Three important scenes of Our Lord’s life took place on mountains. On one, He preached the Beatitudes, the practice of which would bring a Cross from the world; on the second, He showed the glory that lay beyond the Cross; and on the third, He offered Himself in death as a prelude to His glory and that of all who would believe in His name.
The second incident took place within a few weeks, at most, of Calvary, when He took with Him to a high mountain Peter, James, and John — Peter the Rock; James destined to be the first Apostle-martyr; and John the visionary of the future glory of the Apocalypse. These three were present when He raised from the dead the daughter of Jairus. All three needed to learn the lesson of the Cross and to rectify their false conceptions of the Messiahs. Peter had vehemently protested against the Cross, while James and John had been throne-seekers. All three would later on sleep in the Garden of Gethsemane during His agony. To believe in His Calvary, they must see the glory that shone beyond the scandal of the Cross.
On the mountaintop, after praying, He became transfigured before them as the glory of His Divinity flashed through the threads of His earthly raiment. It was not so much a light that was shining from without as the beauty of the Godhead that shone from within. It was not the full manifestation of Divinity which no man of earth could see; nor was His body glorified, for He had not risen from the dead, but it possessed a quality of glory. His crib, His carpenter trade, His bearing opprobrium from enemies were a humiliation; fittingly there should also be epiphanies of glory, as the angels’ song at His birth and the voice of the Father during the baptism.
Now as He nears Calvary, a new glory surrounds Him. The voice again invests Him in the robes of the priesthood, to offer sacrifice. The glory that shone around Him as the Temple of God was not something with which He was outwardly invested, but rather a natural expression of the inherent loveliness of “Him who came down from heaven.” The wonder was not this momentary radiance around Him; it was rather that at all other times it was repressed.
As Moses, after communing with God, put a veil over his face to hide it from the people of Israel, so Christ had veiled His glory in humanity. But for this brief moment, He turned it aside so that men might see it; the outgoing of these rays was the transitory proclamation to every human eye of the Son of Righteousness. As the Cross came nearer, His glory became greater. So it may be that the coming of the anti-Christ or the final crucifixion of the good will be preceded by an extraordinary glory of Christ in His members.
In man, the body is a kind of a cage of the soul. In Christ, the Body was the Temple of Divinity. In the Garden of Eden, we know that man and woman were naked but not ashamed. This is because the glory of the soul before sin shone through the body and became a kind of a raiment. Here too in the Transfiguration the Divinity shone through humanity. This was probably mud more natural than for Christ to be seen in any other pose namely, without that glory. It took restraint to hide the Divinity that was in Him.
And even as He prayed, the fashion of His face
Was altered, and His garments
Became white and dazzling;
And two men appeared conversing with Him,
Moses and Elias, seen now in glory;
And they spoke of the Death
which He was to achieve at Jerusalem.
Luke 9:30, 31
The Old Testament was coming to meet the New. Moses the publisher of the Law, Elias the chief of the Prophets — both of them were seen shining in the Light of Christ Himself Who, as the Son of God, gave the Law and sent the Prophets. The subject of conversation of Moses, Elias and Christ was not what He had taught, but His sacrificial death; it was His duty as Mediator which fulfilled the Law, the Prophets and the Eternal Decrees. Their work done, they pointed to Him to see the Redemption accomplished.
Thus did He keep before Him the goal of being “numbered with the transgressors,” as Isaias had foretold. Even in this moment of glory, the Cross is the theme of the discourse with the celestial visitors. But it was death conquered, sin atoned and the grave despoiled. The light of glory which enveloped the scene was joy like the “Now let me die,” which Jacob said on seeing Joseph, or like the Nunc Dimittis which Simeon uttered on seeing the Divine Babe. Aeschylus, in his Agamemnon, describes a soldier returning to his native land after the Trojan War and in his joy saying that he was willing to die. Shakespeare puts the same joyful words on the lips of Othello after the perils of voyage:
If it were now to die
‘Twere now to be most happy;
for, I fear,
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.
But in the case of Our Lord, it was as St. Paul said, “Having joy set before Him, He endured the Cross.”
What the Apostles noticed as particularly beautiful and glorified were His face and His garments — the face which later would be splattered with blood flowing from a crown of thorns; and the garments, which would be a robe of scorn with which sneering Herod would dress Him. The gossamer of light which now surrounded Him would be exchanged for nakedness when He would be stripped on a hill.
While the Apostles were standing at what seemed to be the very vestibule of heaven, a cloud formed, overshadowing them:
And now, there was a voice which said
To them out of the cloud,
This is My beloved Son,
In whom I am well pleased;
To Him, then, listen.
When God sets up a cloud it is a manifest sign that there are bonds which man dare not break. At His baptism, the heavens were opened; now at the Transfiguration they opened again to install Him in His office as Mediator, and to distinguish Him from Moses and the Prophets. It was heaven itself that was sending Him on His mission, not the perverse will of men. At the baptism, the voice from heaven was for Jesus Himself, on the Hill of the Transfiguration it was for the disciples.
The shouts of “Crucify” would be too much for their ears if they did not know that it behooved the Son to suffer. It was not Moses not Elias they were to hear, but Him who apparently would die like other teacher, but was more than a prophet. The voice was testified to the unbroken and undivided union of Father and Son; it recall also the words of Moses that in due time God would raise up from Israel One like Himself Whom they should hear.
The Apostles, awakening at the brilliance of what they had seen, found their spokesman, as almost always, in Peter.
And just as these were parting from Him,
Peter said to Jesus, Master
It is well that we should be here;
Let us make three booths in this place,
One for Thee, and one for Moses,
And one for Elias.
But he spoke at random.
Luke 9: 33, 34
A week before, Peter was trying to find a way to glory without the Cross. Now he thought the Transfiguration a good short cut to salvation by having a Mount of the Beatitudes or a Mount the Transfiguration without the Mount of Calvary. It was Peter’s second attempt to dissuade Our Lord from going to Jerusalem be crucified.
Before Calvary he was the spokesman for all the who would enter into glory without purchasing it by self-denial and sacrifice. Peter in his impetuosity here felt that the glory which God brought down from the heavens, and of which the angels sang at Bethlehem, could be tabernacled among men without a war against sin. Peter forgot that as the dove rested his foot only after the deluge, so true peace comes only after the Crucifixion.
Like a child, Peter tried to capitalize and make permanent this transient glory. To the Savior, it was an anticipation of what was reflected from the other side of the Cross; to Peter, it was a manifestation of an earthly Messianic glory that ought to housed. The Lord Who called Peter “Satan” because he would have a crown without a Cross now ignored his non-crucial humanism, for He knew that “he spoke at random.” But after the Resurrection, Peter would know. Then he would recall the scene, saying:
We had been eye-witnesses of His exaltation.
Such honor, such glory was bestowed on Him
By God the Father, that a voice came to Him
Out of the splendor which dazzles human eyes;
This, it said, is My beloved Son,
In Whom I am well pleased; to Him, then, listen.
We, his companions on the holy mountain,
Heard that Voice coming from heaven, and now
The word of the prophets gives us more
Confidence than ever. It is with good reason
That you are paying so much attention to that Word;
It will go on shining, like a lamp in
Some darkened room, until the dawn breaks,
And the day star rises in your hearts.
2 Peter 1:16-20