In honor of the Feast of the Transfiguration today, let’s visit Mount Tabor and the Church of the Transfiguration in Galilee, Israel.
Jesus’ Transfiguration occurs shortly before He enters Jerusalem to begin his Passion, and is encountered in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. On this occasion, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up Mount Tabor, at the north-east corner of the Jezreel Valley. Two of the gospels use the word “apart” to describe the mount where Jesus took them. Rising abruptly out of a virtually level plain to 1,843 feet, Mount Tabor is definitely away from it all. Pilgrims have been dizzily chauffeured up winding roads since they were first built in 1954. Before that, all the way back to 400 A.D. when the first church was built atop this mountain, pilgrims rode donkeys or climbed the more than 4,000 steps that are cut into the rocky slope to reach the summit.
Atop Mount Tabor, Jesus is transfigured:
“[H]is face did shine as the sun, and his garments became white as the light.
And behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elijah talking with him.” (Matthew 17:2-3)
Flanked by Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets, Jesus is resplendent in His glory. His Heavenly Father repeats what He says at Our Lord’s baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” and then adds, “listen to him.” Many see this momentous event as Jesus’ way of showing Peter, James, and John what wondrous glory is in store for Him, and eventually for them, and of giving them some encouragement just before the horrific events of His passion and death.
My favorite aspect of this story is St Peter’s response to the amazing sight before him:
“Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17:4)
Two of the Gospels say he didn’t know what he was saying, which makes me love him all the more. I mean, think about it: what would YOU have said?
One thing I found striking about this event in the Bible is how Jesus gave Peter, James and John a tiny bit of a foretaste of his glory just before they would all see Him in Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was almost as if He was giving them something amazing that they could remember when they saw Him being beaten and crucified during his Passion. It is such a loving gesture, I think, of Our Lord to be thinking of His disciples like this just before they would abandon Him to his executioners.
St Peter’s over-eager comments were remembered by the Italian architect, Antonio Barluzzi, who built the magnificent Basilica of the Transfiguration with a chapel to Moses, a chapel to Elijah, and of course, the rest of the church dedicated to Jesus and this miraculous event.
Consecrated in 1924, the basilica is built in the Roman-Syrian style prevalent in the fourth and fifth centuries. Twin towers are linked by a Byzantine arch, behind which is a tablet, engraved with the text of Matthew, Chapter 17.
Along the sides of the arch, mosaics of angels illustrate four other key events in Christ’s life: his nativity, his passion, his resurrection, and the real presence of the Eucharist. A glorious mosaic of the Transfiguration fills the apse of the upper level and confers a golden light throughout the basilica.
Outside of the basilica, the mount is covered in lush gardens, with flowers and plants from all around the world. Pine trees and eucalyptus trees provide well-needed shade. While Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis also visited the Holy Land, only Pope Paul VI visited the Mount of the Transfiguration.
As a pilgrim, Mount Tabor and the Basilica of the Transfiguration were some of my favorite places in the Holy Land. Driving up those curvy roads was dizzying, and the views from the top were breathtaking. It’s a great place for pilgrims to remember that a pilgrimage, no matter where it is, should go hand in hand with our own transformation toward the goal of becoming more like Christ. Visiting these sacred sites helps us better understand Jesus and the things He did during his life, and they give us a wonderful opportunity to thank Him for all of it, as well.
For a closer look at this church and the other holy sights in the Holy Land, watch The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land online or purchase the 2-DVD set of The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land. Or join The Faithful Traveler on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, April 17-26, 2015.
Photography: Courtesy Diana von Glahn, all rights reserved, used with permission.