Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I* will make three dwellings* here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;* with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.[i]
Mount Tabor is about 100 miles north of Jerusalem,just west of the Sea of Galilee. It is forested with pine trees and offers stunning, panoramic views. On a clear day, to the north and west, you can see Lebanon; to the east, beyond of the Sea of Galilee, you can see Syria, Jordan, and Mount Hermon. Jesus and his disciples would have known the words of Psalm 89 about these majestic mountaintops. The psalmist says, “The north and the south* – you created them;Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.”[ii] These mountain tops are sovery beautiful and breezy. Mount Tabor is only about 2,000 feet above sea level, but that is a lofty height above the sea level of Galilee, which is nearly 700 feet below sea level. Mount Tabor is a place where you are glad to linger. It’s heavenly.
This is a most unusual story, one which defies logic. The gospel writer tells us that six days after Jesus made his first prediction of his death and resurrection, he took with him three of his disciples and climbed a high mountain, presumably to find a secluded spot in which to pray. But what he describes as happening next is so other-worldly, so far removed from our normal experience of life, that we may find it hard to believe the accuracy of the account. In the presence of his disciples Jesus begins to radiate light, a light so bright that “his face shown like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (v.2). Two figures – whom the disciples recognize as Moses and Elijah – appear at his side and speak with him. A cloud then overshadows them all, and a voice sounds from heaven with such strength and power that it strikes fear into the disciples’ hearts. They fall to the ground, and when they look up, it is over, and Jesus stands before them, alone and looking as he had before the vision occurred. What happened? Who can say for sure? I can only imagine they must have been relieved when Jesus instructed them to tell no one what had happened. Who would have believed their account?
Exodus 24: 12-18; Psalm 2 or 99; 2 Peter 1: 16-21; Matthew 17: 1-9
One Christmas, rather than giving individual presents to members of my family, my aunt gave my family a number of posters to hang in our basement room. That fall we had built a very 1960’s “rec room” where my siblings and I could invite our friends and not have to worry about either noise or mess and my parents could then reclaim the living room as their space. So my aunt decided to help us decorate the space and hence the posters that Christmas as her gift to all of us.
There were several posters, but the one I remember best was of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. And I remember it, not because even then I was a budding theologian, but because I found it so curious. Created in the early years of the Sixteenth Century, Michelangelo’s Moses was regarded by the artist himself as his most lifelike creation. Once finished he is reputed to have struck the statue on the knee with his hammer and exclaimed “Now, speak!” To this day you can still see a chip in the marble on Moses’ knee where Michelangelo’s hammer is said to have hit.