Last revised: February 13, 2018
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THE TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD — YEAR B
RCL: 2 Kings 2:1-12; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
RoCa: The Roman Catholic Church observes the Transfiguration on the Second Sunday in Lent.
The Transfiguration narrative (Matt 17:1-12; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36) raises at least two significant issues:
(1) What is the role of Elijah and Moses appearing with Jesus? What is it trying to say about the relationship between Jesus the Messiah and these two giant figures of the Hebrew Scriptures?
(2) What does Jesus’s transfigured appearance signify?
1. Elijah and Moses. Brian Zahnd makes extended use of the Transfiguration story in Chapter 3, “Jesus Is What God Has to Say,” of his book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. A central priority of this book is to read Scripture and the Christian tradition in a way that finally prunes God of all violence. That should have been accomplished already in the First Century. But Jonathan Edward‘s famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” provides ample illustration of how far the Church’s proclamation of God has backslid into one that allows for plenty of violence.
The biggest challenge to proclaiming a loving, completely nonviolent God has been finding the right relationship of the Hebrew Scriptures to the Christian Gospel — the right relationship to Moses (Torah) and Elijah (Prophets). When Christians flatten out their reading too much (in the sense of treating everything as equally true), we have become open to reintroducing violence to God and our discipleship. Zahnd takes this mistake to be the mistake of Peter in the Transfiguration narrative:
Peter’s first impulse was to build three memorial tabernacles on Tabor, treating Moses, Elijah, and Jesus as approximate equals. Peter’s implicit suggestion that the Old Testament be given roughly the same authority as Jesus is what I mean by a flat reading of the Bible. What can happen with a flat reading of the Bible is that Jesus’s teaching of nonviolence in the Sermon on the Mount can be conveniently ignored because we found divine sanction for violence in the Old Testament. In other words, Jesus can be overruled by Moses and Elijah. But Mark tells us how Peter’s suggestion for a triumvirate of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus was rebuked on Mount Tabor: “And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’” (52)
Here, for example, are instances where Jesus’ fulfillment of the Torah in love trump’s the law of Moses: (1) Undoing “an eye for an eye” in Matt. 5:38-39; (2) Jesus stopping the Pharisees from stoning an adulterous woman in John 8; (3) Jesus scolding the disciples for wanting to call down fire on Samaritans like Elijah in Luke 9:54-56. And for a more contemporary issue where a flat reading failed us, Zahnd elaborates on the debates over slavery in the 18th Century.
The mistake to the other extreme is Marcionism, which Zahnd seeks to circumnavigate with this summary of his approach to the Old Testament:
I’m a Christian, not a Biblicist. The Bible is subordinate to Christ. But let me make this clear: I love the Old Testament. I’m a million miles from the second-century heresy of Marcion who regarded the God of the Old Testament as a demiurge and wanted to eliminate the Hebrew Scriptures from the Christian canon. My approach to the Old Testament is nothing like Marcion’s. I call the Old Testament sacred Scripture. I read the Old Testament every day. I pray the psalms. I preach the Prophets. I understand the history of Israel as the essential prequel to the story of Christ. But I don’t regard the Old Testament as the perfect revelation of God, and I never read the Old Testament without Jesus. Jesus is my sponsor for admission into the Old Testament. (Why else would a Gentile read the ancient Hebrew Scriptures?) I don’t read the Law and the Prophets by the light of Moses and Elijah; I read the Law and the Prophets in the light of Christ. So if Moses instructs capital punishment and Elijah models violent retribution, I remember Mount Tabor and the voice from heaven that said, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’ The final testimony of Moses and Elijah is to recede into the background so that Jesus stands alone as the full and true Word of God. Jesus is what God has to say! (60-61)
2. Jesus Transfigured. What does it signify? Does it point ahead to the Resurrected Jesus? The Ascended Jesus? In the context of a Christian anthropology, I propose another possibility: the transfigured Jesus is a glimpse of what we are to become. He is the “Son of Man” of Daniel 7, the New Human being, the transformation of what it means to be human, the eschatological fulfillment of our species in the New Creation.
