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, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then 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.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus. 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. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. (Mark 9:2-10 – NRSV)
Matthew 17:1-8 and Luke 9:28-36 build on Mark’s account. Luke actually refers to Jesus’ “exodus” in his account of the Transfiguration: “Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure (exodos), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:30-31).
We are roughly at the mid-point of Mark’s Gospel. It is also a turning point. Jesus has just asked the disciples the crucial question: “Who do you say I am?” (8:29). Although Peter uses the right language – “You are the Christ” – he understands little of the real content of that affirmation. The reality of the Messianic identity is in fact a far cry from the commonly held expectation of a triumphal leader, one who will conquer and devastate Israel’s enemies: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed …..” (8:31). Jesus leaves his disciples in no doubt about the way things are going to be for them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” (8:34-37). “Jesus radically reinterprets messianic triumphalism by means of the humiliation of the Son of Man, indeed, by his suffering and death. This climactic disclosure is immediately followed by the account of the transfiguration and linked inseparably to it. Peter’s confession in 8:29 might be seen as Mark’s way of portraying believers’ initial response to the ‘scandal’ of the cross (1 Cor 1:23). The transfiguration, likewise, is his way of indicating what their understanding must become if they are to see Jesus from God’s perspective. In Peter’s confession Mark teaches how disciples should think about Jesus (8:33), and in the subsequent transfiguration narrative he allows them to behold his true nature. …. What transpires on the Mount of Transfiguration is both a divine assurance in the midst of their consternation and a divine ratification of Jesus’ way to the cross.” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 261 & 262.)
Peter, James and John: We find these three mentioned together in other places in Mark – see 5:37; 13:3; 14:33. We might wonder therefore what it means in 10:35-37 when Peter is omitted: “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’.” Did James and John completely misinterpret the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration?
a high mountain: Theophanies occur on mountains. For example, on mountains Jesus prays (Mark 6:46; Luke 6:12; John 6:15), he preaches (Mark 3:13; Matt 5:1), he performs miracles (Matt 15:29; John 6:3), he is tempted (Matt 4:8), he calls his disciples (Mark 3:13; Luke 6:12), he sends them into mission (Matt 28:16), and he accomplishes his passion (Mark 11:1, 14:32 & 15:22). In this instance, we probably have a reference to Mt Sinai and the encounter of Moses with the Lord.
his clothes became dazzling white: In the Book of Exodus we read: “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” (34:33-35). St Paul, perhaps reflecting what he had heard of the experience of the three on the Mount of Transfiguration, writes in his Second Letter to the community in Corinth: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Elijah with Moses: Perhaps we have a clue to the significance of these two figures, in Acts 10:43: “All the prophets testify about him”. “It is probably too specific to maintain that Moses stands for the law and Elijah for the prophets, because each figure was associated with both the law and prophets.” (J R Edwards, op cit, 265.)
Then a cloud overshadowed them: Again, we are reminded of Moses on Mt Sinai: “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” (Exodus 24:15–18).
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”: Recall the voice that is heard at Jesus’ baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:11). At this critical point in the journey to Jerusalem, the command, “Listen to him!” is added. At the baptism the words are an affirmation directed to Jesus. Here there is a definite command directed to the disciples: They must pay closer attention to what is happening and what Jesus is saying and doing. Something new and surprising is afoot!
We have all faced the limits of language. There are moments when our attempts to speak just cannot say what we know or have experienced. Does “I love you” say it adequately? Sometimes silent presence is much more eloquent then words. Talking can get in the way.
In his description of the Transfiguration in today’s Gospel, Mark tells us: “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings etc’” (Mark 9:5). Significantly, Mark adds: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified”. What is it about us human beings that we insist on speaking when we have nothing to say? If we speak we will protect ourselves against the silence which we find threatening? Do we therefore talk to keep our fear under control?
There is a wise saying: Better to be silent and be thought foolish than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. An important lesson comes to light here for the believer. The lesson is especially important for the believer who wants to bear witness to God: Err on the side of silence! “It is better for you to be silent and be [a Christian], than to talk and not to be one. It is good to teach, if those who speak also act. There is then one Teacher, who spoke and it was done; while even those things which He did in silence are worthy of the Father. Those who possess the word of Jesus, are truly able to hear even His very silence, that they may be perfect, and may both act as they speak, and be recognised by their silence.” (St Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Ephesians”, Chapter XV in Maxwell Staniforth, translator, Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, Penguin Books, 1968/1975.)
It is a salutary experience to find oneself speechless. One theologian writes: “It is in the profusion of our affirmations that we encounter the limits of our language, and then break through them into the dark silence of the transcendent.” (Denys Turner, The Darkness of God, Cambridge University Press, 1995, 32.) One of the destructive fictions that rationalism has burdened us with is the belief that, for a truth claim to be valid it must be empirically verifiable or philosophically provable. And so we talk at length about things we do not really understand! We thus run the grave risk of never being able to “break through into the dark silence of the transcendent”. Reality is inexhaustibly intelligible. The more we know the more we know we do not know. Reality is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. Silence is a wonderful gift – share it!
Our lives are sacraments. The world is a sacrament. Everything points beyond itself to the great Mystery. Jesus is the Sacrament of that Mystery. Peter, James and John caught a glimpse. And they were rendered speechless.