Moses and the Prophet Elijah are present for the Transfiguration of Jesus in the Gospel of St. Luke spanning all of Salvation History for the Second Sunday of Lent.
“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“Nothing new in the Holy See.” I hear these words from my friend, Father George David Byers, every Monday morning as he reviews stats for These Stone Walls with me over the telephone. Being blind behind these walls to everything going on with a post after it leaves my archaic typewriter, this opportunity to know that someone is actually reading is vaguely comforting to me.
I know it is really tedious for Father Byers, but we have a sort of twice-per-week ritual. He checks out the weekly TSW visitor stats – always numbered in the thousands – and tells me of the numbers of visitors in Washington DC, New York, London, Sydney, Canada, even China and across six continents. We cannot see who they are, but we can see how many they are, and posts they read.
Our call always ends with “Nothing new in the Holy See.” It means that no one there has stopped to look behind These Stone Walls. There is a sadness in that. There is a lot of controversy in Rome these days, and because I have a stake in it, I am both anxious about it and anxious to have a voice in it. I look intently at the affairs of Rome even if no one there is ever looking back. Current events there are sometimes manipulated by those with an agenda to reshape the Church in their own image, or to filter the Way, the Truth, and the Light through the age of relativism.
But all this has more to do with our politics than the far more important opportunities to explore, and allow to be shaped within us, the profoundness of our faith. Unlike other Catholic bloggers, I can write only one post per week so the affairs of Rome will have to wait. It is Lent, after all, and the Transfiguration of Christ in the Gospel this week shakes the Earth under my feet while the affairs of Rome only make me tremble a bit.
So no offense to my fellow Catholics embroiled over the dramas of Rome, but I am putting them on hold for Lent. I am painfully aware that exactly six years ago Pope Benedict XVI left the Chair of St. Peter and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis. I have written a number of posts about that development, so to mark this sixth anniversary I will add some of the more important links at the end of this one.
These are dark days for priests, and often dark for faithful Catholics as well. But darkness preceded the Transfiguration of Christ at the center of the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent, and as usual there is a story on its surface and a far greater one in its depths. Lord, be our Light.
WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?
All three Synoptic Gospels have an account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, and the accounts are remarkably uniform. But the Gospel of Saint Luke alone presents a reason for the Lord bringing three of His Apostles to the top of a mountain:
“Jesus took Peter, John and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:28-30)
Some immediate understanding of this event would have dawned upon any faithful Jew and certainly registered with Peter, James and John. The account is highly reminiscent of an event in the Book of Exodus that took place some 13 centuries before:
“When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in his hands, as he came down from the mountain Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. And when Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, because the skin of his face shown, they were afraid to come near him.” (Exodus 34:29-30)
Though the event of the Transfiguration of Jesus would vividly bring to the Jewish mind this passage from Exodus, it was also very different. It was like the difference between the Sun and the Moon. The Moon only reflects light radiated from the Sun. As brilliant as a full moon can appear in the darkness of night, it produces no light of its own. The face of Moses only reflected
the light of grace radiated from God.
The Sun, on the Other hand, radiates dazzling light, and to look too long would cause blindness. The light of the Transfiguration of Christ was “dazzling,” and it came from within. In those few moments – for Peter, James and John could have stood no more than a few – God lifted a corner of the veil to reveal the nature of the person Peter declared to be the Christ:
“The only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, through him all things were made. For our salvation he came down from heaven.” (The Nicene Creed)
I wrote of this account a few years ago in “A Transfiguration Before Our Very Eyes.” That post was more about the conversion that this episode can bring within a person who comes to some understanding of its spiritual dimensions. Canadian Catholic blogger Michael Brandon at “Free Through Truth” actually wrote a post about that post – and his was far better than mine – which he entitled, “Transfiguration, You and Me.”
