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The Mountain of the Transfiguration

(by Michele Piccirillo, ofm)

The Gospels do not inform us as to the exact spot where the Lord was transfigured. They only mention that it was a high mountain of Galilee (Mk 9, 2; Mt 17, 1). In the second letter of Peter the episode is again related but this time it is enshrouded within a clear theological reference: the holy mountain (2 Pt 1, 6-18). But the tradition of the christian community of Palestine already from the first centuries put a name to this mountain, confirming that it was indeed Tabor. In the "Translatio Beatae Mariae Virginis," one of the many apocryphal writings about the Death and Assumption of the Blessed Mother, the nucleus of which can be dated to the 2nd-3rd centuries, tells how when the time for her passing away arrived, Christ came down from heaven with a throng of angels and received the soul of His dear Mother. The author says "And there was such a splendor of light and sweet perfune that all present fell to their face like the Apostles fell to their faces when Christ was transfigured in their presence on mount Tabor." We also read in the apocryphal Apocalypse of St. John the Theologian, "After our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, I, John, went all alone up upon Mount Tabor where earlier He showed his immaculate divinity." The tradition had been definitely detemined by the 4th century and then became generalized through the Liturgy. The Syrian church speaks of the Feast of Mount Tabor. The same can be said of the Byzantine church in which the feast is known by the name of "To Taborion".

After the liturgical celebration in memory of the Transfiguration was accepted by the whole church, both east and west, many faithful souls of Nazareth and Galilee began climbing the mountain on the vigil of August 6 to celebrate the feast day there. On the cool evenings of August a climb on foot becomes almost a must. And there are those who would prefer to dispense with the snake path auto road which the Franciscans built during the beginning of this century. (It is now newly remade with fine improvements and safety features.) Instead they face up to the bare mountain slope using the steep paths which clamber through the middle of a forest of holm oaks, pines and carob trees. The place is "one of a kind" and brings on all kinds of strange antics.

One day Jesus brought his favorite disciples up upon this mountain. Let us read the account in the paraphrases of the apocryphal apocalypse of Peter: "Then my Lord Jesus Christ, our king, said to me: Let us go up upon the holy mountain. His disciples walked with him praying. And behold there were with him two men. We were not able to determine the face of either of them. A light glowed there brighter than the sun."

Tabor lays at the end of the plain of Esdraelon about 20 kilometers to the southwest of the Sea of Tiberias and 7 kilometers to the southwest of Nazareth, in a straight line. It rises all by itself above the surrounding flat plain and reaches to the height of 660 meters (above sea level). Its strategic importance, its green cover, its uniqueness and the striking view of the surrounding countryside has always fascinated the tourists and pilgrims. There it is impossible to remain unmindful of its role in the history of the chosen people.

The psalmist (89, 13) cites Tabor and Hermon as illustrations of the magnificence of God in His role as creator. The prophet Jeremias talks about the power of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon and says he is stable and secure like Tabor is in the midst of the surrounding mountains (Jer 46, 18). On the basis of ancient writers like Flavius Josephus and Eusebius, Tabor was one of the northern ends of the tribe of Issachar which thus included southern Galilee within its territory (Jos 19, 22). As a military stronghold it is mentioned in the book of Judges. At the suggestion of the prophetess Debora, Barak, from the tribe of Naphtali, took the initiative against Sisara, the general of the Canaanite king of Hazor and Tabor, where he had gathered his men. Barak attacked his enemy and put them to flight (Jgs 4, 1ff). The mountain returns again unexpectedly as the locality in which the story of Gideon of the tribe of Manasseh unfolds. He freed the Israelites from the oppression of the Midianites. He engineered two victorious campaigns. One was in Cisjordan and the other in Transjordan. In the first there is a description of the two captured enemies, Zebahand Zalmunna. Gideon killed them because they had slain his brothers on Mount Tabor (Jgs 8, 18).

Some commentators are under the impression that Tabor would be the mountain in which the tribe of Zebulon and Issachar invited the people to offer sacrifices of justice (Dt 33, 18). It is thought that this is the origin of the opinion of some Jewish rabbis who say that the Temble should have been bilt on Tabor, except that an express command of God had determined it elsewhere. In the Targum of Jerusalem (Jdgs 5, 5f) it is imagined that Tabor shouted out to Hermon (well above 2000 meters!): "And it is on me that God has established His glory; and I have every right to it. When in the beginning, in the days of Noe, the flood covered all the mountains, its waves did not pass over either my head or my shoulders. And so I am higher than all, and it is my legitimate privilege to offer to God the place where He come down." And still more, there are those who harbor the opinion that Tabor might have been the original shrine of the tribes of the north and so later on became the place of idolatrous worship services. It is an hypothesis based on the text of Hosea 5, 1 in which the prophet scolds the leaders of the people, priests and the ruling house. They gave too little attention to their duty and had allowed the illicit worship services at Mizpah and on Tabor which in that way became a snare for Israel.

Very early the christians built three chapels on the summit. It was there, as a 5th century pilgrim remarked, that Peter, all filled with enthusiasm, cried out to the Lord: "Lord it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will build here three tabernacles: one for you, one for Moses and one for Elias." They were destroyed and rebuilt several times during the course of centuries. Today they are incorporated in the superb basilica built around 1926 by the Roman architect, Antonio Barluzzi. Today we rejoice as we gather there in prayer and proclaim once again in the words of St. Peter, "Lord! It is good for us to be here!"

As we proceed down into the crypt we are greeted by a series of four striking mosaics. On bright days the powerful sun filters through the golden alabaster windows of the apse to shine on the dominant blue of those mosaics. We are reminded of some other glorious and astounding transfigurations of the Lord: Birth, Eucharist, Death and Resurrection. In view of these aspects of events in Christ's life, the Transfiguration amounts to an anticipation of the return of the Lord on the last day, and is an infuksion of the virtue of hope. Origen writes: "The Transfiguration is a symbol of what is in store for us after our life in the present world." From Cyril of Alexandria we read: "even though they heard that our flesh would rise up again, they did not know how; now He was transfigured in his own flesh and so gave us the example of His own change. In this way our own hope is reinforced. In view of this future expectation, the Byzantine liturgy on this feast directs these words to our Savior: "To reveal the transformation that will be ours through your power at the time of your second and unexpected coming, O Savior, you were transformed on Mount Tabor."

The most simple and beautiul text which embraces christian anticipated hope in this feast is still the marginal note in the apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter "In the Transfiguration the Lord made known to Peter, James and John, sons of Zebedee the garments of the last days when the resurrection of the last day will come."


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