This week’s lectionary gospel reading, the last Sunday before Lent, is Mark 9.2–9, this gospel’s account of the Transfiguration. I confess I don’t quite understand the logic of reading about the transfiguration here, just before we look at the temptations of Jesus in the desert as the introduction to Lent, especially when we will revisit it at the festival in August. But it is one of the odd things that happens when the church year folds story of Jesus over, so that the early episode of temptations becomes the lead into the climactic events of Holy Week.
All three Synoptic accounts place this immediately after Peter’s confession of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus then starts to talk about his betrayal and death. They seem to want us to hold these two truths together: that the Son of Man is one who is humble and obedient even to death; and yet he is also the one spoken of in Daniel 7 where he comes to the Ancient of Days and receives a kingdom that will never end. Both of these are true about Jesus, and both must be held together. This is made clear by the final saying of Jesus in the previous pericope (section):
Amen I say to you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come in power (Mark 9.1).
Note that Mark adds ‘with power’ which is omitted in Matthew and Luke, and Matthew uses the phrase ‘the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt 16.28); this is the erchomenos language of Matt 24 referring to the Son of Man coming to the Ancient of Days, not the parousia language of Jesus’ return at the End, so we can see that all three understand Jesus’ comment as a reference to his exaltation and ascension, and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost followed by the preaching of the gospel.
All three gospels then follow this by specifying the short time period of about a week between that and the revelation on the mountain (the difference between Luke’s ‘eight days’ and Matthew and Mark’s ‘six days’ being the difference between inclusive and exclusive ways of counting), the only place in Matthew where he is so specific about a time period. The ‘some’ (who will see the kingdom come with power) makes sense when we see Jesus taking with him only his inner circle of Peter, James and John, as he does later at Gethsemane. The Fourth Gospel then talks of having ‘seen [Jesus’] glory’ (John 1.14) and 2 Peter 1.17–18 includes testimony to this incident.
Mark’s account is, as we might expect, notable by its parataxis, with successive events connected simply by ‘and…and…and…’, omitting most of the various asides, comments and explanations found in the parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke—giving this short reading a kind of breathless directness.
This incident might be felt to have a dream-like quality to it, and Matthew uses the term horama, vision or sight, in Matt 17.9—but there is no sense that any of the gospel writers think of it as something different in kind from the events before and after. Though Luke specifies that Jesus went up the mountain to pray, in keeping with his distinctive focus on the prayer of Jesus, Mark emphasises that Jesus takes the three ‘by themselves alone’, using similar language to that of being apart from the crowds in Mark 6.31.
The three Synoptics vary considerably in the exact language that they use to describe Jesus’ appearance; it is difficult to know what it would have looked like had we been there and filmed it on our iPhones, but what the gospel writers want us to know is its significance. Where Matthew and Luke focus on Jesus’ face, Mark’s emphasis is on his garments. This connects with Old Testament language of God as clothed in light (compare Ps 104.2), and white clothes can be the hallmark of angelic figures and even the High Priest (compare Matt 28.3, Mark 16.5, Luke 24.4 and Rev 1.13–16 with its reuse of imagery from Dan 10.5–6). Jesus is depicted here both as the presence of the divine and as the mediator between the human and the divine.
There are striking connections with Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai in Ex 24.9–18, where he ascends a mountain, with companions, there is an overshadowing cloud, and a revelation of God’s glory. But, although there are parallels here with Sinai, there are also key differences; the glory of Moses’ face was reflected glory which faded with time, but the glory of Jesus here is a revelation of who he really is, and continues even when the vision (Matt 17.9) has passed; this is not so much a transformation as a pulling back of the ‘veil of flesh’ (Wesley) to reveal the true nature of the Son of Man. There might be a hint of change in Jesus in the comment in Mark 9.15 that the crowd were ‘amazed’ when they saw him—but there is no equivalent comment in Matthew and Luke. The key difference, though, is that where Moses is the focus of transformation in the Sinai account, here the focus is Jesus, and he is radiant with the glory of God himself.
