In those days, Peter, James, Jesus and I were on our way to Nazareth. We took the route of the caravans bordering the Lake of Tiberias crossing through the valley of Aesdrelon. The summer sun was a golden balloon, shining on the wheatfields which were then ripe for the harvest…
Jesus: You haven’t scaled the mountain, have you, Peter?
Peter: Where, Jesus?
Jesus: The mountain… When I was a little boy, I used to slip out of the synagogue… There were three or four of us from the village who’d get together and hike to the mountain… We’d reach the top with our tongues hanging out, yeah, and our sandals half worn-out, but… it was worth the effort…
To our left stood Mount Tabor, round as a dome, separating the old territories from the tribes of Ishacar, Zabulon and Naphtali, the lone guardian of the fertile plains of Galilee….
John: Peter, James… tie your sandals well!
James: What’s that, John?
John: I know this Moreno damn well… Can’t you see he’s about to go up…?
Suddenly we were going up the mountain slope toward its summit, inching our way among pine trees and turpentine trees abounding on the slopes…
Peter: For God’s sake, I’m breathless… pfff!… I’m out of breath… Wait, Jesus…
Jesus: You gotta be getting old, Peter… Pff! I used to run up this mountain when I was a little boy….
Peter: Hey, John…. James…. come over here…!
John: Those sheep, where did they come from?
James: Where there’s a flock, there must be a shepherd too… Oh, oh, the shepherd…. the shepherd!… Where is he?
Peter: C’mon, let’s go on climbing!
There on top of the mountain was old man Joe, above a rock with his bamboo flute. His eyes were lost on the horizon….
Jesus: The shepherd!… The shepherd!
Joel: Here I am!… What do you want from me, or what do you have for me?
Peter: All we can do is greet you, old man! What about you?
Joel: I can spare you some cheese and all the milk you want!… Come, come, my countrymen, the milk from my sheep is purer than Susanna!
Jesus: Hey, are you the old man Joel?
Joel: Yes, that’s my name. How did you know my name? Did a little bird on the road tell you?
Jesus: No, I used to scale this mountain when I was just a kid, and I used to see you around this place….
Joel: Of course, this is my home. Others build their houses, but not me. I have no hut of my own. I prefer the open air. The sky’s my only roof… C’mon, try this goat’s milk… it’s gonna refresh your throat!
John: Thanks, Joel….
James: Doesn’t this solitary life bore you, old man?
Joel: Music is man’s best friend, don’t you forget that… Look over the valley… Not even Methuselah with all his years had time to contemplate all this beauty… You who’re from the lowland, who live in the cities and villages, learn how to read and go to the synagogue to listen to the Holy Scriptures… I know nothing about the written word, but that’s not necessary, do you hear? This is my book… and this is enough for me…
Old Joel showed, with his calloused hand, the valley of Esdraelon which opened before our eyes into a green vast expanse of land….
Joel: Look well, young men… This is the land promised by God to our fathers, the land where milk and honey flow, the most beautiful land of all…!
Peter: Hey, old man, what’s at the end of this… is it the lake?
Joel: Yes, the Lake of Galilee, round as a bride’s wedding ring. They say God slipped it onto Eve’s finger when she became his wife…. But look over there, countrymen: do you see?
John: Where, old man?
Joel: Over there, right behind all this… It’s Mount Hermon, where snow continues to fall, white as the beard of our Lord! God blesses our land from there…. Now, look at the other end… where the lands of Samaria are found… where Mount Ebal and Mount Garizim seem to join the clouds… and right between the two was the city of Shechem, nestled like a locket in a woman’s bosom. This is where our father Joshua reunited with all the tribes of Israel and made an alliance with God, a blessing for those who complied and a curse for those who did not…
John: Old man, what are these mountains nearby?
Joel: Ah, those are the mountain heights of Gilboa where the Philistines murdered Saul, the first king of our country, and Jonathan, his son and friend of David who was also a music lover, played the flute for his dead friend… Look over there, to the west… Do you see something like a green spur coming out of the land and sinking into the Great Sea….? That is Mount Carmel, Elijah’s country, the first prophet who took the cause of the poor of Israel and defended their rights… Ah, Elijah!… His tongue was like a whip in the hands of God. He made the kings tremble and all those who oppressed the poor. And, when God took him in the chariot of fire, his spirit was scattered like sparks among the new prophets…. Do you understand what I’m telling you, countrymen? Each of these mountains you see from here is like a page of a book, where the history of our people is written.
