As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
The Lord is king; let the earth rejoice;
let the many islands be glad.
Clouds and darkness are round about him,
justice and judgment are the foundation of his throne. (R./)
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth.
The heavens proclaim his justice,
all peoples see his glory. (R./)
For you indeed are the Lord,
most high over all the earth,
exalted far above all gods. (R./)
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. " We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" ?" not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came an overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told nobody any of the things they had seen.
Three people were invited on three separate occasions into privileged moments in the life of Jesus. They were handpicked each time. The three he chose were Peter, James and John. Even though we got no formal invitation ourselves, the Lord won't mind our being there in spirit, on the mountain of transfiguration. We'll slip in and stay quietly in the background. We'll see what the apostles saw, hopefully. And we'll have the added advantage of observing their reaction. Afterwards, with the help of God and the Gospel of Mark, we'll draw our own conclusions. It should be interesting, to say the least.
The first occasion was in the home of a synagogue official called Jairus. When Jairus begged Jesus to cure his daughter, she was "desperately sick" (Mk 5:23). Before they got near the house at all, the word came through that she had died. Jairus must have been hurrying Jesus along, wishing the little woman with the running sore had chosen another time for her cure (Mk 5:29). Getting Jesus to the house before his child died was vitally important. To hear that she was already dead, and that they might have been in time to save her must have broken his heart. Jesus had chosen Peter, James and John to go with him. Those three and the father, mother, and himself would be the only people in the dead girl's room. The details of the scene are startling. He took her by the hand, told her to get up, watched her walk around, then told them to give her something to eat. Life is restoredas if it was the most natural thing in the world. The balance of forces between life and death was changing in that modest little room, and the three disciples were there to see it. It wasn't a time for levity, but for astonishment.
The second occasion is the Garden of Gethsemane. Again, the only three of his disciples Jesus took with him were Peter, James and John. This time Jesus didn't know what he was going to do! He was in such a state of terror and distress at the prospect of crucifixion that he was tempted, as never before, to give up on his messianic mission and get out from under the cross. "My soul is sorrowful to the point of death," he told his disciples (Mk 14:34). "Take this cup away from me," he begged of "Abba', his father (Mk 14:36). The acceptance of his father's will couldn't have come as easily in practice as it comes in Mark's prose. "Let it be, as you, not I, would have it". That "Let it be" had survived the biggest crisis in Our Lord's life so far and would still have to endure the pitiless searchings of Calvary. Acceptance of the Father's will, and the suffering it entailed, wouldn't be easy for the disciples either. They might have slept through his suffering; they wouldn't be able to sleep through their own. "Stay awake," was his warning to Peter. "Stay awake and pray not to be put to the test" (Mk 14:3 8).
The third and most astounding occasion was on the Mount of Transfiguration celebrated in today's feast. If Gethsemane was one of their darkest moments, the Transfiguration was the brightest by far. What frightened the three disciples was the awesome encounter with the unfamiliar. Here was "the Christ" as they'd never seen him before. "Brilliantly white" in a way that couldn't be "earthly". Adding to the unearthly and disconcerting nature of the experience was the presence of such illustrious figures as Moses and Elijah, who lived longer than others did in the memory of their people, but who, at the same time, had been a long time dead. Their presence must be, in some way, an exaltation of Jesus, an exaltation that reached its zenith and startled them completely when the voice came down from heaven. "This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him". If astonished glances were exchanged after the raising of Jairus's daughter, they must have been exchanged again after the Transfiguration of Christ.
What conclusions to draw? Since the raising of Jairus's daughter and the Transfiguration came before Gethsemane, and since Jesus involved Peter, James and John on all three occasions, he must have meant the earlier events to carry them through his Passion and Crucifixion. When the darkness came over them they'd remember the light. The memory of the transfigured Lord and the risen girl would help them to hold their nerve! They had seen there was something unique about this person, Jesus. The one who could raise the dead, was transfigured in light, and emerged from Gethsemane as he did ... Who is he, really? They got some strong hints in the direction of his divinity.
Sometimes we can work beside someone without really getting to know them; then, one day, something happens which causes them to open up, to begin to let us get closer, and we discover a depth of riches which we didn't know existed. This morning's gospel is about an experience like that, where Peter, James and John are able for a moment to see who Jesus really is. For the three apostles, it is an experience of something beyond words: frightening and yet, at the same time, so wonderful that they would wish to prolong it by building three tents, for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Reflecting on the experience, years later, Peter would write: "We had seen his majesty for ourselves. He was honoured and glorified by God the Father, when the Sublime Glory itself spoke to him" (1 Pet 1:17.)
The gospel mentions the whiteness of Jesus's clothes; Mark says they became "dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them." Saint Gregory Nazianzen tells us that this whiteness was the Divinity, manifested to the disciples. Traditionally, Moses and Elijah are seen as representing the Law and the Prophets, an interpretation which we find in the preface of today's, Mass. But Moses and Elijah were also people who had encounters with the Divinity. Both had to cross the desert, fast for forty days, and climb the mountain of God. Moses had prayed to God, "Show me your glory." When God revealed his back (not his face) to Moses, he placed him in the cleft of the rock, and when he came to Elijah as a gentle breeze, it was at the mouth of the cave. Perhaps these two are present as representing all those who desire to see God's glory: "When can I enter and see the face of God?" Is. 42:2) What were Moses and Elijah talking about with Jesus? Luke says they were "speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem" (Lk 9:31), and indeed it was in his Passion that the face of God was to be revealed, as John would later write: "No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (Jn 1:18.)
In the Transfiguration, the Father's voice is heard, "This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him." Gregory Palamas says: "The Father by his voice bore witness to his Beloved Son; the Holy Spirit, shining with him in the bright cloud, showed that the Son along with the Father has the light, which is one, like all that belongs to their richness." Just as at the Baptism of Jesus, so also at the Transfiguration, the heavens are opened and we receive a glimpse of the inner life of the Trinity. Jesus is revealed as Son of the Father, who speaks from the cloud of Divine Presence, where the Spirit dwells.
The three apostles who later saw Jesus in his agonised prayer in Gethsemane were given on Mount Thabor a glimpse of his splendour as the beloved Son of God. This was to strengthen them for what lay ahead. The glory they saw on the high mountain helped them understand that his Passion was not the end of his mission. When St John says in the Prologue, "we saw his glory;" is he referring to the Transfiguration or to the Crucifixion? Was their experience on Mount Thabor a preview of Calvary, a prediction of what lay beyond the Crucifixion?