I have not yet read the following book, but I’ve browsed it enough to get the feel that there is another way to read the significance of the Transfiguration: as the transformation that happens to disciples of Jesus as they follow him into a life of cross-shaped mission. It would be a good Epiphany Season practice some year to study John Dear‘s Transfiguration: A Meditation on Transforming Ourselves and Our World. Here is the book description:
Spiritual leader and peace activist John Dear guides readers on the path to finding peace within, and bringing harmony to a world torn by hatred and violence, through following in the footsteps of Jesus. Seen by many to be the spiritual heir to the Berrigan brothers, Dear believes that the key to the spiritual life is not just finding inner peace, but also bringing that peace to bear on the outside world. In his latest work, Dear uses the Gospel account of the Transfiguration, inviting readers to shape their lives along the story of Jesus and to continue his mission of love and peace. These practices have sustained him through his work with the homeless in Washington, D.C., and New York City, as a human-rights advocate in Northern Ireland and Iraq, and on his many missions for peace in war-torn places around the world. Dividing the lifelong pursuit of peace into three distinct parts — an inner journey, a public journey, and the journey of all humanity — he delves into the challenges of learning to love ourselves as we are, diffusing the hatred we feel toward others, and embracing the choice to live in peace.
2 Kings 2:1-12
1. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 169-173: “Elijah: Anti-Sacrificial Sacrifice” (excerpt). Bailie’s reading of the Elijah stories as portraying “anti-sacrificial sacrifice” is quite revealing. He helps us to see the sacrificial references by noting in 2 Kings 16:3-4 that euphemisms like “pass through fire” and “high places” were standard references to the sacrificial cult. Elijah himself says: “The god who answers with fire is God indeed.” (1 Kings 18:24) Elijah’s program, then, was clearly an anti-sacrificial one against the cults of Ba’al. But didn’t he attempt his own programs of sacrificial violence in order to eradicate it? His central efforts were brutally bloody purges that carried out numerous slaughters in the name of God.
This being the case we might even wonder about this lectionary text (one which Bailie himself doesn’t cover in these pages). What are the “chariots of fire” all about? Was the transfer of power from Elijah to Elisha actually a bloody coup covered over by mythological symbols of being taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot?! (It was a colleague in town, Blaine Johnson, who suggested in our pericope study three years ago this extrapolation from Gil’s treatment of the Elijah complex. What do you think? Is this right? Is the chariot of fire a mythological cover-up for the bloody transition from Elijah to Elisha?) Another clue to the mimetic nature of this story might be Elisha’s bald statement that he desires “a double share of your spirit.” What was Elijah’s spirit? Anti-sacrificial sacrifice? What is going on in the story? Is it as it appears on the surface, a peaceful transfer of power? Or is there something else that really happened below the surface?
Reflections and Questions
1. The connections with the Transfiguration story are intriguing and challenging. Peter considers Elijah and Moses to be positive figures, heroes, with whom to connect Jesus, and so he has the immediate response of the Sacred: let’s build three shrines. He wants this to be a “high place” along the order of other sacred high places, and Jesus will have none of it.
What is Mark’s or Jesus’ take on these figures of Elijah and Moses? Are we to make a positive connection as did Peter? Or are we to begin to draw a contrast, i.e., that Jesus has come to offer us something completely different than Elijah and Moses? Our reading of the Elijah sagas above might suggest that we are to contrast Jesus with Elijah. Jesus did not come with a spirit of anti-sacrificial sacrifice, but with the Holy Spirit of anti-sacrificial self-sacrifice. Jesus did not slaughter others in exposing the futility of sacrifice; rather, he let himself be sacrificed, and God’s raising him from the dead bears witness to the futility of sacrificial way. We will continue these threads of discussion as we take a look at the other lessons.
