biblical saints, but today’s story reminds us just how human the saints are. Peter, James and John go up with Jesus to pray. Do they pray? No, they fall asleep. And when Peter wakes up, he makes a silly suggestion about tents. We should feel encouraged, because God always uses flawed people to do his work. Indeed, we are all flawed, so we should feel quite at home among the saints.
And thirdly, the Transfiguration of Jesus reminds us that this world is not our final home. Like these disciples, we are all journeying towards heaven, our true home. And along the way, these mountains serve as a gift to us. They speak of beauty, vision and challenge, and they symbolise our ascent towards our spiritual home (Ps.24:3-4).
But we’re not meant to stay on the mountain forever. As someone once wrote, rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruit. The sun does not shine on itself, and flowers do not spread fragrance for themselves.
In other words, living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help each other, no matter how difficult that might be. And while life is good when you are happy, it’s much better when others are happy because of you.
That’s why Jesus leads his disciples off that mountain and back down into the valley.
There, a desperately sick boy is waiting for them, and Jesus heals him.
[i] Fulton J Sheen, Life of Christ, Image Books, NY, 2008:213.