Commentary on Mark 9:2-9
Every time we gather for worship (these days, distant from each other in person or on a screen), we are the disciples on the mountain seeing the rabbi—the carpenter from Nazareth who became our teacher—bathed in light.
At first, it seems, Jesus and Peter, James, and John are out for a hike. A high mountain: the sort of place eager mountaineers might yearn to scale for the vista. Then everything changes.
The vision the disciples behold removes the veil of Jesus’ humanness to reveal his divinity: wondrous, frightening, powerful, unexpected, and rich, connecting all ages (the prophets Elijah and Moses with Jesus), giving enlightenment. His external appearance is utterly changed.
Jesus’ transfiguration is not to be approached with the assumption that we can understand it. It means to draw us in toward what is abnormal, unnatural—like the burning fire that does not consume the bush (Moses’ first encounter with YHWH in Exodus 3:1-6) and like the fire Elijah hoped for and received from God on the altar drenched in water to win the wager against the prophets of Baal (Elijah’s story in 1 Kings 18). The Transfiguration places Jesus in the lineage and honor of the two prophets who stand beside him on the mountain.
The disciples are terrified in a way that means they fear they will be harmed (see Ezekiel 34:28). Yet, they seek for a way to remain in the presence of what terrifies them. The drama of the moment suggests that it harbors danger.
And then the cloud appears as another manifestation of the divine with the voice that reminds us of the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:11. Here, however, the voice does not speak in second person to Jesus (“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”) but in the third person to the disciples (“This is my Son … listen to him”). The Transfiguration gives the disciples the experience of witnessing a most amazing and unspeakable vision that draws them to want to stay there, dwell in that place of wonder, and then to be told by the voice of the divine that their job is not to abide in that wonder but to go back down the mountain. The voice in the cloud is directed at the disciples, to the church, rather than to the Son as it was at his baptism. It speaks to Jesus’ identity so that the church can see what Jesus alone heard when he was baptized.
We might use the words “transfigure” and “transform” interchangeably, but there is a helpful distinction to keep in mind. To be transfigured is to be changed in outward form or appearance. Jesus’ transfiguration does not alter who he is but gives to those who see the changed visage a new understanding of him because they see him outwardly in a different light. When we speak of transformation we tend to mean a complete or essential change in composition or structure. Jesus on the mountain with Moses and Elijah is not transformed (changed inwardly) but transfigured before his disciples (shown to be other than assumed). He is not made to have a new essential self but an appearance that conveys his standing in the company of Israel’s greatest prophets.
In worship, week after week, through the Word of God, our vision is restored. We are enabled by God to see Jesus as savior (something more than a teacher of morality and ethics) because the dazzling clothes constitute an epiphany. His transfiguration transforms the disciples in the story and transforms us by removing the veil over our vision. The preacher who wants to work with the imagery of veiled sight will benefit from enigmatic language about being veiled and given the light in the appointed RCL Epistle from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6. Also helpful is 2 Corinthians 3:18 with its promise that “all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image…”
The Transfiguration stands between the Time after Pentecost, when we are learning to be church, and Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, when we are thrust back into the hard truth that we are dust. The power of the Transfiguration is that it plants in our hearts and minds the brilliance of eternity on the mountain with the greatest prophets, emboldening us for the journey together as the body of Christ. The Transfiguration thus prepares us to come to terms with our humility, our soil nature, our utter dependence on God.
It is no small matter that the scene ends with the word “dead.” Jesus has embraced his identity as one who will die and be raised. He signals the journey ahead that will be coming when he and his disciples have left the mountain. It is one thing to have had a “high” experience, “a mountaintop” experience with Jesus up in the clouds where everything is brilliant, but it is not the be-all-and-end-all. The reason for the identification of Jesus with Moses and Elijah is for the church, the disciples, to realize their crucial work in the world: to accompany Jesus to the cross, to take up our crosses, to die in order to live, to be last in order to be first, to refuse the invitation to turn away from God’s laws.
The church has a responsibility: to listen to God’s Son. That listening does not result in staying aloof where the air is pure and the view is stunning. The church must listen to the voice of God’s Word in our midst so that we follow in a way that leads to the cross. We are not called to have power over others but to rise up as dust that has been formed by the breath of God and give life to others, especially those who are neglected by the powerful.