Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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 words – “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 a mountain 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!
Mark’s Gospel has two particularly crucial affirmations of Jesus. The first affirmation occurs at the baptism. The baptism begins the first, apparently successful part of Jesus’ ministry – the first half of Mark’s Gospel. The second affirmation occurs at the transfiguration of Jesus. The transfiguration begins the testing period leading to Jerusalem and the Cross – the second half of Mark’s Gospel.
The first affirmation is in Chapter 1: “Just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:10–11).
The second affirmation is in Chapter 9, presented to us in today’s Gospel – Mark 9:2-10: “A cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” (Mark 9:7-10).
At the baptism, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove”. There is light and glory in the air – and the Holy Spirit. The voice is in the second person: “‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’”. The affirmation is, as it were, a dialogue within the Trinity. We are, as it were, witnesses, overhearing the dialogue.
At the transfiguration “a cloud overshadowed them”. There is darkness and menace in the air – and no mention of the Holy Spirit. The voice is in the third person: “from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’”. This dialogue is between the Father and the three disciples – and therefore with us. The disciples are not simply witnesses overhearing a dialogue. They – and therefore, we – are integral to that dialogue. “Listen to him!” The disciples are invited into the Trinitarian Community.
The different mood of this second affirmation, signals a third affirmation actually. Yet, neither we nor the disciples, are prepared for what is to come. The affirmation comes at the very end of Mark’s Gospel, not from God, but from a Gentile – the Roman guard standing by the cross: “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” (Mark 15:39).
Peter is later to write that, “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus, he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you …. may become participants of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4).
The Trinitarian community is one in which everyone is beloved. The words of the Roman centurion in the shadow of the Cross, are a recognition that the whole world is now offered a place in that Trinitarian Community.