Gospel (Cycle B): Mark 9:2-10
What was your last experience of awe? What stopped you and caught your attention? Why did this event have such power over you?
Life is full of surprises. Around every corner, in every part of life, experiences of wonder await us. We only need to open ourselves for the possibility of the different, the unexpected. But the rote and routine of life dulls our sense of awe. We become too familiar, take people for granted, make too many assumptions.
The disciples lived with Jesus throughout his ministry in Galilee. Even the closest of Jesus’ friends walked with him as he made his way to Jerusalem blinded by their daily routines. They thought they knew Jesus. They thought they knew what to expect. Were they in for a shock!
In front of the other followers, Peter called Jesus the Christ.
2 Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James and John to the top of a high mountain, so they could spent some time alone. There, Jesus changed before their eyes. 3 His clothes became so shiny white that nothing on earth could bleach his clothes that white. 4 Then Elijah and Moses appeared and they talked to Jesus.
5 Peter spoke up, “Teacher! I’m glad we’re here. Let’s pitch three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 But he didn’t really know what he was talking about because they were so afraid.
7 A cloud appeared that cast a shadow over them. And there was a voice from heaven. “This is the Son I love,” the voice said. “Listen to him!”
8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they saw only Jesus there with them. 9 As they came down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one else what you just saw until the Son of Man rises from the dead.” 10 They obeyed, but whispered to each other “What does ‘rise from the dead’ mean?”
In his Gospel, Mark presented a mountain top revelation charged with symbolism. The followers of Jesus witness the status of their Master raised to the same as that of Moses and Elijah. His words have the same power as those of Law Giver (Moses) and the first among the Prophets (Elijah).
2 Six days later, JESUS took Peter, James, and John and lead them up a high mountain alone by themselves. HE was changed in front of them. 3 HIS clothes became shiny, very white, as any wool bleach on earth was not able to thus whiten. 4 There appeared to them Elijah with Moses and together they were talking to Jesus.
9:3 “ . . . as any wool bleach on earth was not able to thus whiten.” This awkward clause modifies the shiny white appearance of Jesus’ clothes. No bleach on earth could make the clothes as white.
If we compare the mountain top experiences of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, the first parallel we notice is the place: the mountain top. Moses received God’s word on a mountain top in Exodus 3:1-6
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.” Then he said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (RSV)
Elijah heard the whisper of God’s presence on a mountain top in 1 Kings 19:8-13
And he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. And there he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks 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 still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (RSV)
In both encounters, Moses and Elijah stood on holy ground at the peak. This represented the closest place between heaven and earth, the place where God would descend to humanity. Mountain tops were places of encounter and revelation. Both Moses and Elijah received divine commissions on Mt. Horeb.
Both men hid their faces when they realized God was truly present. Encounter caused a sense of awe and holy fear. They could not look upon the glory or power of God. Yet, both men were changed after their encounter.
Unlike Moses and Elijah, Jesus did not hide his face against the glory of God. Indeed, he shown with God’s glory.
5 Having answered, Peter said to JESUS, “Rabbi! It is good that we are here. Let us make three tents: one for YOU, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 For he had not known what he answered, for they were very afraid. 7 There appeared a cloud, overshadowing them; and a voice came from heaven, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to HIM.” 8 Suddenly, having looked around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.
9:5-6 The word “answered” is the equivalent to the word “said” in these two verses ( “Having answered, Peter said to JESUS” and “For he had not known what he answered”).
Peter’s suggestion to build tents or “booths” refer to the Feast of Booths celebrated in the early Fall. This feast commemorated God’s protection over his people in the Exodus; the tents or “booths” re-enact the Israelites wandering in the desert. With the mountaintop appearance of Moses and Elijah, who represented the Law and the Prophets (a Jew reference to the Scriptures), Peter clearly saw this moment as one of divine activity. The “tent” suggestion was a Jewish way to celebrate that activity, just as YHWH was active among the people in the desert..
9:7 The appearance of the cloud and the voice have parallel constructions. Literally “There became a cloud, overshadowing them; and there became a voice from heaven . . . ” Both occurrences are linked; they have the same source.
