The Fourth Luminous Mystery, Christ's Transfiguration on Mount Tabor

Anthony Zimmerman
December 3, 2002
Reproduced with Permission

"The glory of the Godhead shines forth from the face of Christ as the Father commands the astonished Apostles to listen to him," writes Pope John Paul II in Rosarium Virginis Mariae. The manifestation of His glory there prepares the Apostles "to experience with Him the agony of the Passion, so as to come with him to the joy of the Resurrection and a life transfigured by the Holy Spirit."

Tabor - the mount that is usually designated as the place where Christ arranged this extraordinary manifestation of His glory - is within walking range from Nazareth. Perhaps Christ had climbed it more than once while living with the villagers at his home town. The view from the top is truly gorgeous. Brother Francis escorted tourists Father Wiesen and myself to his favorite perch for meditation on the edge of its rounded top. The Sea of Galilee shimmers far below; beyond is the Mount of the Beatitudes; on the distant horizon fifty miles to the northeast is the glimmering snow-clad peak of Mount Hermon. We sat quietly in wordless wonder. "I come here often," said Brother Francis. "Knowing that Jesus was here is precious to me."

The local Franciscan priest welcomed us into the Church, once used by Crusaders within the compound of their walled-in garrison. He invited us to gaze and pray, while he seated himself at the pipe organ. He began with a soft approach of festive chords. He played without notes, as he must surely have done for many pilgrims before. Like other Franciscan Custodians of the Holy Land, his heart was evidently in his work. The music rose from the pipes like a melody from heaven, a re-play of the ethereal experience that Peter, James and John must have felt when they, in the depth of the night, saw Jesus transfigured before them in glory. Soon the organ crescendoed, then rocked and danced as it were, under fingers plying the keys faster and faster, pouring out cascades and whorls of scales and chords and glories such as I have never heard before or after. Perhaps the mood of the occasion carried us away. I hope to hear that music again at the end of the world, when the trumpet sounds and Christ raises me from the dead to see His glory.

What the three Apostles saw was an electrifying change in the manifestation of Jesus. His face "shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light." The glory that blazed outwardly manifested beatitude within. Jesus, for this once in His lifetime, lifted a veil to allow us a glance into His inner life.

Why should we wonder that Jesus could change so, and at will? He is God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in Being with the Father. "He is the King of Glory" as Handel exults in his composition, The Messiah. The three astonished Apostles glimpsed for a protracted duration of utter joy the wonders that Jesus was habitually hiding beneath the veil of His mortal flesh.

The transfiguration is a foretaste of Christ's future resurrection. On Tabor it was not only His face that radiated light, but even His garments shone with incandescent brightness. Perhaps the luster of His garments on Tabor are a presage of the imprint of His image on the Holy Shroud at the time of His resurrection. It appears that at the instant of His resurrection, His body beamed rays through the Holy Shroud, imprinting on it a memorial of the swift passage from mortal death to immortal life..

When a face shines like the sun, as did the face of Christ, the super-charge of the transfigured body is too much for a mortal body to bear. During His Transfiguration Jesus had His body take on the mode of the incandescent life of glory - life immortal in eternity. "While he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzlingly white" (Luke 9:29).

Once He had stepped into the next world, though still anchored on Mount Tabor's peak, He called to His side Moses and Elijah. Their presence demonstrated to the Apostles - and to us - that all power in heaven and on earth is given to Jesus. He knew where Moses and Elijah dwelt, and they came at once at His bidding. Jesus had once explained to Nicodemus: "Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen... No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven" (John 3:13). Jesus is the CEO of this world and of the next. To paraphrase the passage spoken by the Centurion in the Gospel, Jesus has the created universe under His command. He says to one, "Go," and he goes; and to another, "Come," and he comes; and to His slave, "Do this," and he does it (cf. Luke 7:8).