Jesus: But that history traces its beginning to another mountain, old man, the greatest of them all, that which cannot be seen from here…
Joel: You’re right, young man. Mount Sinai is very far from here, somewhere in the south, which only the eye of an eagle can reach…. It was in that wilderness that God felt he should call on Moses through a burning bush. From here, he was sent to Egypt to liberate his brothers and sisters. Moses faced the Pharaoh, took all the slaves with him, and crossed the Red Sea and the desert, bringing them to Sinai, the holy mountain, the one with two peaks on the summit, like the open knees of a woman about to give birth: and it was there where a free nation was born, our country, Israel….
John: Gee, old man, I get emotional, just listening to you….
Joel: My children, you’re so young and you dunno… So many things have happened… and what is yet to happen, of course! God never keeps still. I’m sure he’s in for something this time. Know somethin’ countrymen? God is like a goat: he loves the mountain. Sometimes he’s with Elijah in Mt. Carmel, other times, with Moses in Sinai. But he always fights for justice and defends the humble. Remember what our ancestors used to call the Lord? El Shaddai, the mountain God, because everytime he’s not pleased with the way things are down there in the great city he goes up to the mountains. And from there, he laughs… That’s right, God laughs at the kings and the Pharaohs. Great nations make wars and the powerful oppress the poor. They’ll not sing victories, though. God’ll send a liberator on Mount Zion. He’ll be my beloved son, with whom I’ll be pleased.
Up to this day, my eyes can still picture that moment: the blue horizon, the immense valley cut into cultivated lands like pieces of cloth of a hundred colors, the sun half hidden behind the clouds and the breeze coming from Mount Hermon seems to augur rains in Mt. Tabor… Jesus’ reply took from Joel’s words, like an abyss relating to another…
Jesus: You’re right, old man.
It’s in the mountain where the eyes are cleansed and the ears are opened to listen to the voice of God.
It is here where the God of Israel spoke in whispers to Elijah and where he spoke with Moses face to face.
Yes, God is alive and lets his presence be felt.
From each of these mountains he continues to pave the roads of people on earth, interweaving them assiduously with the hands of a zealous woman.
Now the work is done, in God’s time.
He comes to build his house on a high mountain, on the summit of the mountains, so that we, the children of Israel and all the other nations can climb up to it.
Because God is the God of all, whether near or afar.
He’s not content in gathering only the dispersed tribes of Jacob.
No, because liberation abounds.
There’s too much forgiveness and mercy for all children. And God’s Annointed One, the Messiah, awaited for so long by our people, shall remain on top of the mountain to be the guiding light of the people, so that there will be salvation in all the confines of the earth.
Peter: That was great, Moreno! I told you, you inherited Moses’ beard and Elijah’s tongue. Keep on talking, don’t be silent, the world’s liberation is at hand, and there’s no stopping it!
James: It’s the storm that’s coming soon. C’mon fellows, let’s stop being poetic for this one minute and let’s all go down, if we don’t want to get drenched.
Peter: Hey, what’s that nonsense you’re saying, James? No, no way!… Didn’t you hear what Jesus said? Everything’s going fine!
John: Are you outta your mind, Peter? Don’t you see the storm coming, and there’s not even a hut here to shelter us.
Peter: Then, let’s go make one, dammit! Let’s build three, if need be!… But no one is to move from here, no one!
Peter, in all his excitement looked up the sky. The dark clouds were already touching our heads. In a few seconds, the first drops of rain fell…
Peter: Does the rain really matter, guys? Wasn’t there lightning and thunder when God appeared on Sinai? The same thing happened on Carmel! This is because God roams freely in the mountains!…. Yes, yes, and now, Elijah will descend in his chariot of fire, and Moses likewise, with a burning bush in his hand!
The clouds fell furiously over Mount Tabor, and we were drenched to the bones. The lightning rays crossed the sky like lances, illuminating with splendor the faces of the shepherd, Joel, my brother James, Peter and Jesus.