In popular readings, Moses and Elijah are often thought to represent the law and the prophets; this is hinted at in the picture at the top, the depiction by Peter Paul Rubens, who has included the tablets of the Ten Commandments with Moses. But Elijah was not one of the writing prophets, and in Jewish tradition the mysterious circumstances of Moses’ death on Mount Nebo (Deut 34.5–6) and Elijah’s being taken up to God on a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2.11) earned them the title of ‘the deathless ones’. Their presence with Jesus is an anticipation of Jesus’ own conquest of death, something that Luke alone (perhaps particularly for the non-Jewish parts of his audience) makes explicit by reference to his ‘exodus’ that he was to accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9.1). They also signify the rescuing of God’s people from slavery to freedom (Moses) and the call to faithfulness (Elijah); both encountered God on the mountain (Sinai/Horeb) and both experienced rejection by and suffering at the hands of God’s own people, which makes the connection between the suffering Jesus has just spoken of and the glory which he will receive.
Peter’s clumsy interjection, offering to make shelters and capture the moment, is ameliorated by Mark and Luke in their explanation that he didn’t know what to say in the context of such an unsettling experience. Mark adds a further explanation that ‘they were terrified’, characteristic of his playing down of the faults of Peter in comparison with the other gospels—though it is striking that none of the gospels portrays the disciples as the perfect models that we might find if they were writing propaganda for the early Christian movement. Peter appears to want the experience to persist (as again Luke makes more explicit), or perhaps to try and make his own contribution when he really should have been simply attending to what was before him. He has not yet understood that this is a drawing back of the curtain, giving him and the other two a glimpse of the heavenly reality of who Jesus really is.
They are covered with a ‘cloud full of light’ in Matthew’s unique description, and rather than ‘overshadowing’ them as in Mark and Luke, it comes with a startling suddenness marked by the ‘behold!’ (idou) which had also introduced the appearance of Moses and Elijah in verse 3. All through the story of scripture, clouds signify the presence of God (which is more easy to understand if you live in a country where the sky is blue for much of the time) and this evokes fear as well as awe (compare Ezek 1.4); ‘falling on their faces’ is a common expression of fear (see Rev 1.17) or worship and entreaty. The voice of God here echoes what was said at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1.11), and this time there is no ambiguity as to whether the words are addressed to Jesus or to those watching—the audience of the three disciples are commanded or invited to listen to him. Jesus is not simply one like Moses or Elijah; he far transcends them as the Son of the Living God, the one in whom we encounter God’s own presence and glory. The words also echo Is 42.1, making again the connection between suffering and glory.
Luke moves on to the next episode of Jesus’ ministry, but both Matthew and Mark fill out the details of the disciples’ puzzlement. They still do not understand the significance of this vision or insight—and indeed, they will not until they have begun to make sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They are slowly putting together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of Jesus’ identity and how he is fulfilling the purposes of God. We are like those who have been given the puzzle box, with the finished picture on the outside so that we can see with hindsight where the pieces fit together.
This rather striking, unusual and numinous encounter with Jesus sits in rather stark contrast to the material either side in Mark’s narrative. Its position in the lectionary hides that rather, though does place it adjacent to the temptations of Jesus in the desert in Mark 1.9–15, offering a different kind of contrast. But this sense of the transcendent irrupting into the mundane is an important reality of the Christian faith. Paul talks of the ‘transformation’ that is effected by God as we continually offer our lives as ‘living sacrifices’ in Rom 12.1–2. Alluding to Sinai, but also connecting with some of the ideas and imagery here, Paul talks of our transformation as we see the transformed face of Jesus:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3.18)
Paul goes on to contrast this spiritual truth with the mundane realities of life by talking about ‘having this treasure in jars of clay’ (2 Cor 4.7).
Recently, our church small group were talking about the work of the Holy Spirit; we watched the Bible Project video on the Holy Spirit, and for Pentecost they portray figures as both receiving flames and becoming lit up by them, so they themselves are shining. One member of the group was excited by this as a vivid depiction of what the Spirit does, and as she described it her face did indeed light up! Others talked about the transformation that they had seen when friends came to faith. Despite the dominance of materialism, our culture is fascinated by the supernatural, the numinous and the transcendent—though we are often reluctant to talk of our experiences in this area.
The whole theme of the Book of Revelation is that the events we would otherwise understand as mundane and of this world are actually the working out of a cosmic spiritual battle, and that numinous and ‘supernatural’ experiences are part and parcel of this.
In any relationship, it takes time to understand and get to know someone, and even with people we know well, there are times when we gain particular insight into their character by something they do or say which gives us fresh insight into who they are. This seems to be how the Transfiguration functions for the three disciples, and offers key insight into who Jesus is. Is it an insight we have yet gained for ourselves?