WHY JESUS PERMITTED HIMSELF TO BE SEEN IN A STATE OF GLORY HIS RETREAT TO THE MOUNTAIN FOR PURPOSES OF PRAYER THE PHENOMENON OF THE TRANSFIGURATION WHAT IT MUST HAVE BEEN IN THE MANGOD JESUS RADIANT BETWEEN MOSES AND ELIAS THEIR HEAVENLY CONFERENCE THE EMOTION OF THE THREE APOSTLES THE GREAT TESTIMONY OF THE FATHER QUESTION CONCERNING ELIAS AT THE FOOT OF THE MOUNTAIN THE DISCIPLES ARE WORRIED AND THE SCRIBES TRIUMPH THE LUNATIC JESUS' INDIGNATION THE FATHER'S TOUCHING PRAYER THE POWER OF FAITH THE DEMONIAC IS HEALED JESUS' TRIUMPH. (St. Luke ix, 2843; St. Mark ix, 229 ~, St. Matthew xvii, 121.)
JESUS had declared, in terminating the foregoing discourse, that some of His hearers should not die without having seen Him in His glory. We understood Him as speaking of His twofold coming, spiritual in time and glorious at the end of the world. Still there is nothing to prevent us from seeing in His words a direct allusion to that mysterious and astounding event, His Transfiguration, which was soon to occur. We may, indeed, consider this as an anticipated representation of the future coming of the MessiahKing. By manifesting Himself in the ideal and divine beauty of His superior life, Jesus seems to have desired to give His three disciples, who saw Him, a momentary view of the Kingdom of Heaven, and of its unspeakable splendors.
About a week had elapsed1 since the great discourse in which the Master had announced His coming trials, and this unexpected revelation filled the Apostles with profound discouragement. The awful prospect was at all times before them. Too calmly and too precisely outlined for it to be merely imaginary, they could no longer hope, after Peter's failure, that Jesus would decide to prevent its realization. The very thought of beholding so sad an end to His earthly career filled the Apostles with pain; in their hearts, because they loved Him; in their minds, because they no longer had any understanding of the divine plan; and in their souls, in fine, because they saw the ideal of the future vanishing together with all their more or less human and worldly hopes. Such a state of mind was dangerous. To bring about a strong reaction, Jesus resolved to let them behold a little light by the side of the somber events which He had foretold.
He, therefore, took three of His Apostles, Peter, James, and John, whose influence generally determined the moral dispositions of the others, and with them withdrew to a high mountain2 to pray. It was probably near evening. The silence of nature in desert places, the isolation on heights that seem to bear one nearer to heaven, naturally incline man to prayer. The Apostles endeavored, at first, to follow the Master's example and enter into communication with God. But gradually drowsiness weighed down their eyelids and they ended by falling asleep.
In the meantime, not far from them, Jesus remained deep in the contemplation of purest love. His soul was flooded with heavenly light, and a strange transformation was taking place, at the same time, throughout His whole body. It is not a rare thing to see a man become suddenly transfigured under the influence of a great and noble passion. His eye gleams, his countenance brightens with a brilliant light, and his whole being, as if enveloped in an electrical glow, seems to enter a new sphere. The transformation produced by ecstasy attains a still sublimer degree. The ecstatic ravished beyond himself, or, at the least, forcibly seized by the sentiment of the divine presence, finds himself, in fact, under the immediate and sensible influence of that presence. Then there arises a second cause of transfiguration no less powerful than the first: it is God acting upon the ecstatic like the sun upon the objects to which it gives heat. This explains how it was that Moses, descending from Sinai, had presented to the view of the people a brow so radiant that the eye could not bear the sight of it.3 To the illumination that spread from his soul to his features, was added the visible reflection of divine glory in the bosom of which he had sojourned. But in Jesus all this must have been produced not only in an eminent degree, but with a new and incomparable element of splendor. For the hypostatic union kept His soul in intimate and perfect relation with the Divinity. The soul reacting on the body could not but penetrate it with the rays of divine glory. Since Jesus was the Son of God in human flesh, we may say that His ordinary state must have been that of glory, and that He came forth from it only by veiling His divine brilliancy by a positive and special act of His power.
At the point in His ministry at which we have arrived, it was important for Him that His disciples should have some knowledge of that inner, transcendent life that constituted His supreme happiness and His true majesty. Will they, after having seen Him in His divine splendor, still dream of the perishable greatness of earth in His behalf? In any case, the humiliations and sufferings that await Him shall have a character none the less strange but less discouraging for those who shall have beheld the two distinct sides of His life: the one turned toward earth, transitory, insignificant; the other toward heaven, true, eternal. Can the evil that reaches only the body really trouble the soul flooded with divine consolations, or can passing insults hurled by the wicked against the just one prevent his sovereign glorification and his triumph in a better life?
