NONE of the Evangelists tell us about the week which followed this memorable event. They tell us only that "after six days" He took with Him the three dearest and most enlightened of His disciples, and went with themthe expression implies a certain solemnity of expectationup a lofty mountain, or, as St. Luke calls it, simply "the mountain."
The supposition that the mountain intended was Mount Tabor has been engrained for centuries in the tradition of the Christian Church; and three churches and a monastery erected before the close of the sixth century attest the unhesitating acceptance of this belief. Yet it is almost certain that Tabor was not the scene of that great epiphany. The rounded summit of that picturesque and wood-crowned hill, which forms so fine a feature in the landscape, as the traveller approaches the northern limit of the plain of Esdraelon, had probably from time immemorial been a fortified and inhabited spot, and less than thirty years after this time, Josephus, on this very mountain, strengthened the existing fortress of Itaburion. This, therefore, was not a spot to which Jesus could have taken the three Apostles "apart by themselves." Nor, again, is there the slightest intimation that the six intervening days had been spent in travelling southwards from Cæsarea Philippi, the place last mentioned; on the contrary, it is distinctly intimated by St. Mark (ix. 30), that Jesus did not "pass through Galilee" (in which Mount Tabor is situated) till after the events here narrated. Nor again does the comparatively insignificant hill Paneum, which is close by Cæsarea Philippi, fulfil the requirements of the narrative. It is, therefore, much more natural to suppose that our Lord, anxious to traverse the Holy Land of His birth to its northern limit, journeyed slowly forward till He reached the lower slopes of that splendid snow-clad mountain, whose glittering mass, visible even as far southward as the Dead Sea, magnificently closes the northern frontier of Palestinethe Mount Hermon of Jewish poetry. Its very name means "the mountain," and the scene which it witnessed would well suffice to procure for it the distinction of being the only mountain to which in Scripture is attached the epithet "holy." On those dewy pasturages, cool and fresh with the breath of the snow-clad heights above them, and offering that noble solitude, among the grandest scenes of Nature, which He desired as the refreshment of His soul for the mighty struggle which was now so soon to come, Jesus would find many a spot where He could kneel with His disciples absorbed in silent prayer.
And the coolness and solitude would be still more delicious to the weariness of the Man of Sorrows after the burning heat of the Eastern day and the incessant publicity which, even in these remoter regions, thronged his steps. It was the evening hour when He ascended, and as He climbed the hill-slope with those three chosen witnesses"the Sons of Thunder and the Man of Rock"doubtless a solemn gladness dilated His whole soul; a sense not only of the heavenly calm which that solitary communion with His Heavenly Father would breathe upon the spirit, but still more than this, a sense that He would be supported for the coming hour by ministrations not of earth, and illuminated with a light which needed no aid from sun or moon or stars. He went up to be prepared for death, and He took His three Apostles with Him that, haply, having seen His glorythe glory of the only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truththeir hearts might be fortified, their faith strengthened, to gaze unshaken on the shameful insults and unspeakable humiliation of the cross.
There, then, He knelt and prayed, and as He prayed He was elevated far above the toil and misery of the world which had rejected Him. He was transfigured before them, and His countenance shone as the sun, and His garments became white as the dazzling snow-fields above them. He was enwrapped in such an aureole of glistering brillianceHis whole presence breathed so divine a radiancethat the light, the snow, the lightning are the only things to which the Evangelist can compare that celestial lustre. And, lo! two figures were by his side. "When, in the desert, He was girding Himself for the work of life, angels of life came and ministered unto Him; now, in the fair world, when He is girding Himself for the work of death, the ministrants come to Him from the gravebut from the grave conqueredone from that tomb under Abarim, which His own hand had sealed long ago; the other from the rest into which He had entered without seeing corruption. There stood by Him Moses and Elias, and spake of His decease. And when the prayer is ended, the task accepted, then first since the star paused over Him at Bethlehem, the full glory falls upon Him from heaven, and the testimony is borne to His everlasting sonship and power'Hear ye Him.'"
It is clear, from the fuller narrative of St. Luke, that the three Apostles did not witness the beginning of this marvellous transfiguration. An Oriental, when his prayers are over, wraps himself in his abba, and, lying down on the grass in the open air, sinks in a moment into profound sleep. And the Apostles, as afterwards they slept at Gethsemane, so now they slept on Hermon. They were heavy, "weighed down" with sleep, when suddenly starting into full wakefulness of spirit, they saw and heard.
In the darkness of the night, shedding an intense gleam over the mountain herbage, shone the glorified form of their Lord. Beside Him, in the same flood of golden glory, were two awful shapes, which they knew or heard to be Moses and Elijah. And the Three spake together, in the stillness, of that coming decease at Jerusalem, about which they had just been forewarned by Christ.
And as the splendid vision began to fadeas the majestic visitants were about to be separated from their Lord, as their Lord Himself passed with them into the overshadowing brightnessPeter, anxious to delay their presence, amazed, startled, transported, not knowing what he saidnot knowing that Calvary would be a spectacle infinitely more transcendent than Hermonnot knowing that the Law and the Prophets were now fulfillednot fully knowing that his Lord was unspeakably greater than the Prophet of Sinai and the Avenger of Carmelexclaimed, "Rabbi, it is best for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias." Jesus might have smiled at the naive proposal of the eager Apostle, that they six should dwell for ever in little succôth of wattled boughs on the slopes of Hermon. But it was not for Peter to construct the universe for his personal satisfaction. He had to learn the meaning of Calvary no less than that of Hermon. Not in cloud of glory or chariot of fire was Jesus to pass away from them, but with arms outstretched in agony upon the accursed tree; not between Moses and Elias, but between two thieves, who "were crucified with Him, on either side one."
No answer was vouchsafed to his wild and dreamy words; but, even as he spake, a cloudnot a cloud of thick darkness as at Sinai, but a cloud of light, a Shechînah of radianceovershadowed them, and a voice from out of it uttered, "This is my beloved Son; hear Him." They fell prostrate, and hid their faces on the grass. And asawaking from the overwhelming shock of that awful voice, of that enfolding Lightthey raised their eyes and gazed suddenly all around them, they found that all was over. The bright cloud had vanished. The lightning-like gleams of shining countenances and dazzling robes had passed away; they were alone with Jesus, and only the stars rained their quiet lustre on the mountain slopes.
At first they were afraid to rise or stir, but Jesus, their Masteras they had seen Him before He knelt in prayer, came to them, touched themsaid, "Arise, and be not afraid."
And so the day dawned on Hermon, and they descended the hill; and as they descended, He bade them tell no man until He had risen from the dead. The vision was for them; it was to be pondered over by them in the depths of their own hearts in self-denying reticence; to announce it to their fellow-disciples might only awake their jealousy and their own self-satisfaction; until the resurrection it would add nothing to the faith of others, and might only confuse their conceptions of what was to be His work on earth. They kept Christ's command, but they could not attach any meaning to this allusion. They could only ask each other, or muse in silence, what this resurrection from the dead could mean. And another serious question weighed upon their spirits. They had seen Elias. They now knew more fully than ever that their Lord was indeed the Christ. Yet "how say the Scribes"and had not the Scribes the prophecy of Malachi in their favour?"that Elias must first come and restore all things?" And then our Lord gently led them to see that Elias indeed had come, and had not been recognised, and had received at the hand of his nation the same fate which was soon to happen to Him whom he announced. Then understood they that He spake to them of John the Baptist.