Moses and Elijah represent the Old Testament. The one had proclaimed the Law, the other had prophesied with power. Now Christ was fulfilling what Moses and Elijah had prepared. St. Thomas celebrates the transition from the Old to the New in the exquisite hymn Lauda Sion composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi:

Here the new law's new oblation,
By the new king's revelation,
Ends the form of ancient rite.

Moses and Elijah "appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem." His departure referred to His coming death and resurrection soon to be accomplished in the Holy City. Artists paint the three in august glory, suspended above the earth, oblivious to the pull of gravity.

For the jubilant Peter, James and John there was still more to come. Just as the ever practical Peter was speaking: "Master, it is good for us to be here, let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah," a cloud rolled over Tabor and they heard a voice: "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" The words were the same as those spoken at the Baptism of Jesus. In this awesome revelation the Church recognizes the Mystery of the Most Blessed Trinity, Three Persons, one God. The Apostles may have been too heavy with sleep to grasp much of the mystery that night, but they remembered enough to have it recorded in the Gospels. They remembered also the celebrated instruction of the Father: "Listen to him." A flashback of Tabor came to Peter's mind years later when he wrote his second Epistle:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1: 16-18).

The majestic voice issuing from the cloud was too much for the three Apostles to bear: "When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe." Perhaps they stayed that way for some time, their faces resting on the soil of Tabor. Then "Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and have no fear." And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only" (cf. Matt 17:6-8). Moses and Elijah were gone, and Jesus was there alone. Life was back to its normal mortal course, and eternity was hidden as before.

We ask why Jesus did not go about preaching in the Synagogues with face beaming like the sun, with clothes blazing brilliance, so as dazzle listeners and silence the bickering. And why did He not blitz lightning at Judas to fry him to cinders when he smooched on His face the kiss of a traitor? Why did He respond to the menacing High Priest with solemn prophetic words, without releasing some of the Power He was holding in check: "But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt 26: 64). What might come "hereafter" did not impress the High Priest, who seemed to be fully in charge of his Victim for the moment.

Saint Augustine once posed the question why God does not rule the world by means of astonishing miracles. Why, for example, does God not make our bodies immortal when we receive Baptism, he asked. His response was that God chooses to support our freedom by refraining from working intrusive and coercive miracles that would replace faith with too much sight. Everyone would surely run to be baptized, said Augustine, if the pouring of the water would make our bodies immortal.

Faith is then only faith when it waits in hope for what is not yet seen in substance. ... Who would not, then, in company with infants presented for baptism, run to the grace of Christ, so he might not be dismissed from the body? And thus faith would not be tested with an unseen reward; and so would not even be faith, seeking and receiving an immediate recompense of its works (City of God 13:4).

And so Jesus did not parade about Israel in the garb of Tabor, but in the humble fashion of the "Son of Man," as He was wont to call Himself. He switched on His glory only briefly, hidden from the world, at night and on a mountain top, and before three witnesses who had to promise silence. As St. Paul wrote: "Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:6-8). He kept His glory hidden to preserve our freedom of belief. Then as now, high priests can adjure Him at will, sinners can sin with apparent impunity, and atheists can challenge His power and seem to be victorious. As a rule, Christ does not batter His enemies down with force. God keeps His eternal plan to allow us a lifetime of freedom, to allow us to make our very own choice, whether we choose life, or whether, to His sorrow, we choose death.

If we sometimes tire of putting up with nasty people and events, let us remember Tabor. Jesus awaits our patience while we pass through this "valley of tears" with a faith that is free and voluntary, not one that is forced upon us without voluntary input on our part. He could, for example, give the Pope a magic touch on the day of his election; or He might make the host on the altar begin to shine with the light of Tabor from the moment of consecration at Mass. He could even obliterate Stalins and Hitlers and Choicers with a terminal stroke of lightning when they do evil. But there would be a price: "Our faith would not be tested by an unseen reward." Our joy in heaven would be minus the awareness - by God and by ourselves - that we did our part to receive it.

May the Fourth Luminous Mystery ever remind us that Jesus is our loving and immortal God who awaits our free faith and love; may it remind us to heed the words of the Father: "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"