2nd Sunday of Lent, Matthew 17:1-9
And behold Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.
We have already taken the opportunity – here, here and here – to consider the mystery of the Transfiguration insofar as it relates to Christ in himself. Already once we have considered the state of Moses and Elijah in their appearance. However, we have yet to tackle that most interesting question of why it was Moses and Elijah that appeared with our Lord, rather than (for example) Abraham or Isaiah. As we will see, the answer to this question will greatly aid us in entering more deeply into the mystery of Lent.
It is good to recognize that there are several reasons why we might have expected others than these two. Abraham had received the promise of a Messiah and is our father in faith. Isaiah, on the other hand, prophesied the virginal conception and birth of the Christ; as well as his passion and death. It could have been David, who wrote of the Savior in his Psalms; or, perhaps even Adam, who would have directed us more immediately to the New Man. Or it may have been Jonah, the only prophet to whom Jesus directly compares himself. Jeremiah’s Lamentations are the very words of our Savior.
No, it was none of these, but only Moses and Elijah – the lawgiver and the prophet. These two would see the Lord’s glory, even before the Resurrection; for their appearance indicates that our Savior must suffer greatly and be crucified.
The bodies of Moses and Elijah
One of the predominate reasons why it was Moses and Elijah who appeared together with Christ in his Transfiguration is that the bodies of these two men had not been given to corruption. This is certainly that case with Elijah, who was taken up and suffered not death – for he appeared in his proper body, as he has not yet died.
With regard to Moses, on the other hand, we are a bit less certain: Some of theologians (notably, St. Thomas Aquinas) hold that Moses did not appear in his own body, but that it was only his soul which was present – the idea being that his soul would have made use of condensed air and dust for a bodily form. Others (Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide) are inclined to think that Moses’ soul was temporarily re-united with his body for the apparition – for we know that St. Michael the Archangel guards the body of Moses (perhaps it is even incorrupt). In any case, it seems to us that the special care given Moses’ body (witnessed in the account of his death in the final chapter of Deuteronomy and also in the Letter of St. Jude) may have been a foreshadowing of his appearance on Tabor.
Still, even if we were to grant that Moses and Elijah both appeared in their proper bodies – something that would then rule out Abraham, Isaiah, and the rest – this does not fully account for why it was only Moses and Elijah. Indeed, if the preservation of one’s mortal body were enough to gain a place on Tabor, we would expect that Enoch would have appeared – moreover, Enoch (who still lives) would have a greater claim to be present at the Transfiguration than Moses!
No, there is another reason why Moses and Elijah appeared beside Christ – they came to remind the Apostles that the Lord would suffer and die, and so enter the glory of which the Transfiguration was a foretaste. This, then, is the reason Holy Mother Church gives us to meditate upon the Transfiguration on the Second Sunday of Lent: So that, encouraged by the hope of the Resurrection, we might persevere and remain faithful to Christ in his Passion.
We turn now to the words of Fr. Romano Guardini. He writes most eloquently about the mystery of the Transfiguration. [Note that Elias is simply another way of writing Elijah]
Fr. Romano Guardini, The Lord (Moses and Elias)
When we read the Synoptic accounts of the Transfiguration, we usually concentrate our attention on what happens to the Lord and on its relation to the Resurrection. All too easily we overlook the appearance of the two men who are seen conversing with him. What are they doing here, Moses and Elias? One the lawgiver of the old covenant, the other the prophet who, according to the first Book of Kings, did not die, but was spirited away in to heaven. […] Why Moses and not Abraham? Why Elias and not Isaias or one of the other prophets? […]
[Moses] has well been called the most plagued of men. The story of the forty years’ wandering through the desert is the story of a never-ending struggle, not only with the hardships of nature and the assaults of hostile tribes, but also with the apathy and stubbornness of those he was leading. At first the people are enthusiastic, but soon discouraged. They bind themselves with sacred vows, only to forget everything when it comes to the test. They start everything well, but see nothing through, and the moment they meet with difficulties, the experience of God’s great and terrible signs is completely forgotten. […] The record of the march to the Promised Land is the story of the desperately heavy struggle of a powerful, God-fearing will with the crushing burden of humanity. Moses had to carry the entire nation on his shoulders. He was, necessarily, the most patient of men. […]
This then the man who appeared to Christ, to him who was to carry the cross of his people to the bitter end; Moses too they had failed to follow, in the flesh, into the new land of free divine dominion. Yet another leader had to die ‘on the mountaintop’ (this one for our sins, not his own) before the promised Country could become reality. […]
And Elias? It is not too much to call him the mightiest of the prophets. Not as a speaker; there is no record of exalted or path-blazing word from his lips. He left no book; hardly a sentence that in itself is anything out of the ordinary. Nor did he have any remarkable visions or revelations. Yet no other prophet looms as huge against the bottomless depths of divine mystery as Elias; nowhere in the whole history of prophecy do we find an existence of such huge proportions. […]
During Achab’s reign darkness covered the land, the darkness of hell. It was against this dark that Elias had been sent. He never was able to proclaim the tidings of the coming kingdom; he had to fight to the end against a wall of blackness, hardened disbelief; against the violence, blasphemy and bloodthirstiness that stalked through the land, Elias’ life is one titanic struggle against the powers of evil. The spirit of the Lord seethes in him, lifting him high above the human plane, spanning his strength far beyond the human breaking point. […]
Moses who had known the hopelessness of all efforts to rip his people out of the captivity of their own hearts; Elias, who with both sword and spirit had charged the satanic dark. It is as though the weight of one and a half millennia of sacred history had been bundled together and laid upon the shoulders of the Lord. All the enmity against God, heritage of a thousand years of intractability and blindness he must now bear to an end.
No wonder we are shocked when Peter, seeing the radiance, says to Christ: “Master, it is good for us to be here. And let us set up three tents, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias, …” (Luke 9:33). The Evangelist does well to add, “not knowing what he said.” It is the comprehension of a child, who, witnessing something terrible and ignorant of what it is, thinks it beautiful because it shines.