He Was Transfigured Before Them (Mark 9:1)

There were three occasions when Our Lord singled out Saints Peter, James the Greater, and John from among the Twelve that they might be more intimate witnesses of certain miraculous events.  Each of these events was completely different from the others, and one of them, the Transfiguration, they were forbidden by the Lord to speak of until after His Resurrection. August 6 is the feast day of the Transfiguration.Why this special favor to these three Apostles?  Saint Peter, we can easily understand, because he was going to head the Church as Christ’s vicar.  Saint John the Beloved, likewise, is easy to understand, because he was the youngest Apostle, the most innocent, and he would take care of the Mother of God until her death and bodily assumption into heaven in the year 58, at the age of seventy-two. He was the only Apostle who followed Jesus to Calvary, at a distance that is, and never abandoned Him. He would be Our Lady’s priest for twenty-five years.  Then, too, he would live longer than the other Apostles, witnessing to the Faith until his death in the year 100. But why Saint James the Greater?  He, the brother of Saint John, would be the first among the Twelve to shed his blood for Christ.  Herod put him to death in the year 42.  Now it should also be noted that these two brothers were kinsmen of Our Lord.  They were the sons of Salome (later called Mary Salome), one of the women who stood by the Cross of Jesus.  She was Our Lord’s cousin and the sister of the Apostles Simon, James the Less, and Jude. Their parents were Cleophas, the brother of Saint Joseph, and his wife Mary, who also stood with Our Lady beneath the Cross on Calvary.

The first occasion when Jesus singled out these three Apostles to witness a great miracle was the raising to life of the daughter of Jairus, a ruler of a synagogue in Galilee. Jairus believed in Jesus and worshiped Him, falling down at His feet as he made his passionate request: “My daughter is at the point of death, come, lay thy hand upon her, that she may be safe, and may live” (Mark 5:23). This was not the first time that Jesus raised a dead person to life.  All of His Apostles and disciples witnessed the raising to life of the son of the widow of Naim, whose funeral cortege was already on its way to his burial site when Jesus restored his life:  “And he [Jesus] came near and touched the bier. And they that carried it, stood still. And he said: Young man, I say to thee, arise” (Luke 7:14).

The second occasion was the transfiguration, which I will address momentarily.  The third was Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden.  All of the Twelve, Judas excepted, had processed with Christ from the hall where they had the Last Supper to the garden of olives, which was called Gethsemani, where Jesus often resorted to pray when He was in Jerusalem. Then, suddenly, after they were finished singing the Passover Psalms, Jesus tells the other Apostles to stay where they are and He takes with Him Peter, James, and John, and leads them further on that they might witness His agony, and hear His prayer, and see the angel sent from heaven to comfort Him.  These are the three who witnessed Him in glory on Mount Tabor; now they are to see Him tremble, sweat blood, and ask His Father if it were possible to let this cup pass Him by.  If one or two of the three fell asleep, another watched and prayed, although when Jesus returned to them for comfort He found them all sleeping, or at least half asleep: “And he cometh to his disciples, and findeth them asleep, and he saith to Peter: What? Could you not watch one hour with me?” (Matt. 26:40)

On Mount Tabor the eyes of the three Apostles were also growing heavy with sleep as they prayed with Jesus when, suddenly He was transfigured before them.  Now their tired eyes were opened wide and almost blinded by the light that radiated from Our Lord’s glorified body. “And he was transfigured before them. And his face did shine as the sun” (Matt. 17:2). “And whilst he prayed, the shape of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became white and glittering’ (Luke 9:29). His tunic reflected the luminescence that came from within Him: “And his garments became shining and exceeding white as snow, so as no fuller upon earth can make white” (Mark 9:2). This state of glory was due to that Flesh from the moment it was assumed in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the divine Person of the Son of God.  In His mortal life Jesus veiled the glory due to His humanity that He might completely “[empty] himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man” (Phil. 2:7). The miracle, therefore, was not His transfiguration, but the veil of mortality by which He chose to hide His glory in order to appear in our human habit as the Son of Man rather than the God-Man.

God spoke to Moses from a cloud on a high mountain.  He would speak a word as well to these three terrified men, giving them a command, which is the essence of the Gospel: “This is my most beloved Son, hear ye Him” (Mark 9:6).  Before they heard the thunder of God’s voice, they first saw Moses and Elias, not in glory, but in majesty, and heard them speaking with the glorified Christ.  And of what did they speak?  “[T]hey spoke of his decease that he should accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).

This was what Jesus took His three Apostles up this high mountain to witness: His glory and the testimony of His shortly to come passion. It was to fortify them that they should not be scandalized by what was about to take place in Jerusalem.  It was as if He were telling them, ‘when you see me give my life into the hands of my enemies, when you see them seize me, bind me, and mock me, remember that you will see me as you see me now once I am risen from the dead.’ Nevertheless, Jesus knew that two of these three men would be scandalized in Him and would abandon Him; and the ‘rock’ Peter, to save his own skin, would even deny that he knew Him.

Peter would not make it up the hill of Calvary, but he made it up the high mountain of Tabor with much joy in the company of His Lord.  With greater joy still he is astounded by what he sees, and who he sees conversing with the glorified Christ, the Son of the living God. But, being human, all three of the Apostles are struck also with fear and overwhelmed at the awesome sight. When Moses and Elias depart Peter is somewhat delirious and not knowing why he said: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias” (Mark 9:4).  It is not that he doubted that Jesus was the only-begotten Son of God — he had already affirmed it by the inspiration of the Father — but as the scripture has it, “he knew not what he said” (Mark 9:5).

Yes, Peter, it is good to be there, on Mount Tabor, but it is not good to build three tabernacles.  Suddenly, a cloud overshadows them, and a voice is heard from the cloud, as Jesus alone still shines in glory before them: “This is my most beloved son; hear ye him” (Mark 9:6).

Every time we are before the holy tabernacle it would be a fitting prayer to say to Jesus “It is good for me to be here.”  Our glorified Lord is present in the tabernacle under a different veil.  He “empties” Himself even more than He did in His incarnation when He hides His glory under the species of bread.  This great mystery of Faith, this kenosis (emptying of Himself) that is the Holy Eucharist, is for four purposes. First, that His sacrifice on Calvary might be re-presented in an un-bloody manner by the dual consecration of bread and wine upon the altar.  Second, that He might be approachable to us so that we might come to Him at any time without our being afraid, which we would be if we were to see Him as He is in His resurrected state of glory.  We have nothing to fear when we are at a loss for words in His presence; it is good for us to be here, before the tabernacle, if only just to share His company. Third, that we might have this great Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist as the most ineffable means of growing in sanctifying grace.  And fourth, that by Holy Communion, His emptying of Himself under the sacramental species might be the cause of our incorporation into Him, such that by His becoming our Food we, the eaters, might be assimilated into that which we eat, into Christ the Son of the living God.

It is indeed “good for us to be here,” where we can be filled with “the good things,” with which Our Lady said the Lord would feed hungry souls.  It is “through Him” (per ipsum) that we can be “with Him” (cum ipso) and through Him and with Him, if we receive Him worthily in Holy Communion, that we can be “in Him” (in ipso).  This is the “here” where Saint Paul glories to be when he says: “And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20).