At the Transfiguration, Jesus took Peter, James and John up Mt. Tabor, where they witnessed the appearance of Moses, Elias (also known as Elijah) and Jesus. Peter instinctively offered to create tents for all three, a Jewish custom related to the Feast of Booths. Yet, Our Lord transfigured before them, turning radiant, while Moses and Elias (Elijah) faded, and God spoke: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him. (Matthew 17:5) This moment was to prepare the disciples for Christ’s Sacrifice.
In the Transfiguration, Jesus’ role as the Messiah, and his primacy over all prophets and patriarchs, was made abundantly clear to just a few, who were ordered to tell no one. Yet, Jesus knew these close disciples needed preparation for the great Sacrifice which was to come.
To teach the transfiguration to CCD students, this lesson involves Bible study and a scavenger hunt for overlapping themes, such as radiance, God’s words and actions to shore up the faithful, and sacrifice.
Step 1: Read the story of the Transformation: Matthew 17.
Step 2: Locate the three mountains referenced in these stories: Moses on Mt. Sinai, Elias (Elijah) on Mt. Carmel and Jesus on Mt. Tabor. Print out these maps for the students to discover the places. Reflect on the role of sacred spaces in the faith, and ask the students why mountain-tops are often referenced as places to encounter God.
When Moses descended radiant (Exodus 34:29) from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he found the chosen people worshipping a golden bull. When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it. (Exodus 32: 19-20) He called the Levites to his side, and they massacred the idolaters, about 3,000 of them.
Elias (Elijah) appeared amidst the reign of King Ahab (874-852 BC), 375 years after the Exodus. After Moses commissioned Joshua to lead the Israelites to cross the Jordan River and defeat enemies, Moses died unable to look upon the Holy Land. After the conquest, the Israelites ruled with regional judges, and later developed kingship. The kings who ruled a unified Israel were Saul, David, and David’s son Solomon. Upon Solomon’s death, Israel was divided into north and south. King Ahab ruled as the seventh king of the north.
The Northern Kingdom was always plagued with apostasy. Ahab battled formidable foes, like the Philistines and the Assyrians and Phoenicians. To solidify military victory, he formed a diplomatic and economic alliance with the King of Sidon (Phoenicia) , by marrying his daughter, Jezebel. Her father, Ethbaal, was also a priest of the fertility goddess, Astarte. They were worshippers of Baal. The worship involved child sacrifice and sexual immoralities. Jezebel brought her paganism to Northern Israel, and even got her Jewish husband, King Ahab, to erect temples to Baal.
The Prophet Elias (Elijah) was dispatched by God to save Northern Israel from grave sin. As a child, his father witnessed angels surrounding and feeding his son with fire. This foreshadowed a standoff of Elias (Elijah) with the priests of Baal. He summoned the priests and priestess of Baal to Mt. Carmel (some 850 in number), along with a large crowd of witnesses.
Elias (Elijah) summoned them to each make an altar, to sacrifice a bull, and put wood under it, but not to light the fire; instead, he said they would each call upon their God: The God who lit the fire was the true God. He let the Baal-worshippers make utter fools of themselves: They called upon their gods for hours, and cut themselves in blood sacrifice. Elias (Elijah) chided them: Pray louder! Hi is a god! Maybe he is day-dreaming or relieving himself, or perhaps he’s gone off on a trip! Or maybe he’s sleeping, and you’ve got to wake him up! (1Kings:18)
After the Baalites had spent themselves, and could call upon no divine power to ignite their sacrifice, Elias (Elijah) proceeded to demonstrate the power of God. He carefully rebuilt an altar to the Lord, with 12 stones symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel. He then poured buckets of water over his altar before calmly calling upon the true God to light the fire and prove his power before all of Northern Israel. The fire lit immediately, and consumed all the sacrifice, wood and water surrounding. All believed, and the Baalites were massacred.
Consider dividing students into two groups, so they can each report on what they learned by the accounts of Moses and Elias (Elijah). Find points of similarity: apostasy, reaffirming the strength of God, massacre of the idolaters. Notice the role of sacrifice in these stories.
Now compare these Old Testament stories to the Gospel on the Transfiguration. What is different about the way God’s power was revealed in Jesus? Why did Jesus forbid the disciples to tell others of this? What changes about the disciples, especially Peter, from the appearance of the three to God’s words about the Son?
What messages do we learn from these teachings? What do we learn about the character of God, and the contrast between the external signs of the Ancient Israelites and the quiet presence of Our Lord in human flesh?
How can we apply the principles of the Transfiguration to our own lives? For, like the disciples, we are called to transfigure our own lives in the presence of God’s radiance. It is a telling reminder that we meet the Lord in his person most intimately in the Eucharist, a radiant presentation of His Body, which, once consumed, makes us radiate His love in the world.
Pope Benedict XVI words on the Transfiguration drive this home:
When one has the grace to sense a strong experience of God, it is as though seeing something similar to what the disciples experienced during the Transfiguration: For a moment they experienced ahead of time something that will constitute the happiness of paradise. In general, it is brief experiences that God grants on occasions, especially in anticipation of harsh trials. However, no one lives “on Tabor” while on earth.
Human existence is a journey of faith and, as such, goes forward more in darkness than in full light, with moments of obscurity and even profound darkness. While we are here, our relationship with God develops more with listening than with seeing; and even contemplation takes place, so to speak, with closed eyes, thanks to the interior light lit in us by the word of God.
May we become a people transfigured by the presence of Our Lord, and may He bless your service of faithful catechesis in his name.