Therefore the Master's soul, in the enjoyment of the beatific vision, had but to dispel the mist with which it was concealed, and under the influence of this internal radiance His body at once became transparent. His very garments seemed penetrated with light. They were bright with a whiteness such as no fuller upon earth, as St. Mark says, could reproduce. His head more than all was marvelously beautiful. The soul ordinarily is reflected in the features of the countenance; they are its faithful and privileged mirror. The divine face shone like the sun.
At the same time, the higher world itself came down to admire the glorification of the Son of Man. The supernatural brightness shed round by these newcomers from another life uniting with the light that came from Jesus, formed as it were a vast nimbus, a sort of tabernacle of light or luminous firmament that sheltered the most august meeting this world has ever witnessed. For on the right hand and on the left of the Savior were two men, accredited representatives of the ancient glories of Israel, Moses and Elias, the twin heroes of the old theocracy. They were bent in respect before their Lord, and, contemplating in Him the perfect fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies, they discoursed on the end that awaited Him in Jerusalem.4 The astounding crime by which this people, killing its Messiah, was to seal its final reprobation, filled their Israelite souls with pain, and they besought God to forestall such a transgression. It was in vain; notwithstanding the prayers and the intercession of her just men, Jerusalem would consummate her apostasy. She was the city that had slain the prophets, and now she meant to lay her sacrilegious hands upon the Lord's Anointed and to attempt the destruction of her God.
For His part, Jesus, contemplating with love the cross which He saw already prepared in the Holy City, pointed to it with enthusiasm. Thus He taught Moses that there might be something more consoling than to die by the kiss of the Eternal,5 and Elias that there was something grander than to be borne away to heaven in a fiery chariot: namely, to mount upon a cross to expiate there the sin of the world, and to rise again to enter heaven truly triumphant.
The conversation was near its end, and the Apostles still slept. Again, later on, will they so sleep in Gethsemane; but Jesus, though permitting them to sleep then, to spare them the sight of His anguish, awakened them now to fortify their doubting hearts. A ray of His glory that He lets fall upon them suffices to draw them from their deep sleep. As they awake, their eyes behold the sublime spectacle. The Master in His superhuman aspect they recognize at once; the two strangers they know perhaps by the characteristic signs commonly attributed to them in Jewish tradition, or more probably by the conversation that they overhear. What, indeed, are these citizens of another world? Are they simply souls, clad in the appearance of bodies; really men or pure, symbolical apparitions? Their faith is untroubled. They recognize the accomplishment of a mystery: the law of Moses paying homage to the Gospel, and the great figures of the past bending before their full realization in the present; this suffices for them. This heavenly vision delights them. They pray that it may not end, and when it bids fair to vanish, Peter, in his anguish and with naïve simplicity, cries out: "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here! Let us make here three tabernacles, one for Thee and one for Moses and one for Elias." It was as if the fear of passing the night in the open air might bring the holy meeting to an end. St. Luke and St. Mark are right in saying that Peter, overwhelmed and beyond himself, knew not what he was saying. His appeal remained unanswered, or rather he had scarcely finished it when the disappearance of those for whom he wished to provide a shelter told him of the futility of his desire. A bright cloud enveloped them.6 It was the glory of God, and the Apostles who understood it were struck with fear. From the midst of the cloud was heard a voice which said: "This is My beloved Son,7 in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him."
Overwhelmed by this series of wonders, and deeply moved by the sense of the immediate presence of God, the three Apostles had fallen prostrate upon the ground. Jesus, approaching, touched them and said: "Arise and fear not." They looked. The Master, again in His ordinary condition, was alone before them; all else had disappeared. Thus are the Law and the Prophets to pass away, while Christ alone remains forever.