The conversion that Michael Brandon and I both highlighted was that of Pornchai Moontri, and it is a most important story, not just for him, or for me, but for a Church embroiled in scandal. If you think I may beat this drum of Pornchai’s conversion too much, I challenge you to delve into it for I cannot emphasize it enough. Given the story told in “Pornchai Moontri, Bangkok to Bangor, Survivor of the Night,” his conversion – a change not just of heart but of substance – should have been impossible. And he found no light in me, for I radiate none.
In the Gospel, The Transfiguration of Jesus was preceded by two pivotal events. On the command of Jesus, the Apostles fed 5,000 people with a mere five loaves of bread and two fish. When it was over, he asked the Apostles, “Who do the people say that I am?” They answered, “Some say John the Baptist” (for he had already been beheaded by Herod) “while some say Elijah or that one of the prophets of old has arisen.”
But what about you, asked Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered for all: “You are the Christ of God” (see Luke 9:18-22). Jesus then told them a startling revelation bringing them to an inner darkness:
“You are to tell this to no one. The Son of Man, must suffer many things, be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever will lose his life for my sake, he will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)
So answer for yourself the question that Jesus asked Peter, and, through the Gospel, asks each of us: “Who do you say that I am?” But before you answer, keep in mind a central tenet of human nature. Just like many of the Jews in the desert with Moses after having been delivered from bondage in Egypt, how many Catholics do you know who do not esteem the faith they inherited through the Blood of the Lamb of God and passed on to us through countless martyrs at the cost of their lives? Your answer must cost you something of yourself. “What you inherit too cheap you may esteem too lightly.”
A CONVERSATION WITH MOSES AND ELIJAH
I would like to delve deeper into the theological significance of the Transfiguration account and into its spiritual resonance. First, the very important story behind the story. The account is filled with great spiritual meaning. First, why do Moses and Elijah appear?
A lot in Sacred Scripture happens on mountaintops. In the Book of Exodus, Moses received the Covenant from God on Mount Sinai. In the First Book of Kings, the Prophet Elijah encountered God on Mount Horeb. On Mount Tabor – the place where long held tradition places the Transfiguration – Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, the two central pillars of faith in Judaism, and the foundations of God’s Covenant with Israel.
But how can they be present in heaven before the Resurrection of Jesus and the Exodus from sin and death? The greatness of Elijah is attested to by the sheer number of allusions to him in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Hebrew mind, it was Elijah who affirmed the supremacy of Yahweh over nature and human history, and was seen as the principal defender of traditional Hebrew morality.
Elijah can be present at the Transfiguration because he was taken on a chariot into heaven (2 Kings 2:1-18). It was an ingrained belief of Hebrew tradition that God would return Elijah to Israel even before this prophecy was set forth by the Prophet Malachi: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible Day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5). The presence of Elijah must have brought both hope and terror into the hearts of Peter, James and John. But how is it that Moses was there with Jesus on Mount Tabor?
This is where the Hebrew Scriptures and the legends of faith intersect. The Canon of Sacred Scripture reveals the story of Salvation History from Abraham to Jesus, but Israel also had a collection of oral and written traditions accepted by Rabbinical teaching as “Deuterocanonical” meaning, “Secondary Canon.” Some of these are also called “Apocryphal” texts from the Greek, “apokryphos” which means “hidden.” Some of what is in these texts intersects with the Bible, but remains a matter of pious traditional belief instead of historical verification. There are others perhaps not yet discovered. The Book of Daniel (12:9) speaks of “words that are shut up until the end of time.”
An example of how one such text contributed to popular belief is the “Protoevangelium of James.” It circulated in the Early Church and was cited by one of the Church Fathers. It is the only source for a tradition that the parents of Mary were Joachim and Anna.
There were several texts outside of Scripture from which legends and traditions circulated regarding Moses. These include the Books of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, and the Assumption of Moses. They influenced early Rabbinic beliefs and teachings about angels, for example, and the lives of Moses and other Biblical figures.