2. The “anti-sacrificial sacrifice” of Elijah might be compared to revolutionary or counter-revolutionary violence. Conservatives have always been quick to point out that Marxist revolutions have most often been more brutal than what they replaced. On the other hand, when the Contras were on a mission of ousting the Marxist revolutionaries in Nicaragua, those same conservatives called that patriotism. Elijah might be said to have been more brutal than what he was seeking to overthrow. Have we ignored that in our reading over the centuries? Is Elijah still a patriot hero to us, who stood for religious purity? We might also recall Sandor Goodhart’s notion from his comments on the Jonah story several weeks ago (Epiphany 3B) about the sin of idolizing anti-idolatry. Here we have a version of sacrificing in the name of anti-sacrificial causes.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 158-160, a crucial section entitled “Faith as the Fulfillment of the Law.” Hamerton-Kelly presents Paul’s basic approach to the Law as having been “hijacked by sin.” Sin turns the Law from being “a bulwark against mimetic rivalry into an instrument of rivalry and scapegoating.” It is only in Christ Jesus that we clearly come to see love (agape) as the fulfillment of the Law: “[Paul’s] claim is not that faith in the crucified makes the Torah as text unnecessary, but that it enables us to read the text of the Torah according to its basic intentions for the first time.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Hamerton-Kelly’s comments make sense of this lectionary passage in terms of the Mosaic interpretation of the Law having put a veil over things. These particular verses (2 Cor. 4:3-6) rely on previous verses, such as 2 Cor 3:15-16 (NRSV): “Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”
2. This veil of the Mosaic reading of the Torah brings in the other figure from the Transfiguration story. As we said about Elijah, Peter immediately makes a positive connection of Moses with Jesus, but the question is: Are we the readers supposed to make that same positive link? So many of the details of the story speak against it. We are specifically told that Jesus’ appearance was transfigured; when Elijah and Moses appear, we are not told that of them. When Peter asks about building shrines, a cloud veils their vision and the voice once again singles out Jesus: Listen to him! When the veil is removed, only Jesus remains. Are we to ultimately read into the story the same kind of distancing of Jesus from Moses as we read in 2 Cor. 3-4?
(By the way, a quick word search on the Pauline references to Moses yields the following list: Rom 5:14, Rom 9:15, Rom 10:5, Rom 10:19, 1 Cor 9:9, 1 Cor 10:2, 2 Cor 3:7, 2 Cor 3:13, 2 Cor 3:15. I would characterize the first six occurrences as rather neutral citations of something that Moses said or did. And the latter three occurrences in 2 Cor. 3 paint the Mosaic interpretation of the Law in a negative fashion. In two places — Rom. 4 and Gal. 3 — Paul skips over Moses and goes back to Abraham to lift up a positive hero in the Jewish tradition.)
3. Christians often follow Paul’s negative assessment of the Mosaic Law, which has made Jewish-Christian dialogue a challenge and a much debated issue in the modern setting of ecumenical dialogue. I am suggesting yet another NT passage that might be asking the reader to consider the figure of Moses in a less than favorable light, the Transfiguration story. But a Girardian reading can help place this critique in a more universalistic context. The Mosaic Law is “hijacked by sin,” just as all other religion is hijacked, including Christianity to the extent that it is religion.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 103-104. Hamerton-Kelly takes the whole passage of 8:27-9:30 together, with his most expansive discussion centering on the episode of “The Healing of the Boy with a Spirit,” which itself centers on the issue of belief. Thus, he sums up the import of the Transfiguration story with these words: “The transfiguration takes place while the rest of the disciples are enclosed by a crowd that demands a miraculous service they are unable to give. Thus, revelation takes place within a narrative context of unbelief (9:19).” Hamerton-Kelly’s exegesis of the following story is an enlightening one that gives a different angle on the transfiguration than I am taking here.
3. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 124-25, commenting on Luke’s version of the Transfiguration:
A mysterious event and a healing serve as a transition to Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection. Just before Jesus is about to start the long trek to Jerusalem, where he meets his destiny, he takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain and is transfigured before them by a transcendent light. Moses and Elijah appear and speak of Jesus’ “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Lk. 9:31) Jesus had just warned his disciples that he would undergo “great sufferings” and be killed and they too would have to bear their crosses. The transcendent light is often interpreted as a foretaste of the glory of Jesus’ Resurrection to encourage them in the hard times ahead. But this light is also the glory that Jesus had from his Abba from the beginning, a sign of the goodness of Creation. As with almost everything else about Jesus, the disciples seem not to understand the event. One can sympathize with Peter when he thinks it is great to be there and he doesn’t want to come down, but the dynamic of this event is to move all of them to Jerusalem. The fact that the disciples almost immediately begin fighting again about who is the greatest confirms their misunderstanding.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah indicates that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets that preceded him. Both Moses and Elijah were victims of social violence and both barely survived these threats. Jesus was about to be a victim who would not survive the threat against his life. Moses and Elijah were also both compromised by violence. At times, Moses turned the accusations against him onto other people. In one such event, Moses ordered the stoning of a man who committed an act of blasphemy. (Lev. 24:10-23) Elijah slew the prophets of Baal. (1 Kings 18:40) Jesus, on the other hand, would eschew violence, accepting violence committed against him without returning it. The voice of Heaven: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” recalls the heavenly affirmation of Jesus at the time of his baptism.