This glorious vision had ceased probably before dawn. The time had come for them to rejoin the Apostolic group. As they went down the mountain Jesus took care to say to them: "Tell the vision to no man, till the Son of Man be risen from the dead." These last words, reminding the Apostles of His prophecy concerning His fatal struggle with His enemies, held their attention. They dwelt upon it and wondered what, indeed, could be the meaning of the return from death of which He once more spoke to them, and at what time they would be free to make known so prodigious an event. The postponement of the Messiah's glorification until after His death was for them always an unanswerable enigma. In any case, they said to themselves, if the realization of the triumph is deferred till after Jesus' death, and if His death is so near, how explain that Elias does not stay henceforth upon earth to fulfil the part of precursor? Is not prophetic tradition unanimous in declaring that he is to be there at the solemn moment? And they immediately made known their difficulty to the Master: "Why then do the Scribes say that Elias must come first?" And He answered: "Elias, indeed, shall come and restore all things. But I say to you that Elias is already come, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they had a mind. So also the Son of Man shall suffer from them." The Apostles understood that John the Baptist had been the Elias announced by the prophets, and their minds dwelt sadly on the thought that the Master, far from hesitating to deliver Himself up to His enemies, would seek no other road to triumph than the pains and the humiliation of death.
In the meantime, from the narrow paths of the mountain they had just emerged into the valley where the rest of the Apostolic band were impatiently awaiting them. Their surprise was great when they saw their companions surrounded by a large and boisterous multitude. Some Scribes their malice discovered or pursued the Master everywhere seemed to be provoking the tumult and, to be turning it to their own advantage.
At the moment of Jesus' arrival, says St. Mark, the excitement gave way to fear; and soon this fear itself was succeeded by a general enthusiasm. For the crowd threw themselves in His way with unmistakable signs of respect and at the same time with a display of curiosity. In the eyes of all and more especially in the humiliated appearance of His disciples, Jesus saw that His enemies had taken advantage of His absence to engage in a dispute in which they had triumphed. "What do you question about among you?" He demanded, turning severely upon the Scribes. They made no response. Their malice could not but be silent. The facts themselves spoke and were enough to compromise not only the disciples but also the work of Jesus. What had happened? A man the most concerned in the affair came forth from the multitude, and, divided between despair of a lost cause and the gleam of hope aroused by the Savior's arrival, courageously broke the silence. "Master," he said, falling on his knees, "I have brought my son to Thee having a dumb spirit; I beseech Thee, look upon my son, for he is my only one. And lo, a spirit seizeth him, and he suddenly crieth out, and he throweth him down, and teareth him, so that he foameth, and he falleth often into the fire and often into the water; he foameth and gnasheth with the teeth, and pineth away; and, bruising him, he hardly departeth from him. And I spoke to Thy disciples to cast him out, and they could not."
The last words explained the popular agitation as well as the emotion produced in both camps by the sudden intervention of Jesus. Whether because the Apostles' faith was not lively enough, or because an evil sentiment of envy had entered their hearts and made their union with the Master less profound the preference Jesus had just shown for three of them might have wounded the others they had found themselves wholly incapable of healing the youthful demoniac. Their repeated and fruitless attempts had resulted only in exciting the malicious comments of certain Scribes who were present. Without sufficient knowledge to reply to their objections, and without authority to accomplish the miracle which would have silenced them, they were beaten, and the cause of truth was plainly in danger. Would the Master's arrival change the state of things? They were anxiously wondering.
As the father finished his explanation Jesus' brow darkened and grew sad. Coming down from the splendor of the mountain had He then to encounter the passions of the plain? After God's testimony is there still room for man's denial? Yes, at the foot of this Sinai, whence He comes back glorified by the Law, the Prophets, and the Father Himself, it is, indeed, the triumphant mockery of His opponents that He has heard, and it is a beginning of general incredulity that He beholds. Then, like Moses, He feels the accents of indignation rising to His lips, and He strongly rebukes the laxness of His own and the unbelief of the others. "O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you and suffer you?" The lawgiver of Israel in his anger showed only bitterness; Jesus, after this reproach, proves His charity. He desires not the death of the wicked, but their salvation; and His law, though the law of truth, is none the less the law of mercy. "Bring hither thy son," He says quietly, as if He wished to shake off the painful impression from His soul; and the boy was brought to His feet.
From the true picture which the father has already given us of his son's illness nervous convulsions, inarticulate cries, privation of all the functions of the senses, intermittent attacks, gnashing of the teeth, and foaming at the mouth, the violence of the crisis that overcomes and throws down the patient in whatever place he may be, and finally stupor and general weakening after the attack we recognize all the marks of epilepsy. St. Matthew, according to whom the father calls his son a lunatic, carefully preserves the local belief. For the popular prejudice attributed to the phases of the moon a great influence over this evil. However, as the immediate action of the demon is at the same time mentioned by our Evangelists, there is no doubt that the epilepsy was merely the form or the natural result of diabolic obsession.
