The Gospel reading for the eighteenth Sunday, which is the Feast of the Transfiguration, is a passage taken from Matthew chapter seventeen. Jesus ascends the mountain with his closest disciples, Peter, James and John. Then Jesus is glorified, or “transfigured,” and seen alongside two patriarchs of the Old Testament: Moses and Elijah.
Ascending the Mountain
In the Old Testament, to ascend the mountain was to encounter God. Moses repeatedly ascended Mount Sinai (for example Ex. 19:3; Ex 19:20, Ex 24:9-10; Ex 34:1-2), primarily to receive the Law – the ten commandments. When God came down from heaven, Mount Sinai was seen to be enveloped in a cloud – the shekinah (for example, Ex. 19:16-19; Ex. 24:15). Usually, Moses was commanded to ascend alone. Once, he was called on the ascend with his brother Aaron and seventy advisors (Ex. 24:1), though only Moses could approach God. On another occasion, he was ordered to ascend the mountain assisted only by Joshua (Ex. 24:13). This tradition of ascending the mountain to receive the law is later memorialized in the poetic language of Isaiah 2:3 – Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.
Consonant with these Old Testament accounts, Jesus and his closest disciples ascend the mountain in Matthew 17. The irony of the Transfiguration account is that, unlike in the Old Testament, God (in the person of Jesus) walks with the disciples up the mountain, rather than coming down from heaven to meet them. The term mountain (oros, Strong’s G3735) occurs some eleven times in Matthew’s Gospel. In the Matthean Gospel, the mountain is where great accomplishments of faith take place. The Sermon on the Mount takes place on a hillock. Jesus is first taken to a mountain when tempted by the devil. Jesus tells his followers, you are the light of the world, a city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Jesus says, if we have faith, even if you say to the mountain be lifted up and thrown into the sea, it will be done. In Matthew’s Gospel, the last act of Jesus takes place on a mountain by Lake Galilee.
Moses and Elijah
Why does this story of the Transfiguration feature Moses and Elijah, and what do they have to do with Jesus? Moses and Elijah are pivotal figures in the Old Testament who point to the liberation of the Israelites from bondage. Moses is the prophet who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, the one who ascended the mountain to receive the law. Elijah is the prophet who would return to announce the coming of the Messiah – the King of the Jews. The return of Elijah is spoken of in the later writings of the prophet Malachi (Mal. 4:5). Because Elijah is known to first century Jews as the prophet that would announce the coming of the Lord, Elijah is mentioned perhaps thirty times in the four Gospels.
He Set His Tent Among Us
In the first chapter of John’s Gospel (Jn 1:14), the Sacred Author tells us that the Word made Flesh set his dwelling among us. And here in Mark’s Gospel, Peter the Apostle awkwardly suggests that tents be prepared for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. The grammatic structure in John and Mark is similiar. In John’s Gospel, Jesus literally pitches his tent among us: καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν. This is an allusion to several Old Testament traditions. First, the House of King David is also known as the Tent of David (Amos 9:11; Acts 15:16). Secondly, King Solomon dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem on the Feast of Booths (1 Kings 8:1-2). Third, the Shekinah or Spirit of God dwelt in a tent, which was where Moses spoke to YHWH when he needed to consult with the Lord (Exodus 40:34-36).
In this Gospel reading, Peter proposes to establish three tents for the prophets. But nothing comes of his proposal, for obvious reasons. Jesus, with the Incarnation, has already set his tent among the disciples. On the other hand, Moses and Elijah have already been taken up into heaven. It is not for Peter to prepare a place for them on earth, when they have already completed their earthly journey and now belong to the Kingdom of God.
Some scholars argue that the Transfiguration is a spiritual high-point in the earthly ministry of Jesus. It is complimented by a low-point: the Agony in the Garden. In both cases, Peter, James and John accompany Jesus. As a spiritual high-point, the Transfiguration anticipates the post-Easter glorification of Jesus. According to Matthew, his clothes became dazzling white during the Transfiguration. Oddly enough, Jesus is never described as being clothed in white in any post-Resurrection scene in the Gospels. Nevertheless, the Gospels, the Book of Acts, and the Book of Revelation consistently describe the angels or the elect as robed in white.
Not coincidentally, Moses and Elijah are also two Old Testament figures who are believed to be taken up into heaven after their death. Jude’s epistle (1:9) tells us that the Archangel Michael fought Satan to recover the body of Moses. The book of 2 Kings 2:11 tells us that Elijah was swept up into heaven on a chariot of fire. Finally, we should not fail to point out that in the Old Testament, Moses receives the law from God on the mountain. Here in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is affirmed as the Law (he is transfigured), in the presence of the leaders of the Apostles, on the mountain.