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from March 2, 2003 (Woodside Village Church).
6. In 2012 I concluded an Epiphany theme on healing with the sermon “Curing Our Deafness and Blindness.”
Reflections and Questions
1. I’d like to begin my comments by first repeating a portion from the first week in Cycle B (Advent 1B), which lays out what I see as a basic structuring principle in Mark. There are only two ‘sermons’ of substantial length in Mark: ch. 4 & 13. And each features a keyword: “Listen!” in ch. 4 and “Watch!” in ch. 13. This derives from, I believe, Mark’s prominent usage of the quote from Isaiah 6 regarding people who have ears but cannot hear and eyes but cannot see. Disciples are called to hear in the opening chapters, to listen to the preaching and teaching of Good News, climaxed by the healing of a deaf person in ch. 7. Ch. 8 begins the movement toward the cross in which disciples are called to watch and see. The famous section in 8-10 that contains three passion predictions is flanked by two healings of blind men. The sermon in ch. 13 brings this to a climax under the keyword “Watch!” In the next chapter, the narrative will find Jesus specifically asking his disciples to watch with him in the Garden of Gethsemane — and, of course, they fall asleep. But the linking of this keyword is significant: in watching for the traditional signs of Judgment Day (ch. 13) the disciples only need to watch the signs of the next several days (chs. 14-16). What they are about to witness will be the revealing of the Son of Man.
2. To these comments on the structure of Mark’s gospel I would add the three moments of theophany: the baptism of Jesus (1:9-11), the Transfiguration (9:2-9), and Jesus’ response to the high priest (14:62: Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.'”) The first theophany emphasizes listening, as the heavenly voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The final theophany focuses on what they will see. I think that this middle theophany, the transfiguration, combines both elements: the heavenly voice adds a command to the baptismal theophany, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”; and the dramatic change in visage prefigures the Son of Man coming in his glory.
The problem in interpretation comes from identifying which event Mark has in mind for the Son of Man coming in his glory. The most common suggestion I see in the commentaries is that the transfiguration event prefigures the Resurrected Jesus. But against this interpretation I would point out that Mark’s gospel never shows us the Resurrected Jesus. We only get a young man dressed in white robe telling the women where they might find the Risen Jesus — to which they respond by running away afraid and not telling anyone. Better, I think, is the Centurion looking up at the crucified Jesus against the clouds of a darkened sky and uttering words of revelation: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39) The Centurion is willing to see, and to speak himself, what the high priest refuses to see when Jesus foretells to him the coming theophany. The transfiguration prefigures the glory of the cross. This is an explicit theme in John’s gospel (cf., John 3:14-15, 12:40-43 — the latter passage carrying John’s quotation of the Is. 6 passage that structures Mark’s gospel). Is the glory of the cross implicit as a theme in Mark’s gospel in this story of the transfiguration? Isn’t Mark’s gospel essentially about the difficulty of seeing and hearing God’s glory through Jesus because it comes to us through the glory of the cross?
3. Mark’s text nevertheless immediately turns to the matter of the resurrection. Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone what they have seen until the Son of Man is raised from the dead. Does this speak against the transfiguration prefiguring the cross, and in favor of the resurrection? I don’t think so. But the resurrection remains a pivotal point because, without it, no one will ever understand the cross as the moment of truly revealing God’s glory. Perhaps we shouldn’t choose; the cross and resurrection must go together, meaning the transfiguration prefigures both.
4. The epilogue to the transfiguration story in Mark 9:9-13 poses, I suggest, Jesus’ death and resurrection as a moment of clear difference between Jesus and Elijah. Let me close these remarks by simply repeating what was said earlier regarding the first lesson: Our reading of the Elijah sagas might suggest that we are to contrast Jesus with Elijah. Jesus did not come with a spirit of anti-sacrificial sacrifice, but with the Holy Spirit of anti-sacrificial self-sacrifice. Jesus did not slaughter others in exposing the futility of sacrifice; rather, he let himself be sacrificed, and God’s raising him from the dead bears witness to the futility of sacrifice. (Link to the 1997 sermon, “A Downer of a Mountaintop Experience,” that raises these themes through a monologue account by Peter.)