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” This is the same heavenly pronouncement as the one found at the baptism of Jesus (1:11). Unlike the baptismal pronouncement, however, the voice addressed the three disciples, not Jesus.
When we compare the Transfiguration with the theophanies of Moses and Elijah, other parallels arise. There were signs of God’s presence. Moses had the burning bush. Elijah did not have the expected signs (wind, earthquake, or fire), but had a whisper of a gentle breeze. The Transfiguration had the appearance of Jesus, the cloud and the voice. The cloud and the voice are clearly contented by the text. The cloud was a sign of God’s presence in the Exodus (see Exodus 13:21-22). The voice from heaven was thunder (see Exodus 19:19). Ancient Israelites equated violence in the sky as a clear manifestation of God’s power.
Another parallel was the reaction of those receiving the revelation. In the case of the transfiguration, Peter James, and John shank in fear and awe. Like Moses and Elijah, the disciple’s holy fear provoked a change for they were given a mission: hear the voice of God’s beloved Son.
In the context of Moses and Elijah, and in the context of the signs of divine presence (glory, overshadowing cloud, and thunderous voice), the revelation placed the words of Jesus on the same plane as those of Moses and Elijah. Moses, the Law-Giver, spoke for God as a people became a nation. Elijah, first of the Prophets, spoke for God as a nation turned away. Placing the two together symbolized the summed experience of Judaism. Indeed, “the Law and the Prophets” was a code phrase for the Bible; Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the Prophets) were the Living Scriptures. (As an interesting side note, Elijah did not die but rode a chariot into heaven (see 2 Kings 2:1-12); popular Jewish lore held Moses did not die but was assumed into heaven. Hence, both could appear with Jesus, since neither had tasted death). To the two living spokespersons for revelation, God added a third, his beloved Son.
9 As they descended the mountain, he commanded them so they might not relate what they saw to anyone, until after the Son of Man should rise from the dead. 10 They keep the command, discussing among themselves: “What is (this) ‘rising from the dead?’”
What was the message Peter, James, and John were to hear? Not to share their experience of revelation until “the Son of Man should rise from the dead.” While popular Jewish opinion held the just would rise in the Kingdom, these three disciples had a hard time fathoming resurrection as “the sign” for the Kingdom. Nor could they fathom their Master dying so he could rise. Peter, James, and John understood the resurrection in the general sense, but they could understand it in the immediate sense. They could not understand that their experience of Jesus on the mountain would be the faith of every Christian. And they could not sense that only way Jesus could bridge experience and faith was through death on the cross.
Catechism Theme: The Transfiguration
The Transfiguration was a revelation of the Trinity. The voice from heaven proclaimed the words of the Father. The Son stood transformed in his glory. And the Spirit overshadowed the scene as the cloud. The scene harkens back to the Baptism, the Father’s voice from heaven, the Son rising from the water, and the Spirit descending upon the Son. The difference between the two events, however, lies in the reception of the revelation. In the Baptism, Jesus received the revelation with others as witnesses. In the Transfiguration, the followers received the revelation.
Notice the revelation was in context as confirmation and foreshadowing. The event confirmed Peter’s confession. Jesus was the Messiah. But it also foreshadowed the mission of the Messiah, death on the cross to enter glory. The Transfiguration was a look backward and a look forward.
For us, the Transfiguration reminds us of our Baptism when the Trinity revealed themselves to us. And, it is a look ahead to our death and resurrection. Yes, we, too, will be like Christ in glory. But the road to that glory leads down the mountain into the mundane affairs and sufferings of life.
What expectations do you have right now? How has God changed those expectations?
The message of this gospel is clear. To see, we need to look. To hear, we need to listen. To experience, we need to open our minds and hearts to the possibility of God’s voice. Look at the Son. Listen to his words. Open your mind and heart to his presence. We don’t need to be on the top of a mountain to experience God’s fullness. Just shake off rote and routine, and he will be there.
Take a few moments to reread the gospel. Imagine you’re before the Lord as he speaks to you in his glory. What is his word to you? How will that word help you this week?