The Light of Tabor (August 6)

EVERY YEAR on the Great Feast of the Transfiguration, pilgrims climb Mount Tabor to worship at one of the churches there commemorating this event. Yet none of the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration mentions where the incident took place. The Gospels simply say that the Lord Jesus took His disciples Peter, James and John “up on a high mountain by themselves” (Matthew 17:1; Mark 9:2).

Mt Tabor, five miles south of Nazareth and eleven miles west of the Sea of Galilee, is traditionally identified as the site of the Transfiguration. Origen of Alexandria, who lived in Palestine for the last twenty-five years of his life, was the first to write about Mt Tabor in this context, in the middle of the third century. Origen claimed that identifying Mt Tabor as the site of Christ’s Transfiguration was an “apostolic tradition” held in the local Church.

Other Fathers from that period who echoed Origen’s view were St Cyril of Jerusalem (c.313-386), St Epiphanius of Salamis (c.310-403), and St Jerome (c.347-420).

The fourth-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c.265-340) thought that Mt Hermon on the Syrian border was another possibility because the Lord is described in Mt 16 as being in Caeserea Philippi which is at the base of Mt Hermon.

The weight of tradition has favored Mt Tabor, however, as the place where Jesus was transfigured, and it is there that commemorative shrines have existed since the fourth century. By the sixth century there were three basilicas on the site, recalling the three tabernacles which St Pater wanted to erect there (see Matthew 17:4).

Meeting God on the Mountaintop

There are several elements in the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration which resonate with memories of the Old Testament. The first is that mountains natural reflect the glory of God: “The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; The world and all its fullness, You have founded them. The north and the south, You have created them; Tabor and Hermon rejoice in Your name” (Psalms 89: 11, 12). It is noteworthy that the two mountains mentioned in this verse are the ones cited as possible sites of the Transfiguration.

Experiencing God on the mountaintop also reminds us that God is inaccessible to us, who are mired in the affairs of everyday life below. To commune with God we must “climb the mountain,” that is, rise above these worldly cares to attain union with Him. This “spiritual ascent” is a frequent theme in ascetical writings.

The Transfiguration connects us with other mountaintop experiences in the Scripture. When God first reveals Himself to Moses it is on Horeb, “the mountain of God” (Exodus 3:1): “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  And an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed” (Exodus 3:1. 2).

In Exodus 24 we read how Moses received the Ten Commandments by going up Mount Sinai to meet the God of Israel. “Now the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. The sight of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel. So Moses went into the midst of the cloud and went up into the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:16-18).

Many archaeologists believe that Horeb and Sinai are peaks in the same mountain range in the desert peninsula separating Egypt from Israel. Both Scriptural events are commemorated at the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai.

God-seers Moses and Elias

In addition to Christ and the Apostles, two others are described in the Gospels as being present at the Transfiguration. Why were Moses and Elias (Elijah) witnesses to this event?

Both these figures are described in the Old Testament as having seen God. In the passage cited above, Moses encountered God in “the midst of the cloud” on the mountain where he received the Ten Commandments. The cloud, representing the presence of God, reappears at the Transfiguration, surrounding Jesus, the incarnate Word of God.  After the destruction of the Golden Calf, Moses encountered God again in the Tabernacle, the Israelite’s portable temple. “And it came to pass, when Moses entered the tabernacle, that the pillar of cloud descended and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the Lord talked with Moses… So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:9, 11).

A similar revelation of God to the Prophet Elijah on Mt Horeb is recorded in 1 Kings 19. The Prophet, fleeing the idolatrous queen Jezebel, takes refuge in a cave on Mt. Horeb “And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the Word of the Lord came to him… And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave” (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13).

On Mount Tabor Moses and Elias, who had experienced the invisible God on Sinai and Horeb, now witness to the incarnate God in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Light of Glory

Another aspect of the Transfiguration story is the light which envelops the Lord Jesus: “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). The Jewish believers in Jesus for whom this Gospel was written could not but recall the “great vision” of the Prophet Daniel of a man “clothed in linen” whose face had “the appearance of lightning” (Daniel 10:6). Daniel’s vision was of an angel come to defeat the Persians. The Lord Jesus was come to do battle with sin and death.

St Gregory Palamas explained that the light on Tabor was a manifestation of God’s uncreated divine energy comprehensible by the apostles. He described it as an extraordinary gift of God in this life and likened it to a curtain falling from the eyes of the beholder. At the end of the age, however, as Christ promised, the saints would reflect this light s well: “… the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).

In the Christian East the radiant light of the Transfiguration was often a sign of the saints’ intimate communion with God in this life. The Desert Fathers Pambo, Sisoe, Silouan, and Arsenius were all described as physically reflecting the light of God. People who witnesses St Sergius of Radonezh at the altar saw a wonderful light surround him at the anaphora and enter the chalice. Ss Seraphim of Sarov, Theophan the Recluse and John of Kronstadt were all described by their contemporaries as shining like the sun, reflecting the divine light.

The event of Christ’s transfiguration, then, points to the divinity which is His by nature and which can be ours by grace when we maintain communion with Him.