Peter: Well, and now…. now what? Is everything over?
Jesus: No, on the contrary. This is just the beginning.
Peter: What’s gonna happen now, Moreno?
Jesus: Nothing, Peter. If you don’t wanna catch cold, start movin’ and let’s go. Or would you rather stay here above and watch the lightning rays?
Peter: I dunno. I was expecting more… to see the Lord… even half way, but….
Jesus: Listen, Peter: God’s in the mountains, that’s right. But the people are down there. Look….
Jesus looked over the Valley of Aesdrelon, interspersed with small villages where the poor of Israel earned their daily bread with their sweat and tears….
Jesus: That’s where we gotta go, Peter. That’s where we gotta blow and kindle the flames in the people’s hearts. Leave the burning bush and the chariot of fire alone, and let’s all go down. This was what Moses and Elijah did: to show concern for their brothers and sisters, to work unceasingly in helping them to fend for themselves. So, move on!… and Hurry! Let’s light a fire all over the earth and keep it burning!
Peter, my brother James, Jesus and I descended through the slopes of Mt. Tabor, which became slippery after the downpour. The old man, Joel, was left on top of the mountain, with his flock and his bamboo flute… Below were the fields and cities of Galilee, lying in wait for a change, a renewal, a transfiguration…
Mount Tabor is an isolated mountain in the northeast of the beautiful and fertile plains of Aesdrelon. It has a round shape and is 580 meters in height. From the early days it was considered a holy mountain on account of its beauty and location within the territorial borders of the tribes of Ishacar, Zabulon and Naphtali. Although the gospels do not mention the name of the mountain where Jesus ascended with his disciples in this episode, tradition has always situated his transfiguration on the summit of Mount Tabor. The mountain is about 30 kilometers from Nazareth and boasts an abundant vegetation. In 1921, the grandiose Church of the Transfiguration was built on top of the mountain. The exterior part of the church reminds us of the silhouette of the three tents referred to by Peter in the evangelical text.
From the top of the Mount can be viewed one of the most fascinating scenes in Israel. At the foot of the Mount extends the plains of Esdraelon or of Jezreel (which means “God has sown it”), as if wanting to bring out the exuberant fertility of this land (Hos 2:23-25). Jezreel is an immense valley in the form of a triangle, surrounded by Mt. Carmel, the mountains of Gilboa and Galilee. It served as a connecting link between Occidental and Oriental Palestine, and therefore, was a frequent setting for important wars in the history of the nation. The old shepherd, Joel, viewing all the mountains from the heights of Mount Tabor, traces the important moments in the history of Israel. He refers to Mount Hebron, the northern border of the Land promised by God to his people as the guardian of the country. It is always covered with snow (Ps 133). Mounts Ebal and Garizim, located on Samaritan lands, were the setting of one of the most solemn moments in the history of the people (Jos 8:30-35). The Israelites were defeated by the Philistines in the mountain range of Gilboa, where Saul, the first king of Israel, was killed, as well as his son, Jonathan (1 S 31:1-13; 2 S 1:17-27).
Joel makes special reference to Mount Carmel, the mountain of the prophet, Elijah. Carmel (the name means “garden of God”) is a very fertile mountain about 20 kilometers long, situated between the Mediterranean and the plains of Jezreel. Elijah performed some of the most spectacular signs here (Rev 18:16-40). At present, Carmel is called Yebel-Elyas, the “mountain of St. Elias,” and thousands of pilgrims come to venerate the first great prophet of Israel in a cave that was excavated at the base of the mountain, the cave of Elias. Here they pray and come together in pil¬grimage, where they sing and eat symbolic food.
Elias (his name means “Yahweh is God”) lived about 900 years before the birth of Jesus. He was the great prophet of the kingdom of the north of Israel, when the nation was divided into two monarchies. His popularity was so immense that people wove all kind of legends about his person, converting him into an unforgettable myth. He performed great miracles and confronted the kings. He did not die, but instead, went up to heaven in a chariot of fire, and most important of all, would return to pave the way for the Messiah. All these were very vivid ideas in Jesus’ time. Elias was always the prophet par excellence, and the proclaimer of the coming of Messianic times. Because of all this, it was but natural that in this episode of the transfiguration, which is replete with symbols, Elias should appear with Jesus, as a guarantee that his prophetic spirit was in Jesus; and more so, to become witness to the much awaited Messiah. (The story of Elias appears in the First Book of Kings, Chapters 17, 18, 19, 21 and in Chapter 2 of the Second Book of Kings. References to Elias are innumerable in the entire Scripture. Elias appears as a prophet of justice, in a special way in the episode of the vineyard of Naboth – Chapter 21).
