Friday, March 18, 2011

Why Moses and Elijah appeared at the Transfiguration (rather than Abraham or Isaiah), On the Gospel for the 2nd Sunday of Lent

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.


Andrew said...

Thank you for this wonderful post! Never realized the "dark" aspect of the Transfiguration before. Also, the Holy Father offers a beautiful explanation of the Transfiguration in his first volume of Jesus of Nazareth.

Marcelo C. said...

According to some Jewish traditions, Moses too ascended to Heaven at the time of his death; some even say he did not die, but was hidden by God from the Angel of Death, who could not find him. So it is fitting that he and Elijah (Elias) appear beside the Lord in their transfigured bodies.

But it is also good to remember that Moses and Elijah embody and represent two complementary aspects of the Jewish religion: Moses is the type of the lawgiver and of the outward observance of the law; Elijah is the paradigm of the "law of the heart" which sometimes calls for acts that outwardly seem to go against the revealed, external law. Our Lord united in himself those two aspects and both laws, as He himself said. That is another reason why those two great prophets of the Old Testament were present at his transfiguration and testified about him.

The articles on Moses and Elijah at the online Jewish Encyclopedia ( have a wealth of information on those two great prophets and types of Our Lord's kingship and priesthood.

Also, the two witnesses mentioned in Revelation 11 are traditionally identified with Enoch and Elijah. Enoch is another type of the lawgiver. In Jewish and Arab circles, he is credited with the revelation of many arts and sciences, including the science of the alphabet.

I'd like to make it clear that when I say those great Men of God were "types", I do not mean to say they didn't exist, nor that I believe the traditional stories told about them are legends. On the contrary, I believe in their existence, in their prophethood and in all the miracles ascribed to them by tradition.

I'd also like to congratulate you on a well thought-out post. I didn't know this blog, and I think I like it.


Marcelo - A friend from Brazil

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

In his final lecture on John's Gospel, St. Augustine pretty well conclusively shows that the Jewish belief that Moses did not die is contrary to Deuteronomy. His body is buried somewhere (hidden away by St. Michael).

Thanks for the additional info about Enoch ... Fr. Cornelius a' Lapide writes similar things in his commentary on Revelation.

Peace to you, and blessings for a holy Lent! +

Marcelo C. said...

Do you know where I could find Fr. Cornelius' commentary on Revelation, either online or in book form and in some language I know (English, French, Portuguese, Spanish)?


Marcelo - from Brazil

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The reference I have to the commentary on Revelation comes from the commentary on Matthew (chapter 17).
I don't actually have the commentary on Revelation, but Lapide discusses his point and refers to that commentary while discussing the Transfiguration.
Unfortunately, it does not seem that Fr. Cornelius' commentary on Revelation is easily available in any language.

Matt said...

Is there anything eluded to in this about Moses, Elijah, and Christ being the three 40-day fasters of Biblical record?

Marcelo C. said...

Thank you, Reginaldus.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I think you are right to point out the 40 day fasts of these three ... also, it was on a mountaintop for the first two, and now they meet God Incarnate on the mountain.
Peace! +

Brad said...

Marcelo wrote that Enoch "In Jewish and Arab circles, he is credited with the revelation of many arts and sciences, including the science of the alphabet."

This is very odd to me because it reminds me too much of pagan pantheons. An ancient Jew, a mortal man, a sinner, gave mankind the alphabet personally? The alphabet didn't exist before Enoch? Isn't this rather gnostic demiurge-ish? Rather luciferian? Rather promethean?

Shouldn't we consider everything as being created by and through the one Word, and for Him?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

There is no need (or reason) to think that the alphabet was created at the beginning of the world -- in fact, I would be a bit surprised if it even existed in the time of Enoch.

Moreover, we should note that there is more than one "alphabet" (though the term does, technically, refer specifically to the Greek system of writing) -- certainly, it would be scientifically untenable to argue that every single alphabet was in existence at the time of Adam. Moreover, this would contradict the story of Babel (since there was supposedly only one language until that time).

Certainly, as you mention, all is created by and through the Word -- however, even when various men/societies created alphabets, it was always through the power of the Word working in them (i.e. in and through their free will).

Peace. +

Marcelo C. said...


There is no gnosticism (or whatever) in thinking that something useful and good was revealed by God to mankind by the mediation of a man, specially when that man is a venerable Patriarch like Enoch. I'm talking here about the revelation of an alphabet, but the same can be said of any number of other things: the wheel and other tools and implements, for instance, and agriculture, fishing, hunting, the use of ships to travel on water and so on and so forth.

This is not gnosticism (or whatever) because, in each one of those instances, it is entirely conceivable that the men concerned were inspired by the Word of God through the Holy Spirit. As Reginaldus said, every good thing comes to man through the power of the Word.

Or how else could they come?



Brad said...

Granted to those anthropological points, but was that man Enoch and why would we begin to suspect so other than mysticism's quaintness?

Unless there is some really exciting proof or at least credible pointers, isn't this a case of choosing some fantastically-ancient (pre-diluvian, come on!) figure and assigning him some foster-fatherish role in bedrock human development? Yes, he was mortal, but it reminds me of assigning something to a pagan immortal, e.g. Athena gave to mankind such and such skill or knowledge. The long stretch back into time makes it impossible to verify and the claimants know that.

It's quaint. It's puts a face and a name to something that an entire society(ies) developed over time, or at least a particularly inventive group within a given society.

So this is a long way of saying, we know Edison invented something, but Enoch the alphabet, really? As in, really really? Jewish/Arab mysticism claims he invented human writing, which in some ways goes beyond an alphabet. One man invented writing? It wasn't more likely all the denizens of the bustling near-east cities all trying to find a way to scribble down their notes throughout the day while marketing and wanting to inscribe monuments and make out receipts for each other and leave a note on the counter for mom and cetera ad infinitum?


Marco da Vinha said...

This is extreme speculation, but wouldn't it be interesting if in those 40 days of fasting Moses and Elijah had somehow been made present at the same time at Mt. Thabor in the future?

Anonymous said...

Moses represents the law which is opposite of salvation through grace (undeserving forgiveness of sins) given to us as a gift from Jesus (the Lamb of God). Elijah represents the greatest prophet. By the passage saying that both Moses and Elijah disappeared, shows that God wants us to focus on Jesus and what He says as both the law and the prophets are inferior to Jesus.

Lorie{Humanitylivesinus} said...

May He who is known by many names, Bless us to walk in Love. As The Christ did. May we be saved by Grace, not what we know or do not know, but by what we were able to give joy in our walk. Blessed be He, that carries me, every day. This world is in need of His return. All praises be in His name
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
~Mother Teresa~

Anonymous said...

More of a point of order. How did the apostles recognize the two men with Jesus? Jesus did not introduce them and there would not have been any image made of either of those two men. Ray

Donna said...

In a recent Bible Study, we discussed the possibility that Moses was with Elijah to show that although Moses tarried for many years and yet was denied entry to the Promised Land, that he was in fact residing in the Promised Land in Heaven. His faithfulness was greatly rewarded with his citizenship fully recognized in the promised Kingdom of Heaven.

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