A week later, Jesus took Peter, James and John away by themselves, and went up a high mountain. There he was transformed before their eyes. His clothes shone with a whiteness that no laundry on earth could match. Elijah appeared to them, and Moses too, and they were talking with Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ said Peter as he saw this, ‘it’s great to be here! I tell you what – we’ll make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah!’ (He didn’t know what to say; they were terrified.) Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud: ‘This is my son, the one I love. Listen to him!’ Then, quite suddenly, they looked round and saw nobody there any more, only Jesus with them. As they came down the mountain, Jesus instructed them not to talk to anyone about what they had seen, ‘until’, he said, ‘the son of man has been raised from the dead’. They held on to this saying among themselves, puzzling about what this ‘rising from the dead’ might mean. ‘Why then’, they asked him, ‘do the legal experts say “Elijah must come first”?’ ‘Elijah does come first,’ he replied, ‘and his job is to put everything straight. But what do you think it means that “the son of man must suffer many things and be treated with contempt”? Actually, listen to this: Elijah has already come, and they did to him whatever they wanted. That’s what scripture said about him.’
The first time I went on live radio, I wasn’t conscious of being terrified until I began to speak. Even then, I didn’t feel it as a flutter in the stomach, or my knees knocking together, or anything like that. It came out – well, it came out in the words that came out of my mouth. For two or three sentences I heard my voice saying things I hadn’t planned, some of which weren’t even true. I gradually managed to get hold of my voice – that’s what it felt like – and reconnected it to the thinking bit of my brain instead of the panicking bit.
That was a long time ago, but it left a clear impression in my memory, and in my understanding of how the tongue can blurt out odd things under pressure. I imagine that’s how it was for Peter, too, when his tongue disconnected from his brain for a moment in the face of one of the most extraordinary sights described anywhere in the Bible, or most other books for that matter.
Of course, what he blurted out wasn’t complete nonsense, even though Mark apologizes for him, explaining in verse 6 that he was so terrified he didn’t know what he was saying. The idea of building ‘shelters’ wasn’t a reflection of the fact that it would be cold and dark before too long and that somehow Jesus, Elijah and Moses would need somewhere to stay. The ‘shelters’ were an echo of the ancient Israelite custom of living in makeshift shelters, ‘booths’ or ‘tabernacles’, as part of one of the festivals that commemorated the Exodus from Egypt. So perhaps the connection in Peter’s frightened, muddled mind was a realization that this was one of those great God-moments, like the time when Moses went up the mountain and came down with his face shining from talking with God . . .
And now here is Moses, once more, but also Elijah, the great prophet who also met God on the mountain. And they are talking with Jesus. And all three are shining, faces, clothes, the lot, described by Mark with another nice touch (people have often suggested that this must be a reflection of Peter’s own reminiscences): no laundry on earth could get clothes as white as that. From time to time in the long history of spiritual experiences people have described incidents such as this, but in the present case it’s so unexpected, so out of character with everything else even in the gospels themselves, that we are right to be as shocked as the disciples were. What does it mean?
The meaning seems to be a confirmation of all that has gone before at the end of chapter 8. Yes, Jesus really is the Messiah. Yes, the path he is now treading – the path that will lead to the cross – really is the right, God-given way by which he must come into his kingdom, by which he will be obedient to the plan of the one who addresses him, as at the baptism, as his beloved son (verse 7). And yes, all this is happening not as an odd or bizarre occurrence, detached from the long and noble tradition of the prophets and the law, but entirely in line with Elijah and with Moses himself. And yes: looming up behind all of this, making sense of it all but a sense so overwhelming that anyone might find themselves talking nonsense at the glimpse of it all, is the fact that the one of whom the voice from heaven speaks is not just ‘my son, the one I love’ in a kind of honorific way, a title conveniently bestowed on a mere mortal. The one who is ‘son of God’ in the sense of ‘Messiah’ is also ‘son of God’ in a sense never before imagined, a sense that would take hundreds of years of prayerful thought to begin to understand.
That is the meaning of the discussion, as they come down the mountain, about ‘Elijah coming first’. According to Malachi 4, God will send the prophet Elijah back to the people to prepare them for – for what? For his own coming. As in Malachi 3.1, the messenger prepares the way for yhwh himself, Israel’s God, to return to his people. What the disciples still can’t get their minds around is the possibility that the living God might come back in and as a human being, in and as this Jesus they have been following, the Jesus they have just declared to be God’s Messiah. But Elijah has already come and gone; Jesus was referring, of course, to John the Baptist. The one who now comes is Israel’s Messiah, and more than Israel’s Messiah.
Some Christian traditions have done their best to screen out the notion of transfiguration altogether: just a fantasy, they think, a projection of a deeply felt spirituality. Others, such as the Eastern Orthodox churches, have gone the other way, and have insisted that if God’s own spirit is at work in his people then we ought to expect transformation, transfiguration, to be taking place in all kinds of ways. It will be unexpected, of course, but in the Christian life we are taught to expect the unexpected. It will be incomprehensible, even, just as the disciples found Jesus’ command not to tell anyone until he had risen from the dead. But if we discovered a faith with nothing unexpected or incomprehensible, nothing to shake us from our cosy normal existence and assumptions, we could be fairly sure that it wasn’t the real thing.
Let the light of your presence, gracious Lord, shine upon us, and through us, that your love may illuminate the dark places of our lives, and of the whole world.