The shepherd Joel, also makes special reference to Sinai, Moses’ mountain. Mt. Sinai, also called in the Bible as Horeb, is the most sacred mountain of Israel. Here, God appeared to Moses in a burning bush, and revealed his name – Yahweh. Here, He handed over the commandments and made an alliance with the people when they marched in the desert. Sinai is situated in a territory which now belongs to Egypt, on the Sinai Peninsula, in a plain desert, in an area inhabited solely by Bedouins. Sinai is endowed with savage beauty which cannot easily be compared with that of other countries. Moses, who lived one thousand eight hundred years before Jesus, was an exceptional figure for Israel. A father and liberator of his people who formed and led them to the Promised Land, this exceptional man spoke face to face with God. He was, above all, a legislator who gave the Holy Law to Israel. No biblical figure had as much worth and authority as Moses. That’s why he must likewise appear with Jesus in the scene of the transfiguration. When God started a new law with that peasant from Nazareth – the law of freedom, and a new alliance, that of justice and love – Moses was there as witness to Jesus’ being heir to the best traditions of his country. (The entire book of Exodus is important in knowing the story of Moses, especially Chapters 1 to 24.)
In Israelite thinking, the mountain, because of its proximity to the sky, was the place where God manifested himself. Other neighbors – the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Phoenicians – thought the same way. The mountain, therefore, is a holy place par excellence. Later on, another complementary idea emerges: God elects some mountains as his special abode. Thus, Mount Zion (in Jerusalem) is spoken of several times in the Old Testament as his dwelling place, as a place for banquets during Messianic times. Besides, there is an ancient tradition in Israel referring to God as El-Shaddai. God himself must have revealed this name to the old patriarchs (Gen 17:1-2). El-Shaddai means “God of the mountains.” The Book of Job mentions on many occasions, this beautiful name of God.
Taking into consideration all these elements – sacred mountain, Moses (the Law), Elias (the Prophets), the clouds (likewise a feature in the Exodus), resplendent light – the evangelists created a symbolic frame indicating up to what extent the prophecies of the ancient writings of Israel were realized in the person of Jesus. What is thus presented to us is the so-called “theophany” (God’s apparition), and this style is used in a number of these theophanies of the Old Testament: Exodus 24:9-11 (God appears to Moses and the ancients); 1 Kings 19:9-14 (God appears to Elias through the wind); Ezekiel 1:1-28 (God appears to the prophet Ezekiel in a chariot). In all these descriptions, there is always a series of symbolic elements whose culminating point is that moment when the voice of God is heard. In the transfiguration, God utters the words of Psalm 2: “You are my Son…” The ideas in this psalm provide the backdrop for the theophany of the transfiguration, as it appears in this episode.
Here, Jesus expresses himself in prophetic and poetic language, born out of the atmosphere of warmth that the shepherd has elicited through his biblical evocations. In his words, he puts together all prophecies making reference to the holy mountain, the Messiah, the day of salvation, and God’s plan of liberation (Is 60:1-4; 61:1; Mic 4:1-8). What Jesus announced was never “his” glory, “his” power, “his” transfiguration.
The Good News he brought us is not a cheap vindication of his greatness, like a superstar who, with marvellous gestures, seeks to dazzle an astounded public. The Good News Jesus proclaimed and for which he gave his life was the transfiguration of the world: A new world where the message of justice of the prophets could be a reality. What he has announced is the transfiguration of history. This history, which at times, seems wanting in meaning, absurd, bathed in too much blood, is one led by God toward the final consummation of the world – a history which the hands of the God of the mountains will one day rescue. Then it shall be transfigured history.
(Mt 17:1-13; Mk 9:2-13; Lk 9:28-36)