Many stories in the Bible are so full that they overflow into multiple levels of interpretation. This is certainly true of the story of the transfiguration of Jesus.
Some interpreters see the story as confirmation of the special identity of Jesus. After all, God does not open the windows of heaven and speak over a normal person even once (as at the baptism of Jesus), much less twice (as again on the Mount of Transfiguration). The closest most modern people come to being transfigured in the manner described here is when they stay at their computer keyboards too long during a thunderstorm and get on the receiving end of a cosmic power surge!
Other interpreters see the story, using the figures of Moses and Elijah, to explain the relationship of Jesus and the church to Judaism.
Samuel Terrien notices similarities between the events at Mount Sinai and the event on the Mount of Transfiguration — the mountain, the followers, the number of days, the cloud, the voice, “irradiating glory.” These similarities signal to the reader that Jesus is the human bearer of the divine presence. In Jesus, God draws near as at Sinai.1
Paul Lehmann reads the narrative as a political paradigm: “breaking in and breaking up the establishment.” “The question whose world is this and by whose and what authority? is heading for the countdown and a lift-off in a blinding light of shattering presence and power …”2 From now, it is clear that God is in charge. Every household and institution is to do things God’s way. Powerbrokers of the world, please take note.
Begin with the phrase “after six days.” Mark uses details very carefully. After six days, of course, means that this narrative takes place on the seventh day. The number seven is a favorite of Jewish writers of the first century for signaling the presence and purpose of God. Furthermore, many Jewish writers of Mark’s day thought of history as divided into seven parts — the first six filled with demons, sickness, sin, and death. But the seventh period is one shaped all together by the presence and purpose of God. No more demons, sickness, sin, or death. Instead: love, peace, joy, health, forgiveness, life.
This reference to the coming of the seventh, new age is intensified by the description of Jesus. “And He was transfigured before them, and His garments became glistening intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” This language is drawn from the language which Jewish writers of Mark’s time used to describe God’s new world. In the new world, everyone would be dressed in glistening, intense white.
On the mountain top, the new world breaks in on Peter, James and John. And in the process of reading the gospel of Mark, it breaks in on the reader, too.
Then comes the cloud of the divine presence, and out of the cloud a voice, “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.” “And He began to teach them that the son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected … and be killed.” And He told them that if any of them would come after Him they must deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow Him. The voice from the cloud confirms the way of the cross for Jesus and for the disciples.
The rulers of the old world are powerful and deeply entrenched. They fulfill their ego needs, they are in control, and they make money by keeping people possessed by demons, sick, in sin, and dying. These rulers do not let go without a fight. And sometimes the witnesses to the new age are taken to a cross.
Life in the world is often just this way — a crossfire between two ages. Life in the church is often just this way. And sometimes the ministry is even this way: a battleground.
The church board meets. A fight breaks out. After the meeting, the boardroom looks like a battleground. You can even imagine seeing bloody, battered bodies. You wonder, “What is the point? Why am I in this? Why should I continue in the church?”
Then we come to the story of the transfiguration — a sacramental moment. It is a moment of assurance, a sign of the presence and the promises of God to these three disciples. On the mountain top, God says to the disciples, “Yes, I am with you in the struggle of discipleship. In this moment, you see a sign of the new world.”
The assurance which is given to the disciples on the mountain top is also given to the reader of
Every once in awhile we will be struggling in class with a text. And as a teacher, I can tell that a student feels like he or she is on a cross. The student is struggling with some idea about God, or about the Bible, or with some new insight into himself or herself. Some piece of the student is dying. It is painful for all. Then, all of a sudden you can see on the student’s face that a light has gone on. Transfiguration! It does not happen often but when it does, it is enough to keep you, as a teacher, going through a lot of low-voltage sessions.
A pastor is responsible for recruiting members of the congregation to work at a shelter for the homeless for one evening. The task of recruiting is discouraging and rages on. Phone call after phone call the pastor receives a similar reply. “I am sorry ….” The pastor begins to wonder, “What am I doing here? Why should I continue to put up with these excuses?” Finally at the last minute, and with a lot of arm twisting, the pastor gets a little group together and they go to the shelter and carry out their responsibilities.
Driving home together, the members of the group begin to talk about their experiences. The woman whose arm had to be twisted the hardest says, “Did you see that little girl’s face light up when she found out I could tell her the story of Little Red Riding Hood?” And the inside of the car begins to glow with the light of transfiguration.
There is a famous painting of the transfiguration by Raphael. He painted it in Rome in 1520. Already the disturbance from Luther had disrupted Roman life. Raphael seemed to sense that the social, religious, and intellectual world he had known was beginning to tremble. And he was dying at the age of 37. With the life-force draining out of him, he chose to paint the transfiguration.
In the background of the painting you can see the village of Caesarea Philippi, and with them comes the memory of the sayings about the cross. In the upper center part of the painting, you see a flat, rock mountain top. The three disciples are shielding their eyes from the glory. Just above them, in the air, are Moses and Elijah and Jesus. Jesus is shimmering in white and everything in the painting is drawn to Him.
At the bottom of the mountain, you see the crowd of disciples, impotent to heal a boy who was possessed by a demon and who had seizures of epilepsy. One moment he threw himself into the water, and in the next moment he threw himself into the fire.
The boy himself is practically unclothed and you can see that his muscles are thick and tight and strong. I suppose they are conditioned by the fury and strength of his seizures.
For the moment, the boy is tense but focused. His vision is locked upon Jesus. His eyes are wide and white with what I think is surprise. His right hand is stretched up as far as it can go as if the boy has seen something that claims him and as if he wants to reach out and touch it.
Perhaps the boy represents something of the way Raphael felt about his world, and his life: uncertain, in the grip of unpredictable forces, out of control. And at just that vortex of experience Raphael paints the transfigured Jesus, the sign of God’s presence and promises in the midst of the uncertainties of life.
The transfiguration was Raphael’s last painting. In fact, he died before it was finished, but he lived long enough to paint Jesus, “his garment glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” One of Raphael’s interpreters thinks that the painter sensed a new world rising out of the old, and he felt he “was drawing near to transfiguration himself.”3
This story of Jesus, Moses, Elijah, and the disciples on the mountain asks only one thing of us: that we be open to the transfigurations that take place in the midst of our own struggles in discipleship. Such moments come to us as signs of assurance, sacraments which take place outside the sanctuary.
1. Samuel Terrien, The Elusive Presence (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978), p. 425.
2. Paul Lehmann, The Transfiguration of Politics (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1975), p. 83.
3. Oskar Fischel, Raphael tr. Bernard Rackham (London: Kegan Paul, 1948), p. 278.