Thought for the day
We live in a very noisy, busy world, a culture marked by constant distraction. Even at the ordinary level of relationship, attending to the other— really hearing him or her—is a challenge. It happens when we choose to make space, to shut out the other noises and graciously attend to each other. Something similar may be said of the life of the spirit. To listen to the Son happens when we choose it and, in a practical way, create spaces in our lives for such encounters.
Revealer God, you open your heart to us in your Son Jesus. Help us to open our hearts to you, as we contemplate your living word. May the Scriptures be for us a place of true encounter and may we, hearers of the Word, listen with our hearts and lives to him, the Word made flesh.
Mark 9:1 And he said to them, “I tell you the truth, there are some standing here who will not experience death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
Mark 9:2 Six days later Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John and led them alone up a high mountain privately. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiantly white, more so than any launderer in the world could bleach them. 4 Then Elijah appeared before them along with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 So Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three shelters —one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 (For they were afraid, and he did not know what to say.) 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came from the cloud, “This is my one dear Son. Listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more except Jesus.
Mark 9:9 As they were coming down from the mountain, he gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 They kept this statement to themselves, discussing what this rising from the dead meant.
This story is found in the first three Gospels, but not in the fourth, that of John. Each Gospel writer tells it in a subtly different way according to the theology of the writer and the needs of the community at the time. Thus for instance, in Luke it becomes a moment of prayer, in Matthew, an apocalyptic vision. In Mark, it is a kind of theophany, specifically a Christophany.
Kind of writing
What kind of story is this? Although the Transfiguration is reported only once (Mt and Lk get it from Mark and the “report” in 2 Peter 1:17-18 seems to be from the late 90s or the early 100s), it belongs to a recognisable type of story of which there are many examples in the OT and a few examples in the NT. This genre is that of the appearance of a god (= theophany; e.g. Is 6 or Num 12).
Old Testament background
There are significant associations with Moses and Elijah. Such associations may be traced ultimately to two promises regarding God’s future intervention.
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. (Mal. 5:4)
In the same way, Moses was expected at the end:
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. (Deut 18:15)
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. (Ex 24:15-18)
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him. (Ex 34:29-35)
This association with the veil must have been a significant one for early Christians, given that it is found in 2 Corinthians 3:7ff. and Matthew 17:2. There is likewise a reference to face in Rev. 1:16
In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9-13)
We see that our story is really an explosion of associations with Moses and Elijah. However, the basic reference is to Exodus 24 - which echoes the motifs of 6 days, master, three disciples, mountain, cloud, vision and hearing. The point of the story here is what the “daughter of a voice” says: this is my beloved Son—words of commendation as Jesus begins his journey of suffering. Matthew later on picks up the detail of the face shining.
New Testament foreground
i) Within the Gospel of Mark, there is a strong connection with the Baptism of Jesus: And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)
(ii) This Gospel is structured in two parts: effectively, 1-8, beginning with the Baptism scene and ending with the confession of Peter; 9-16, likewise beginning with the Transfiguration scene and containing a great deal of teaching on discipleship, especially in chapters 8-10.
(iii) Specifically at this point in the Gospel, the evangelist begins to teach that the Messiah must suffer (with a linked teaching on discipleship). The Transfiguration is offered as an anticipation of the resurrection, a kind of first instalment to offer the disciples grounds for hope in the face of the Cross.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1Corinthians 15:8–9)
Verses 2-3 Six days = from Exodus; these three disciples form an inner circle, but one which exemplifies radical misunderstanding of the project of Jesus and even gross failure. The change in appearance signifies that they caught a glimpse of the transcendent identity of Jesus. This was an event beyond imagination (hence “whiter”).
Verse 4 Both these figures were symbols that the time of the messiah had come. Furthermore, in Mark’s gospel they represent the church from Judaism (Moses) and the church from the Gentiles (Elijah). Unlike in Luke’s version, we are not told the topic of conversation—it too is beyond us.
Verses 5-6 Peter in this Gospel often fails to understand and this seems to be the case here. He wishes to hold on the experience (in a tent!). However, “it is good to be here” invites reflection. Then Mark explains away his blurting by saying “he did not know what to say”. The terror here is not, so to speak, psychological but ontological: it is the proper awe before the numinous (cf. Rudolf Otto’s expression the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, from The Idea of the Holy).
Verse 7 A cloud is a frequent symbol of the divine presence in the Old Testament, probably because a cloud both reveals and conceals. God recognises, so to speak, the Son and invites profound listening.
Verse 8 As usual in these stories, the experience is elusive, ending as unexpectedly as it began.
Verses 9-10 The “messianic secret” is a leitmotiv in Mark, probably building on Jesus’ own caution about his identity, but taking it further as a means of account for the lack of recognition of Jesus among his own people. The language of “Son of Man” and “resurrection” make the links to Good Friday and Easter Sunday explicit: this is an experience which will be understood only in retrospect.
Pointers for prayer
1. When have I really felt, spontaneously and deeply, “it is good to be here”. Was this moment of grace also a confirmation of yourself in some way?
2. There is a sense in which life is always “on the move” and we cannot freeze even special moments. They do continue to influence us, but are not under our control. This is the mystery of human relationship and of our relationship with the Mystery.
3. Listening and being listened to are necessary but perhaps all too rare human experiences. What have I learned about listening which can help me “listen to him”? The words of Augustine come to mind: “You called, shouted, you broke through my deafness” (Confessions 10.27.38).
Ever-faithful God, you were well pleased with Abraham’s obedience and you accepted the sacrifice of your son, who gave himself up for the sake of us all.
Train us by Christ’s teaching and school us in his obedience that as we walk his way of sacrifice we may come to share in your glory.
We ask this through Christ, our deliverance and hope, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God for ever and ever. Amen.