Recently while sitting down with my boys and talking to them about our faith, I asked them to name their favorite story from the Bible. My eight-year-old remained quiet for a minute, then answered, “The one where they go up on the mountain and see Moses and Elijah.” His choice of the Transfiguration surprised and delighted me.
Encounters with God
Throughout the Bible, we encounter various scenes of encounter between God and man, almost always taking place on a mountain. Mountains have a special significance in the Bible, for it is here that man comes close to God: we read of Moses on Mount Sinai, receiving the law on tablets of stone, or coming to speak with God “as a man speaks to his friend;” we read, too, of how the prophet Elijah came to Mount Horeb, encountering the Lord not in fire or wind or earthquake, but in “a still small voice.”
The scene of the Transfiguration offers an even more intense revelation of the glory of God. Jesus appears before his disciples in a new, glorified form, suddenly more radiant than anything they have ever seen, with Moses and Elijah on either side of him. No wonder my son remembered this scene, for it naturally inspires awe, a holy fear of the Lord.
Coming to Know Him
Yet what happens when we come down from the mountain?
Today’s Gospel reading explores this part of the story. As the disciples walk with Jesus down the mountain, they surely must have struggled to make sense of what they had just witnessed. They had been given a glimpse of the very glory of God; they had seen Jesus “as bright as the sun,” speaking with the two greatest prophets of the Old Testament. There could be no further doubt in their minds that Jesus was indeed the Christ, the Messiah promised to their people. Yet how was it possible? they wondered. According to the scribes, Elijah must come first before the Messiah.
Here, Jesus explains that Elijah has “already come and they did not know him,” referring to John the Baptist. It is in the spirit of Elijah that John the Baptist calls people to repentance, preparing the way of the Lord. The prophet Malachi had foretold this new Elijah who would usher in the coming of the Messiah; and yet, even when given this chance, the people “did not know him.” These words echo those of John the Baptist from the Gospel of John, when he first beholds Jesus: “I have seen the Spirit descending like a dove from the sky, and it remained upon him, and I did not know him.”
Coming down from the mountain after an encounter with God is thus a time for recognition. The disciples have been given what the prophets Elijah and Moses longed for but could not fully experience: to behold the face of the Lord. Jesus was not simply another prophet, but the fulfillment of all that the prophets had spoken of and desired. We can imagine the disciples caught up in a mix of different feelings as they come down the mountain: awe, confusion, wonder, and joy; but most of all, there would have been the deepening sense of recognition, as they discerned in Jesus all that the Scriptures had foretold.
Today I invite you to reflect upon this call to recognition. When we are given moments of divine encounter, do we take time to recognize the Lord? When we read through Scripture, do we allow ourselves to hear the echoes of Christ? When he comes before us, do we fall to our knees in worship? Or might we say, as did those who recognized only later, I did not know him?
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