Commentary on Mark 9:2-9
Transfiguration is one of those “non-holidays” that appears in lectionaries with its own particular set of readings, but doesn’t draw much attention from local congregations.
The Transfiguration has many of the elements of the story of a superhero. There’s an arduous trek up a mountain; a tightly knit company of friends on a “mission” together; the appearance of other-worldly figures in dazzling light; the transformation of the hero into an equally dazzling figure; a command from a powerful voice from another dimension; a determined descent to battle those other powers back home. Preachers don’t quite know what to do with it. After all, Jesus is not exactly a superhero…is he?
Well, “no.” And “yes.” Inherent in the story of the Transfiguration is the promise of a kind of life beyond what is apparent to earthly eyes most of the time. Both Moses and Elijah, two figures whose passing’s were mysterious, were believed by many Jews to be God’s precursors of the end times. Because Elijah went bodily into heaven (2 Kings 2:9-12) and Moses’ grave was never found (he was buried by God himself in Deuteronomy 34:4-7), these two men of the faith were thought to be available for God to send back. God would send them to inform humankind that God’s reign was at hand. It is no accident that these two appear with Jesus on the mountain. They discuss that change already prophesied by Jesus (Mark 1:15) and as the two messengers disappear into the cloud (a sign of God’s presence, cf. Exodus 40:34-38), the word comes to “Listen to Jesus,” the only one left. Now Jesus becomes the divinely chosen precursor of the turn of the age.
Moses, Elijah, and even God are not the only signs for the alert that God’s reign are coming. Peter, contrary to popular portrayal, makes the connection that is too obscure for us to make. According to some Jewish expectation and as stated in the book of Zechariah the prophet (see 14:16-21), God would usher in the new age, the “Day of the Lord,” during the Feast of Booths. This God-commanded festival kept by Jews for centuries, was considered a possible time for God’s taking control of God’s creation and beginning the age of shalom. So Peter’s question about building booths is neither laughable nor mistaken. Peter is clear that the end times are coming and the Feast of Booths was upon them. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus need not construct their own booths for the celebration.
Peter was wrong about the timing, as Mark suggests (verse 6). Had he forgotten Jesus’ prediction of suffering and death or did he think God had just trumped Jesus’ prediction and advanced the timetable? We don’t know. But the word from the cloud, “Listen to him,” is a reminder to pay attention to Jesus’ reliable words (including those predictions in 8:31). He will not be a superhero as we understand it, but as one who lays down his life and thus opens glory to many.
Since this story so emphasizes the dazzling glow of the Jesus, Moses, and Elijah that we also need to pay attention to glory. The best known earlier example of a dazzling face transformed by being in the presence of God is that of Moses (Exodus 34:2, 29-35). After Moses has been in conversation with God about the future life of God’s people, he descends from the mountain so reflecting the light of God’s glory that he must cover his face lest he frighten the people. There are surely similarities to Jesus as he seeks to form a new people of God, has climbed a mountain, and is in conversation with God. Also important, in Daniel the “Son of Man” is also dazzling white. The mysterious messianic figure who will bring about God’s will and God’s justice, is a supernaturally stunning figure (Daniel 7:9-14). As Jesus is transfigured Peter, James, and John and Mark’s audience catches a glimpse of his reality as Son of Man, God’s chosen messenger of the God’s reign.
Putting all this together, we have a story that reassures Jesus’ core disciples and Mark’s readers: Jesus’ predictions of betrayal, death, and resurrection are to be trusted. The struggles yet to come for Jesus should in no way diminish confidence in his promises or his predictions of resurrection. As Mark’s gospel drives toward the bitterness of the passion and the ambiguity of an ending without a resurrection appearance, this story itself shines as a beacon of hope.
Recall that James and John believe in that glory and try to claim a place at Jesus’ side there (10:35-37). They don’t understand the price of that glory, even when Jesus tries to remind them. Even glory can be misunderstood.
For the preacher, there are many themes. These would include being vouchsafed an experience of glory, Jesus’ style. That is, it is glory that will come but cannot be seized, not by Jesus, not by James, John or by contemporary disciples. We follow in trust that God is forming us into a new people through Jesus, through whatever comes our way.
Another theme can be found in the clear evidence in this passage of God’s faithfulness. God has not left God’s people without guidance, without help, without hope ever. From Moses to Elijah to Daniel to Jesus, perhaps to Mark writer of this “good news” (Mark 1:1), and including many more persons of faith, we continually are helped to see the way of God in the world, as well as the promise for God’s future for all of us. Perhaps we have to trust the glimpse that others have had: all the twelve, for instance, were not part of this experience and Peter, James, and John did not talk about it until after the resurrection. But the glimpse, even of others, is a gift to all of us from God.
A preacher could develop the theme of encounter with the Lord of glory in the elements of bread and wine that point both to Jesus alive and Jesus whose life was lived with and for us, who ate the simplest meal with his disciples as promise of a future glory. As we share in the sacrament we too share an experience and promise of that glory…in all the ordinariness of our very human celebrations?”
Finally, how might this powerful story persuade us to “listen to him?” On that mountain, the remembered location of God’s revelation to Moses, comes the promise and indeed experience of glory underlined by God’s call to trust what Jesus has said. As the glow fades and brutal reality takes it place, will Peter, James, and John be able to remember this event and lead based on the hope that this memory gives? Will we? This episode puts the “matters” or “ways” of God –rather than Satan — firmly before the eyes and ears of Peter, James, John, and Jesus himself. As they trudge back to Galilee where Jesus has gone before them, NOT having seen Jesus but led only by remembering his promise and hope, will this vision transform them?