February 19, 2012
Sometimes in my neighborhood a pile of plastic covered daily morning newspapers will grow on the sidewalk in front of a home. I always assume they're on a trip and forgot to stop the papers. But maybe they're just tired of reading bad news. There certainly is a lot of it in any given week: a lot of violence and a lot of confusion. A man burns up his children and himself inside their home. Another man, upset that the driver won't take his out-of-date rapid transit pass, shoots a police officer and several passengers, wounding the officer in the shoulder and killing a passenger. People are being killed daily in violence in Syria.
The context of the Transfiguration is not much different. Violence and suffering abounds. A man who opposes a violent, unjust leader (John the Baptist) is killed because of the threat he poses to corrupt power (Mk. 6:1-29). People flock to Jesus, hungry and sick in mind and body, having no resources to seek other treatment. Inequities in wealth mean that while the rich feast the poor often go hungry.
The Transfiguration, then and now, is a shining mountaintop experience amid scenes of violence and suffering.
In all three synoptic gospels, the Transfiguration occurs several days after Jesus' foretelling of his death and resurrection (Mt. 16:24-28; Lk. 9:23-27; Mk. 8:31-38). Jesus tells his disciples of his coming crucifixion and glorification: "And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must . . . be killed, and after three days rise again" (9:31). Peter apparently stopped listening after he heard the words "be killed." He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. He earns Jesus' rebuke in return (8:32-33).
It is one thing for Jesus to tell his disciples that while following him will involve sacrifice and perhaps even death, it will also result in glory. It is another thing to actually show them that glory shining into their present sufferings. There are those people who were able to just take Jesus' word for things, like the royal official in John 4:46-54 or the centurion in Luke 7:1-10. There are others—ironically enough, the disciples—who need to be shown.
This is where the Transfiguration comes in. The Transfiguration is seen by some as a Resurrection story read back into the ministry of Jesus. But it could just as well have an historical basis in a visionary experience the disciples had in the presence of Jesus (Anderson 223). For Mark the story serves to confirm, by the voice of God from a cloud, the truth of Jesus' teachings about the Son of Man's suffering, rejection, and resurrection. For Mark, the Transfiguration is a revelation of Jesus' coming, eschatological triumph, and glory (Anderson 224). As the Son of Man moves toward rejection and death (8:31) the veil is lifted suddenly and his coming victory is momentarily in sight. (Anderson 225)
The vision is obviously for the benefit of the inner circle of Jesus' disciples. He is transfigured before them. He appeared to them. A cloud overshadowed them. They no longer saw anyone with them.
In at least two other peak moments of Jesus' ministry, Peter, James, and John are the selected participants. (Mark 5:37, synagogue leader's home where his daughter is healed; 14:33, Gethsemane).
The word "transfigured" is related to the Greek metamorphosis, which means "assuming a different form." Mark is drawing on Jewish apocalyptic literature, which expected that the Jewish righteous would take on a glorious new heavenly 'form' in the end time (Dan. 12:3) (Anderson 224). In Matthew and Luke, the connection with Moses' shining face in Exodus 34:29-35 is more at the forefront.
While we often think of the Transfiguration as a distant and untouchable scene, it actually pulses with the emotional responses of the disciples. There is Peter's grief at Jesus' coming death in the verses that precede it. Once on the mountaintop, the disciples are dazzled by the clothing of Jesus. The idea that the clothing of the glorified righteous would be pure and white shows up in first and second Enoch (1 En. 62:15-16; 2 En. 22:8) as well as in Revelation (3:4, 4:4, 7:9) (Anderson 225). There is an experience of being terrified in the presence of the divine (9:6) and the response of incoherent babbling about booths on Peter's part (9:5). There is the feeling of being bereft when the divine visitors leave. There is the uneasiness of being sworn to secrecy on the way down the mountain (9:9). There is the confusion regarding the significance of the event.