The Transfiguration of Jesus: 15 February Mark 9:2-9
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
My father would speed through the morning crossword with ease− a kind of warmup− before proceeding to work out the cryptic crossword. As a child I would inspect the result of his efforts. I could consult a dictionary to explain answers to some of the questions in the first crossword if I did not understand them. But the cryptic crossword?? He would produce an interlocking grid of words which seemed, to me, to make no sense, and have no relationship to the clues.
It took a long time for me to understand that he had learned a language and convention− a culture, if you like− which made the clues intelligible, and often quite obvious. The way the clues are phrased gives hints as to whether you are looking for a pun, or an anagram, for example. And each constructor of cryptic crosswords has an "accent" or style of constructing clues that the regular reader can learn.
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is similar. There is a language here which we have lost so that the obvious clues have become cryptic.
In the logic of Mark and Jesus' milieu, God is met on the mountain tops. The prophets complain about the high places. "During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, "Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there." (Jeremiah 3:6) We still speak of mountain top experiences in our culture.
"Six days" is a pointer to Moses’ and Joshua's ascending Mt Sinai (Exodus 24) when cloud covered the mountain for six days. Mark's readers almost expect a revelation from God when they read that! God speaks from clouds in both stories: "on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud." (Exodus 24:16) In Exodus 34 Moses' face shines in the presence of God, just as Jesus' face does now as he is transfigured.
Elijah was widely expected to appear at the climax of history. (Malachi 4:5-6)… There was also a common expectation, based on Deuteronomy 18:15-18 that in the last days a prophet like Moses would appear. This expectation also appears in 8:28. The words of Deuteronomy 18:18, ‘Listen to him!’ are picked up in the voice from heaven. (Loader)
Mark's readers would not fail to notice the order in which Elijah and Moses (9:4) appear. Elijah is the preeminent symbol. He is the one who takes the emphasis from Jesus as a Moses-Lawgiver to Jesus as the One Coming at the Climax of History. They come and talk with Jesus: he is the main figure.
This reading makes sense of the booths, or dwellings. Israel commemorated the Exodus each year, and still does, by the building of booths as a reminder of the times of the journey through the wilderness.
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. Sarah Henrich
So Mark's readers are a bit like my Dad, who would sit there and effortlessly fill in three quarters of the cryptic crossword without hesitation because he spoke the language. Then he would settle in for the knottier clues. Clearly Jesus has been authorised by God. At his baptism the voice of God says, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (Mark 1:11) The authority already given him at his baptism is repeated and increased here: Listen to Him!
How do we listen to him? In the context of Mark listening is not a passive behaviour. Listening is not about just sitting in on the sermon or the lecture, and "listening." It is not even about taking notes and being able to reproduce what was said in an exam. Listening is about watching what is done, and then living by it. Listening means to act on what has been said. It means to get out of the armchair where we do our puzzling and thinking and to act.
It means we go beyond this one story, and look at the whole Gospel which Mark puts before us, and ask "What does this mean in light of the whole story?" And then we act accordingly.
Make sure you listen to him.
Did it happen? People mean, "Did it literally happen?" We live in a culture which cannot help but ask this question. And, too often, we are prepared to judge all else the preacher or teacher has to offer upon this one answer. It becomes a touchstone of orthodoxy.
Did it happen?
Who can tell? People have experiences like it− the experience is apprehended, interpreted, and described, in the language of their culture.
Would a camera have recorded the scene so that you and I would report the same incident? That expectation reflects the naiveté of a "new" atheist, or of a fundamentalist, both ignorant of the nature of profound religious experience, and driven by a need for their ideology to be correct.
The question is a question of our age, and it is the wrong question.
The question should be, is the story true? Does it reveal something of the nature of the Divine? Does it reveal enough to be useful? People did not stop believing in Thor's hammer because they suddenly became enlightened by the advancing knowledge of science. The epic of Thor− name any religious story here− lost its power to tell truth. The growth of alternative understandings of the nature of thunder may have correlated with, and even contributed to that loss, but they did not cause it.
For example: the scientific understanding by which we live our lives, and all our experience of our physical reality, tells us that the stories of Jesus walking around, and even eating solid food after his death, simply cannot be literally true. They may or may not reflect a "physics of resurrection," some "physical" raising from death that is beyond our comprehension.
But apart from all that, the story remains true. Indeed I find my belief and trust in the reality of resurrection, and the slow, creeping freedom I am gaining from the fear of death, have both been increased as I have accepted the insights of my scientific training. To ask if a camera would have recorded the resurrection is a massive category mistake; naïve at best, and often ideologically driven. The same is true if asked about the transfiguration. The question betrays the lack of understanding by the one asking it.
"OK, then. Is it true?"
"Well, of course it is," says Mark. "Why else would I tell you? Jesus is the Blesséd Chosen One of God! How much more obvious can I be!? Do you not see that He 'promise[s us…] a kind of life beyond what is apparent to earthly eyes most of the time[?]' This is the One who is bringing us to the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God, to the time when 'the wolf shall live with the lamb [and] the leopard shall lie down with the kid.' (Isaiah 11) Listen to Him."
