Hours before the crucifixion of our lord, Pontius Pilate asked Christ a question that could just as well be asked in our time: “What is truth?” (John 18:38) This question and the cynicism which accompanies it is found over and again in the most violent eras of human history. It perfectly summarizes fallen man’s pitiable state: No matter how developed his senses and language, no matter how advanced his scientific capabilities, no matter how bright his future seems, and no matter how convinced he is that he possesses the world – were it not for God’s saving action, he would spend eternity fumbling for the light switch.
The Son and Word of God was silent in response to Pilate’s question. His answer would not be a word but the Cross, the ultimate vision of Truth, surpassing all previous attempts of philosophy to discern truth from falsehood. As Christ is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn 14:6), the Cross is the “lifting up” of Truth for the entire world to see.
The Cross shows us that the Truth is not a concept but a Person. This Person, divine and human, empties Himself out to show self-sacrificing love to be the ultimate expression of the Truth. In an age where only scientific truth matters, Christianity preaches a heresy: that regardless of scientific discoveries, the center of the universe will always be the Cross, the place where God healed forever the division Adam created by his sin.
The disciples could not see any of this at the time. Their world was falling apart. They had left everything behind in order to follow Christ. And now, after three years, it was ending in the execution of their Lord, Whom they thought of as “a prophet, mighty in work and word before God and all the people” (Luke 24:19). Afraid that they would share the same fate, they ran and hid, though they had promised to give their lives for Him.
Yet Christ had spent the last year of His ministry preparing the disciples for His death. After they returned from their first missionary journeys (Matthew 10, Mark 6, Luke 9), Jesus guided Peter to the confession of faith that became the foundation of the Church: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). This faith forms the center of the Gospel, both literally – it occurs in the middle of each of the three Synoptic Gospels – and theologically, since, as St John says, “These are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing, you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
Though Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, he believed the Christ would lead the Jewish people to victory over the Roman state. Though Jesus encouraged Peter in his incomplete faith, He challenged the apostolic company by predicting His death and Resurrection: “From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples, that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the ancients and scribes and chief priests, and be put to death, and the third day rise again” (Matthew 16:21).
Peter, who was lauded as an example just moments ago for his confession of faith, cried out in disbelief: “Lord, be it far from Thee, this shall not be unto Thee” (Matthew 16:22). Christ replied with the most stern rebuke in the Gospels – “Go behind me, Satan!” – to remind Peter and us that our rightful place is following Him – not leading Him – and that every one of His disciples will be called to take up the Cross.
It is here that our Lord shifted the focus to the last things and spoke of the judgment to come. The Son of God Who came into the world in humility will be revealed to the entire creation in His glory in the Second Coming. Christ promised the disciples that “there are some of them that stand here, that shall not taste death, till they see the Son of man coming in His kingdom” (Matthew 16:28). What does Christ’s promise mean, since the Apostles left this earthly life almost 2,000 years ago, and we still await the Second Coming?
Although Christ’s promise marks the end of the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, it leads directly to the next major event, the Transfiguration. It is when Christ took Peter, James and John to Mount Tabor that they saw “the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” They saw the Glory of the Lord – the same that Moses beheld on Mount Sinai – “as far as they could bear it,” not with physical, but spiritual vision.
The disciples recognized the Glory of the Transfigured Lord because their fathers in the faith gave ample testimony of it. The Old Testament expressed this with the Hebrew word shekinah, a rabbinical term for the dwelling or abiding presence of God:
“And the glory of the Lord dwelt upon Sinai, covering it with a cloud six days: and the seventh day he called him out of the midst of the cloud. And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like a burning fire upon the top of the mount, in the eyes of the children of Israel.” (Exodus 26:16–17)
“For the cloud of the Lord hung over the tabernacle by day, and a fire by night, in the sight of all the children of Israel throughout all their mansions.” (Exodus 40:36)
“Sing praise, and rejoice, O daughter of Sion: for behold I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee: saith the Lord. And many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day, and they shall be my people, and I will dwell in the midst of thee…” (Zechariah 2:10–11)
Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, were present as further testimony that the Glory the disciples saw was the same that led Israel in the wilderness. Moses and Elijah spoke with Christ about His Passion, Death and Resurrection. Peter, who along with the other disciples could not bear to look directly at Christ, offered to make tabernacles, or dwellings. so that they could abide in the Presence of God.
Then Moses and Elijah disappeared. And the voice of the Father – “This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased: hear ye Him” – gave the unequivocal testimony that Christ is Light of Light, True God of True God; that the Law and the Prophets point to Him; that He is eternal Truth and the source of all that is true; and that He has the ultimate power over life and death.
Why were the disciples granted this vision of Christ in Glory? The Kontakion of the Feast tells us: “So that when they would see Thee crucified, they would know that Thy suffering was voluntary.” To prepare them for His Passion and Death, Christ gave the Light of Tabor to His closest disciples as a foretaste of the Resurrection. This was a reassurance not only for them, but for us as well, since they spoke from their experience of the Truth in the person of Jesus Christ:
“For we have not…made known to you the power, and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ by following artificial fables; but we were eyewitnesses of His greatness. For He received from God the Father, honor and glory: this voice coming down to him from the excellent glory: ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him.’ And this voice we heard brought from heaven, when we were with Him in the holy mount” (2 Peter 1:16–18).
It’s been said that truth is the first casualty of war. In a fallen world ever warring against God, it is only by His self-disclosure that we can see the Truth despite our passions. Yet the Victim of our raging remains steadfast in His love for us; for even before His Incarnation, He commanded the Prophet Jeremiah to “go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus saith the LORD; “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown”’” (Jeremiah 2:2).