Transfiguration: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week 6
1) This is the last week of the Season of Epiphany. For Mark, the Transfiguration is in many ways the mother of all epiphany stories (as you know, “epiphany” means “showing forth”), since it reveals Jesus as a prophet par excellence, and above all, as God’s Beloved Son (9:7). The episode takes place at almost the exact midpoint of Mark’s Gospel, as well as its highest geographical elevation (the reference to Caesarea Philippi in 8:27 suggests that this mountain is likely Mount Hermon, the highest peak in Syro-Palestine - and the same one referenced in Psalm 133, where “dwelling together in unity” is compared to the lovely “dew of Hermon”). In broad strokes, the first eight chapters of Mark describe Jesus’ ministry of healing and liberation, and the last eight chapters describe the descent into his passion and death, and ultimately his empty tomb. The Transfiguration stands as the fulcrum, the pivot point between these two great movements in Mark’s symphony.
2) In the verses preceding this passage, Jesus has just articulated what is arguably his most disturbing, difficult teaching of all (we’ll tackle it head-on in a couple of weeks): that he must suffer, die, and rise again - and that anyone who wishes to follow him must “deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (8:34). The disciples are understandably bewildered by these ideas, and Peter even argues with Jesus, rebuking him and refusing to believe. The Transfiguration’s light, then, acts as reassurance for Peter, James, and John (and for the rest of us!). It’s as if Mark is saying: We’re now making the turn toward Golgotha, and that means descending into the valley of the shadow of death. But fear not! Keep this astonishing, mysterious mountaintop story in mind as we go. Carry it like a torch, for it can help show the way - not least because it gives us a glimpse of where all this is headed...
3) Along with 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings recount the saga of Israel’s monarchies, and this week's passage from 2 Kings is the story of a gifted prophet (Elijah) passing the baton to his protege (Elisha). This passage helpfully features Elijah, of course, who in Mark appears on the mountaintop with Jesus; but it also provides a portrait of ancient Israel’s prevailing model of prophetic succession. Elisha does not surpass or supersede Elijah, but rather follows in his footsteps, quite literally picking up Elijah’s “mantle” (his cloak), ultimately carrying on his mentor's mission (2:13).
4) By Mark’s day, many Jews considered Elijah to be an eschatological figure whose return would signal the imminent end of the age (see, for example, Malachi 4:5-6). The fascination with Elijah was no doubt partly due to this story of his being swirled up directly into heaven at the end of his life, avoiding the sting of death itself - a turn of events taken as a sign of his exceptional holiness and devotion.
1) Mark 9:1 continues Jesus’ remarks in the last verses of Chapter 8, essentially underscoring them with a sense of urgency; in 9:2, the story’s new episode begins. (The numerical chapters and verses were added centuries after Mark was written - and they’re not always on target!)
2) The conspicuously precise timestamp - “Six days later” - is likely an allusion to the “six days” Moses spends in the cloud atop Mount Sinai before God calls out to him (Exodus 24:15-16). Likewise, the shining garments recall Moses’ radiance when he descended from Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35), and at the same time anticipate the angel’s white robe in the empty tomb to come (Mark 16:5). Finally, the story's cloud and divine voice also evoke the portrait of God's presence in Exodus 24. In this way, Mark casts this mountaintop encounter with God in terms of Israel’s classic paradigm, thus positioning his gospel within the broad sweep of salvation history.
3) What happens up there? It’s beyond explanation, of course, but at its heart it’s a vision of that mysterious heavenly realm, and indeed of the world to come. Time and space seem to collapse; the world somehow becomes incandescent; and Jesus is suddenly seen engaging Israel’s two most prestigious prophets in collegial conversation. The disciples are overwhelmed and afraid, and Peter (never at a loss for words!) stammers a suggestion: Shall we build you three tents? It's a bumbling, endearing proposal, if a bit tone-deaf and presumptuous (after all, if these three great prophets wanted shelter, they likely would have already made arrangements!). Is Peter thinking of the Greek custom of building a shrine at the site of a god’s appearance? Is he trying to corral the astounding wonder into something more manageable, more domesticated? Or is he simply “terrified” (9:6), grasping for something to say, something to offer?
4) Emanating from a cloud, God’s voice reprises the message at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11). It may be that only Jesus hears the voice in that earlier scene (for there God says, “You are my Son...”), whereas here the announcement is addressed to all who have ears to hear (“This is my Son…”). At any rate, even with his identity confirmed in spectacular fashion, Jesus nevertheless orders his three disciples to keep it a secret until after he has “risen from the dead.” For Mark, true messiahship comes not with trumpets and chariots, but rather in the deeply hidden form of a suffering servant; accordingly, it must be concealed until the resurrection, the ultimate Epiphany. It won’t be long now, Mark insists. The end of the age is at hand; Elijah has come in the form of John the Baptist (see Jesus’ oblique comment in 9:13); and now the Son of Humanity, God’s Beloved, turns his face toward Jerusalem.
5) Most Jews in Mark’s day would have been familiar with the concept of resurrection at the end of the age, but it was typically thought of as communal event, a general resurrection of all God’s people. Mark’s view seems to be that Jesus will rise as a kind of harbinger, a “first fruits” of that wider resurrection to come (compare Paul’s version of this idea in 1 Corinthians 15:20).
6) The Transfiguration ends as abruptly as it began; the two former prophets suddenly vanish, and the disciples find themselves with Jesus alone. Mark’s message here isn’t that Jesus somehow eclipses or supersedes Moses and Elijah, but rather that he stands in profound kinship and continuity with them, both carrying on and culminating their work. In other words, Jesus succeeds them - and just as Elisha’s succession of Elijah involves not a demotion but rather an exaltation of the elder figure, so too with Jesus. Mark honors Moses and Elijah in this story, even as Jesus steps forward as God’s Beloved, the One to whom his disciples must listen.
1) In the context of the overall narrative, Mark’s central point in the Transfiguration story is this: the suffering and death of Jesus may at first appear as an unthinkable, desecrating defeat, but it’s actually a step toward a dramatic, subversive victory. Jesus will now venture into the shadows of death - precisely in order to scatter those shadows once and for all, overcoming them in the end with shimmering light. Jesus will go down into the depths of what can only be called godforsaken - precisely in order to lift the world up into renewed intimacy with God, the sort of intimacy familiar to Moses (the one who “knew God face to face” (Deut 34:10) and even “mouth to mouth” (Num 12:8)); familiar to Elijah (the one who heard God in “the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12)); and familiar to Jesus, God’s beloved child. So: take heart! And “listen to him” - that is, continue to trust and walk with Jesus, following in his footsteps and taking up his mantle, even though the path ahead now seems strewn with danger and disgrace. Radiant beauty awaits - on the other side of Golgotha.
2) Think of this passage itself as a “high mountain” at the center of Mark’s Gospel. On one side, we climb up through stories of Jesus’ healing, liberating ministry. And on the other side, we’ll descend to the cross. Today, we arrive at a clearing on the mountaintop - and from here we can survey both how far we’ve come and the Lenten journey ahead. Epiphany concludes today: Jesus has "shown forth" to be a healer and a liberator; a teacher and a shining prophet. The “unclean spirit” has called him “the Holy One of God;” Peter has called him “the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). But most fundamentally and decisively, he is God’s beloved child. His path of love will lead down into the valley, through the dry cinders of Ash Wednesday and the tears of the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow. Here atop Mount Hermon, we can survey the 40 days ahead, take a deep breath - and remember that the journey through ashes and sorrow is never for its own sake. It's for the sake of what comes next. In a word, it's for the sake of transfiguration: a radiant new life and a dazzling new world.