“Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart.” – Matthew 17:1
Mount Tabor, the highest mountain in Galilee, lies just 10 kilometres east of Nazareth. Because of its location along the ancient Via Maris trade route, it has always been a place of strategic military importance. The Israelites fought one of their first big battles here when they entered the Promised Land (see Judges 4:4-16). The Basilica of the Transfiguration stands atop its peak, overlooking the Jezreel Valley to the south and lower Galilee to the east. Mount Carmel peeks through the clouds, just 32 kilometres to the west.
Early pilgrims used to climb over 4300 steps to get to the summit. We opted instead for small buses that drove us up the steep, winding road. This new, improved road has sturdy guardrails and is apparently much less exciting than it used to be. Still, as we negotiated its hairpin turns, I secretly hoped we wouldn’t encounter any oncoming traffic. They used to joke that the real reason Peter, James, and John wanted to stay at the top was because they were afraid to take the taxi down!
The disciples had come up here because, according to tradition, Mount Tabor is the “high mountain apart” where the Transfiguration of Jesus took place.1 Scripture tells us that Jesus took the three disciples with Him up the mountain. There, “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (Mt 17:2). It was here that God met humanity – that heaven intersected with earth, with Jesus acting as the bridge between the two. The disciples not only saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, but they heard the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Mt 17:5). It was an experience that would sustain the disciples in the dark days of the Passion and Death of Jesus that lay ahead.
Although Peter wanted to build booths2 in honour of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah that day, it wasn’t until the year 570 that a pilgrim reported that there were three basilicas standing on Mount Tabor. Today, the magnificent Church of the Transfiguration stands on this spot. It contains three chapels. The chapels of Moses and Elijah are contained in its towers, and the Grotto of Christ is located at the eastern end of the church.
Built in 1924 and designed by the famous Italian architect and Franciscan monk, Antonio Barluzzi,3 the interior of the church is divided into three naves by pillars. The roof tiles and windows are made of alabaster to let in the light, and a magnificent golden mosaic depicting the Transfiguration dominates the centre apse.4
Beneath it all, light streams through the beautiful arched, stained glass window located behind the main altar. Two splendid peacocks, which frame the image of a chalice, symbolize the glory and immortality of Jesus. What an amazing and awe-inspiring setting for our celebration of the Mass of the Transfiguration!
As we exited the church, a spectacular view of the Jezreel Valley spread out before us. Today, this fertile valley is the breadbasket of Israel – a place where wheat, cotton, and sunflowers grow. Many believe that it will be the site where armies will gather to fight the Battle of Armageddon in the last days (Rev 16:16). But today, the sacred mountain and valley below are not just the favoured destinations of pilgrims. Heaven and earth truly meet as hang gliders, hikers, and picnickers join together to enjoy this magnificent place that God has prepared for us all.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 In the 3rd century, Origen identified Mount Tabor as the place the Transfiguration took place. However, many biblical scholars today question this tradition for a number of reasons. First, a Hasmonean fortress was located on the mountain during the time of the Jewish revolt (which ended when they were conquered by the Romans in 37 BC). It was likely still in use by the Romans at the time of Jesus. Second, Jesus and His disciples were in the area of Caesarea Philippi – about 100 kilometres away – just before the Transfiguration took place. Because of these reasons, some scholars feel that it is more likely that the Transfiguration took place on the much higher Mount Hermon. (Caesarea Philippi is located at the base of Mount Hermon, 40 kilometres north of the Sea of Galilee.)
2 See Matthew 17:4. Other biblical translations use the word ‘tents’ or ‘tabernacles’.
3 Antonio Barluzzi (1884-1960) is known as the architect of the Holy Land. It seemed like almost every church we visited was designed by him, including The Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, The Church of All Nations at Gethsemane, The Church of the Flagellation in Jerusalem, The Church of the Beatitudes in Galilee, and Dominus Flevit on the Mount of Olives.
4 The nave is the central part of the church building where most of the congregation sits. The apse is a semicircular or polygonal recess that has an arched or domed roof. It is typically at the eastern end of the church – at the end of the church aisles. It usually contains the altar.