In a sense, even the question of whether it is true is the wrong question. Rather, we should ask, will I listen? Will I act like Jesus? Will I risk the cross? Will I be faithful?
Is it all challenge, this gospel? Is there any joy?
One of my colleagues had a bit of a growl about a recent post.
What we are left with is all suffering and death. Yeah, that’s the centre of the Jesus story, suffering and death! SUFFERING! You have got to suffer! … This tack on the gospel as being nothing but suffering and death … reminds me of the story about a young minister in the Presbyterian Church a few centuries ago. One Sunday morning there was a deep snowfall blocking the road between his two charges, so he skated down the frozen river from one to the other and arrived in good time. He was subsequently hauled before the Presbytery for “working” on the Sabbath. His defence was that works of necessity are permitted on the Sabbath. He was immediately called to account by the Chairman who said, “That is not the issue, young man! The issue is, did you enjoy it?” … The result is to turn the gospel into a call by some misery-guts to a cesspool of suffering from which there is no reprieve.
God help us if our gospel degenerates into this.
The critique is important, because the urgency of Mark is full of grim warnings and angst. There does not even seem to be a resurrection appearance in the original gospel. Is there joy?
Of course there is. In the words of Jesus in Luke 7 and Matthew 11, this is what we see in Mark:
Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me. (Luke 722-23)
The context of the story of the Transfiguration is important here. Look what happens if we choose to make ourselves available to be in "Jesus' inner circle." If we really listen and trust, aka act upon his words, then we have the wild ride of Mark 8-9. We see he is the Christ. He is the Chosen One. And with that comes a potential cost, and a changing of our perceptions about the nature of reality, which it is all too easy to deny. It would be far easier to follow a prosperity gospel or some other pretence about the nature of his being for us, than to risk our own crucifixion. The often quoted words of Annie Dillard are appropriate:
Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets! Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews! For the sleeping God may awake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us to where we can never return.
Down on the plains in Chapter 9 the disciples who have not gone up the mountain have tried to get on with being faithful. And they and the inner circle are powerless in the face of the muck of the world, as the boy is seized by fits. We go from highs to humiliation, and worse, and sometimes it seems there is no backing out, no return.
Yet in the middle there are high mountain top experiences. Some are mind blowing transfigurative experiences which almost defy description. Others are "milder," yet have that stickiness of joy which lasts and stays with us. And always we must come down from the mountain. We must step into the risk of humiliation and failure, even death.
Is this a gloomy gospel? Not in my experience. As I have owned the angst, the risk, and even the terror of "listening to Him," I find my joy is made full. (John 10:10)
I recount my own experience using words from Avivah Zornberg's Chapter "Despondent Intoxication" in her book The Murmuring Deep.
Margaret Duras writes: "The void you discover one day in your teens—nothing can ever undo that discovery." (Quoted by Zornberg) There is at my centre a deep grief at the nature of creation, all its savagery and uncertainty, and my inevitable death which will lose even what is good. My first iterations of the Faith, my first understandings, were actually a denial of these things. Somehow I thought Jesus and God would remove the void in an easy way, and make life secure. It lead me inevitably into the false security of fundamentalism, and then into depression.
In Black Sun, Julia Kristeva offers an analysis of depression … She describes a “noncommunicable grief” that makes one “lose all interest in words, actions, and even life itself.” An immediate loss or disaster awakens echoes of an old grief, a wound that has never healed... in melancholy, an original unspeakable grief is never acknowledged but remains sullenly alive, poisoning language, meaning, and desire.. (Zornberg)
The depressive me shut down and denied the wound− the wound that recognises, yes “God made everything out of nothing… [but] the nothing shows through.” (Paul Valery quoted by Zornberg) The deep wound that on that "one day in your teens," I was only nine or ten, tore me open so all the innocence poured out of me, and there was no reason for life. Just emptiness. Creation, and my self, were lost, uncertain, without meaning or purpose, and yet somehow at the same time, full of pain and grief. "Banished from Eden, human beings confront the nothing that shows through." (Zornberg)
I played hockey. I ran immense distances. I bushwalked the ranges. I rode thousands of miles. Always trying to stay ahead of the pursuing nothingness of life.
And then came a gospel. A promise of joy and Jesus saving you and solving all your problems. But this naïve faith could not persist. It was "a euphoric dream." It was not God who had finally caught up with me, but my denial. I gave into it and entered a safe place of my imagining. I created a safe God of which many of my congregants have longed for me to preach and convince them.
Somewhere in all of that, something broke in. Zornberg says of the loss of Eden, "A euphoric dream is shattered, but Creation is, paradoxically, only placed on a firmer footing." This I have experienced. Only when I gave in to the loss of all things, did I find a firm footing. There can only be love and joy when I accept I will lose what I love. The acceptance that I might lose all (the cross) is not the path to being a "misery-guts" but is what makes life and joy real and sweet. It is the embracing of reality. It is the foundation for moments of transfiguration.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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