As he appeared before the Master, whether because the demon's fury was aroused, as had happened on other occasions, or because the boy himself had been seized by too deep an emotion, the epileptic attack suddenly came upon him in all its intensity. Jesus stood calm and authoritative before this painful spectacle. "How long time is it since this hath happened unto him?" He said to the father. "From his infancy;" he replied, "and oftentimes hath he cast him into the fire and into waters to destroy him. But if Thou canst do anything, help us, having compassion on us." Jesus responded: "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth."
In the Master's thought, to believe is to identify one's life with that of God and to participate thenceforward in the divine power. That is why nothing is impossible to true believers. Having by faith become sons of God, they must receive visibly the fruits of so sublime a sonship. By the domestic hearthstone the child is strong with the very strength of his father. "Believe, then," the Savior seems to say, "and the infinite power of God will pass into your hands as it would have passed into the hands of My disciples, if their hearts, a moment ago, had been sincerely joined with Mine and with God." Faith and power are one in the kingdom of the Gospel.
These words, which seem to displace the power that operates the miracles, astonish, disturb, and transport the poor father. He would like to believe, and to believe strongly enough to have power; but it is the desire of faith that he feels, rather than faith itself. Yet at the command of paternal love everything about him, eyes, lips, hands, and heart even, unite in crying out: "I believe!" But, humble and candid, he will not conceal the feebleness of his nascent faith. On the other hand, if it is to remain too feeble for the working of the miracle, his woe would be inconsolable. "I do believe, Lord," and he adds, "help mine unbelief."
Meanwhile the crowd was visibly increasing. Restless, sympathetic, impatient, they were pressing around Jesus. It was then that, with a gesture of authority and a threatening voice, He said, "Deaf and dumb spirit, I command thee, Go out of him and enter not any more into him." At once the cries and the convulsive spasms increased; it was the last effort of the vanquished enemy leaving his place. The crisis was awful, and the boy, falling immediately in complete prostration, lay as if lifeless. They said: "He is dead!" But Jesus, taking him by the hand, restored him to consciousness and gave him full of life and health to his father, who was intoxicated with joy. The Scribes were beaten. Their mockery and their wicked words recoiled upon themselves. They had to withdraw, confused and humiliated, while the multitude let forth its enthusiasm, impressed as it was by a sense of the greatness of God.8
When the Apostles were alone with Jesus in the house where they were being entertained, they surrounded Him to ask the reason of their failure. Perhaps they still felt the severe rebuke which had been given to the crowd shortly before by the Master, and which seemed to be directed also at them. "Why could not we cast him out?" Jesus said to them: "Because of your unbelief. For, amen, I say to you" and here the Savior employed hyperbole the better to inculcate His thought "if you have faith as a grain of mustardseed, you shall say to this mountain: Remove from hence hither, and it shall remove, and nothing shall be impossible to you. But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting."
Was there, in these last words, a reproach addressed to the disciples, who were at all times too absorbed in material thoughts, or who were perhaps too much given to some exterior distraction? Did He mean to say that, like the thaumaturgus, the demoniac himself ought to be prepared by prayer and fasting in order to merit a miracle? Many have thought so, but it is hardly probable, and it seems more natural to understand that faith, in order to be equal to the impossible and more particularly to be efficacious, when it is a question of commanding demons, must find its twofold nutriment in prayer and in voluntary suffering. Prayer lifts us up to God, and mortification, proclaiming our empire over our body, releases us from those earthly miseries which check our moral flight. Both combine to render the soul great enough in its act of faith to vanquish all the powers of hell.
1 St. Luke says: about eight days after, while the two other Synoptics distinctly say that it was six days after. We can harmonise these statements by remarking that St. Luke counts both the day on which Peter made his Profession and that on which Our Lord was transfigured, while the others count only the intervening days. But the expression wsei, "about," in St. Luke is the sign of an approximative indication. They all mean to indicate the lapse of a week.
2 None of the Evangelists gives the name of this mountain, and, in ecclesiastical tradition, the first indication we have is evidently an incorrect one. It is that of the Pilgrim of Bordeaux (circa 333 AD). If we accept this statement the Transfiguration took place on one of the heights of the Mountain of Olives, not far from the basilica built by Constantine: "Inde non longe est monticulum ubi Dominus aseendit orare et apparuit illic, (sic), Moyses et Elias, quando Petrum et Joannem secum duxit." (Itin. Ter. S., Geneva, fasc. i, p. 18.) Some time after St. Cyril in his Catechesis, xii, 15, supposes that Mount Thabor was the scene of the event. St. Jerome, Epist. xlvi, ad Marcel., and Epitaph. lxxxvi Stæ. Paulæ adopts this opinion of his contemporary, and from that time it became the only accepted one for all the pilgrims of the Holy Land.
