The Holy Land Tour 2022 (Day 4): Tabor Mountain

The fourth day is a continuation of the journeys of Jesus and the Apostles in North Israel. This time, there is a focus on the presence and role of Mary, Jesus’ mother in Jesus’s life and ministry. To reiterate, the sites that we visited on Day 4 were collectively part of Israel’s The Galilee Journeys of Jesus and the Apostles, a collection of properties in the Northern district, included in Israel’s Tentative List for the nomination of UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the UNESCO brief, the state party notes that many pilgrims and visitors visit the Northern District to vicariously experience the footsteps of Jesus and the Apostles, particularly their trials and tribulations. The route constitutes a thread connecting the pilgrim sites sacred to Christianity, alongside natural and cultural sites, and the scenery and local communities. Some sites like Nazareth, Tiberias, and Kafar Kana became modern cities while others have become ruins, like Sepheris and Capernaum.

In the UNESCO website, it is stated that: “The route also serves as a means of preserving the heritage, archaeological sites, and the scenery, natural woods and forests and traditional agriculture, whereas emphasis has been placed on the Christian pilgrim population; nevertheless the broad range of experiences offered by the route apart from pilgrim sites, such as scenery and cultural sites as well as a range of hiking trails, makes it suitable for visitors from all countries and religions.”

The property extends from modern cities like Tiberias and Nazareth, and to ancient cities like Capernaum, Tabgha, Kanna (Cana), Tabor, among other ancient cities.

On Day 4, our journey began in a hill overlooking the Valley of the Armageddon (Jezreel Valley) called Tabor, then went to Kaf’r Kanna (Cana), and left Tiberias for another important and popular city in the Biblical narrative of Jesus, Nazareth.

Mount Tabor is a semi-spherical mountain that seems to appear over a vast plain. For lack of a better analogy, it is like a skin bump that suddenly is present in a very healthy skin. Its height is 575 metres where at the topmost are two Christian monasteries, one Greek Orthodox on the northeast side and one Roman Catholic on the southeast side. The Catholic church at the top is easily visible from afar.

The mountain is mentioned in Joshua 19:22 as border of three communities / tribes called the Zebulun, Issachar and Naphtali. In the book of Judges, there was another mention of Tabor : “She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor.”

The Franciscan Church at Mount Tabor

The interior of the main church (Photo: SAPT)

The grotto / small chapel dedicated to Elijah (Photo: SAPT)

The grotto / small chapel dedicated to Moses (Photo: SAPT)

Ruins of an ancient church / Byzantine church (Photo: SAPT)

Ruins of a monastery that once stood in front of the Franciscan church (Photo: SAPT)

According to tradition, Mount Tabor is the site where Jesus is transfigured and became radiant in glory (Matthew 17: 1 – 8, Mark 9: 2 – 8, Luke 9:28 – 36). In these gospel narratives, Jesus and three of his apostles, Peter, James, and John went uphill to Mount Tabor to pray. On the mountaintop, Jesus shone with bright rays of light. It was also described in the gospels that the  figures of Moses and Elijah appeared next to Him and began speaking with Him. In theological doctrine, the transfiguration is a pivotal narrative in the salvation history, and the setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets the Divine or the meeting place of the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth.

On a different yet related note, the transfiguration echoes Jesus’s ministry, referencing that God is not “the God of the dead, but of the living”. Although Moses had died and Elijah had been taken up to heaven centuries before, they now live in the presence of the Son of God, implying that the same return to life applies to all who face death and have faith.

None of the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke identify the “high mountain” of the scene by name. But since the 3rd century, some Christians have identified Mount Tabor as the site of the transfiguration. This identification has led Tabor as an important place of Christian pilgrimage. Nonetheless, several archaeologists, hermeneutics, and religious studies experts have denied Tabor as the actual site of the transfiguration casting potential candidates particularly Mount Meron, which is also in the Upper Galilee region and others have proposed that Mount Nebo in Madaba, Jordan as a potential candidate. Whichever is later on accepted as the official Church, what is more important is the significance of transfiguration in the Christian life.

In commemoration of the transfiguration, a church was constructed on top of the mountain, now known as the Church of the Transfiguration. It is part of a Franciscan monastery complex, completed in 1924 and designed by architect Antonio Barluzzi. The current church was built on the ruins of an ancient (4th–6th-century) Byzantine church. Adjacent to the Franciscan church is a Greek Orthodox Church, dedicated to the same purpose. The church is said to be a complex of “three chapels with small altars” because on the leftmost and rightmost front section of the church are grottoes dedicated to Moses and Elijah.

During our short time at Tabor, I was taking photos on some ancient ruins opposite the church. I believe the ruins belong to the monastery complex that once stood there. While taking photo, a fellow-traveller, who I have learned from our conversation, is not Catholic, asked me an intriguing question. “Do you believe that Jesus really transformed into something like a diamond on this mountain?” I did not know what to say. I was also conflicted. My Catholic roots wanted to reply: dumbass, that’s not the point. On the other hand, my cynical, rational and liberalized self wanted to be witty. For a strange reason, my mouth opened up and said, “faith is difficult to explain. I am not religious, but my faith tells me, there was transfiguration.” I was not sure if I was able to answer his question. But I say him nodding affirmatively and a little smile on his face. And he remarked: “you’re right, we cannot impose our values to other people. Faith is also a value.”

This simple yet very difficult question to answer made me think some more as we went down the mountain and as we travelled to our next site, which is Cana. Given another opportunity to answer, I think the lesson of transfiguration is not a matter whether one believes in it or not. I mean, the value of transfiguration has been in the word itself: transform. We are reminded that change is the only thing constant in this world. We cannot doubt the existence of change. The thing is, despite it being constant, we fear transforming. We fear the newness of everyday life. The challenge perhaps that this transfiguration narrative is simple: how do we prepare our transformations? how do we make ourselves convinced that what may be true today may be false in the future? – – because in the future, the sophistication of evidence will lead the transformation of something true today as an error. And perhaps, we should also ask, how prepared are we to change for the better?

In the next post, I will share my experience and some musings on Cana.

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