The Assumption of Moses reveals a tradition, now lost from the fragments of the text that have survived, about the death of Moses in the Sinai desert. In that legend, Satan tried to claim the body of Moses, but Michael the Archangel contended with Satan and won. Michael then escorted Moses into heaven, like Elijah, body and soul. That this legend became engraved into the beliefs of Israel, and passed to the Early Christian Church, is evident in the New Testament Letter of Jude who is writing to an audience that obviously already knows of the account:
“But when the Archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him, but said, ‘The Lord Rebuke you.’” (Jude 9)
It may be from this legendary story that, from the earliest time in the Christian Church, Saint Michael the Archangel has the role of escorting the souls of the dead to salvation. This is how Moses could thus be present with Elijah at the Transfiguration where they are reported to have discussed with Jesus the Cross, the Second Exodus. The road upon which Jesus is embarked is connected to the Law and the Prophets. It is to be an Exodus from the bondage of sin and death in which God will Himself pay the price for release that he once exacted from Pharoah: The death of his own Son.
THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES
The entire Gospel account of Transfiguration takes place against the backdrop of the Feast of Tabernacles. This is why, in his dreamlike ecstatic state, Peter wants to delay the parting of Moses and Elijah from Jesus by saying,
“Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Peter misinterprets the reason why they are all present in that place as being the annual Harvest Feast of Tabernacles (or tents) Called in Hebrew, “Sukkot.” It is one of three Pilgrimage Feasts in the Hebrew calendar. It was originally a harvest feast, something like the American Thanksgiving, and called the “Feast of Ingathering” in the earliest Hebrew traditions. It lasts for seven days.
As I researched the connection between the Feast of Tabernacles, with its origin in Exodus 23:16, and the Transfiguration of Christ some thirteen centuries later, I came upon a long and detailed article about its history. As I studied the article, I was shocked to see at the end that it was written by my uncle, the late Father George W. MacRae, a renowned Scripture scholar who became rector of the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem and Stillman Professor of Catholic Studies at Harvard. It was an article he wrote for Catholic Biblical Quarterly in 1960, much of which became included in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary.
The Feast of Sukkot – variously interpreted as Tabernacles, Tents, Huts or Booths – had its roots in early Palestine as little huts were built in the fields, orchards and vineyards during the harvest. Much later, the Pilgrimage Feast was given a deeper religious meaning when it became connected to the events of the Exodus as a memorial to how the Israelites lived during their forty years of wandering in the desert after following Moses through the Red Sea.
It is an irony of Biblical proportions that this formed the scene for the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God about to enter Jerusalem for the New Exodus, the Exodus through the Red Sea of sin and death. It is the Exodus of the Cross through which Jesus will lead us to the New Jerusalem, the Promised Land, if we pick up our Cross and follow Him.
“This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.” (Luke 9:35)
Two Notes from Father Gordon MacRae:
- Just before posting this, Father Byers proved me wrong. While looking at stats he said: “Oh my! There’s something new in the Holy See!” There were two views of my post, “Cardinal George Pell and Other Martyrs for a Nefarious Cause.” On that note, we are honored to host in these pages next week a guest post exclusive to These Stone Walls from an Australian attorney on the travesty of justice that has befallen Cardinal Pell.
- I hope and pray that these meager words add something to your experience of the Gospel. Please share this post with others by emailing it (there’s a button for that atop each post) or by sharing it on social media. Please also pray for your priests, for Cardinal Pell whom I believe to be innocent, and for Pope Francis, whose papacy began six years ago this week. You may also like these sometimes controversial but always respectful posts on These Stone Walls:
- Five Years of Pope Francis in a Time of Heresy
- Pope Francis and the Lost Sheep of a Lonely Revolution
- Pope Francis, the Pride of Mockery, and the Mockery of Pride
- Pope Francis Has a Challenge for the Prodigal Son’s Older Brother