Mount Thabor is a very beautiful eminence, covered with terebinths, evergreen oaks, carobtrees, and lentisks, and picturesquely rounded off on all sides. To the east it dominates the plain of Esdrelon. We find it mentioned more than once in Scripture, for it gave its name to, or borrowed it from, a fortified town built on its summit, having dependencies and belonging to the tribe of Issachar. (Jos. xix, 22; Paralip., vi, 77.) Its importance from a strategic point of view, causes it to be mentioned by Polybius liv. v, 70, under the name of Atabyrion, in connection with Antiochus the Great, who, according to this historian, fortified it, after having taken possession of it in 218 BC There is no account of its being depopulated or abandoned later on, and when it reappears in history (67 AD), Josephus, B. J., iv, 18, who pitched a camp on the higher plateau, speaks of its inhabitants, tois epoikois, and distinguishes them from the soldiers he had established there.
It is somewhat surprising after this to find St. Jerome looking upon Thabor as the high and solitary mountain, uyhlon, kat idian, of which the Evangelists speak. Not only was Thabor inhabited in the first century of our era, but the summit has always been clearly in view and the heavenly manifestation would have been as visible, to the inhabitants of Naim, Endor, and the mountains of Galilee as to the three disciples who accompanied Jesus. Let us add that all the other indications of the Evangelists agree in placing anywhere but in Galilee the important scene of the Transfiguration. Thus Jesus went away from CæsareaPhilippi for the express purpose of fleeing from the enemies that threatened Him in Galilee, and then, within six or eight days after, we find Him again in the very midst of Galilee. This is very unlikely. But His departure from Gaulanitis is clearly specified in St. Matt. xvii, 21, and St. Mark ix, 29. The latter particularly states that after the cure of the lunatic, perhaps a long time after, Jesus returned to Galilee to pass through it secretly so as to reach Capharnaum and from thence ascend to Jerusalem. What could be more clear? The Scriptural indications appear to us the more decisive as the traditional indications only date from the end of the fourth century, and they who mention them allege no reasons or more ancient data whatsoever in support of them. More naturally should we seek on one of the abrupt and desert foothills of Hermon the high and solitary mountain which Jesus ascended with His three disciples to pray there free from any intrusion. We have visited these localities, and have felt on climbing these hills, which overlook the whole course of the Jordan down to the Dead Sea and, consequently, the whole of the Holy Land, that they, rather than Thabor, agree with the indications in Holy Writ. (Voyage aux Pays Bibliques, vol. ii, p. 288).
As regards the crowd gathered around the lunatic and the Scribes who were amongst them, we have found no difficulty. They were at the gates of CæsareaPhilippi. But this capital of the tetrarch, though counting many pagans within its walls, was nevertheless the city of a Jewish prince, having synagogues and Scribes or Rabbis, like all the important centres of Palestine.
3 Exod. xxxiv, 29 et seq.; II Cor. iii, 7.
4 It is St. Luke ix, 31, who tells us of the subject of their conversation, elegon thn exodon autou hn hmellen plhroun en Ierousalhm, and thereby permits us to establish a close connection between the Transfiguration and the talk on the way to Cæsarea. Elias and Moses teach the Apostles a lesson by their acknowledgment, in the name of the whole of the Old Testament, of a Messiah suffering and humiliated. The word exodos means simultaneously the going out and the end, by death, resurrection, and ascension, of the Messianic life, the beginning of which St. Paul (Acts xiii, 24) will call eisodos.
5 This was the expression used by the Rabbis to characterize the happy death of the great leader of Israel.
6 The expression autous appears to apply only to those for whom Peter would build each a tabernacle, Moses, Elias, and Jesus. Hence the reading of certain manuscripts bearing ekeinous. Some exegetes, however, think that according to St. Luke ix, 34, not only Jesus but the three Apostles may have been enveloped in the luminous cloud with Moses and Elias, and that it was this that caused their fear. The text may, no doubt, be interpreted in this manner, but the context prevents it, because it cannot be seen how the Apostles would have heard the voice ek nefelhs, issuing from the cloud, if they themselves had been enclosed within it.
7 St. Luke ix, 35, in the best manuscripts has o eklelegmenos, the elect, instead of wellbeloved.
8 The three Synoptics relate this cure of the lunatic, but so independently one from the other and yet agreeing so entirely as to the main facts, that once more we find it impossible to entertain the thought of a common written source from which they drew. The account given by St. Mark is especially full of life and true to nature.
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