II Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; II Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9.
At times of transition in leadership or mission, God grants forecasts of coming glory.
The readings for Transfiguration Sunday are about revelations of power and meaning that ordinary people do not normally see. These include the glory of God seen in the face of Jesus.
II Kings 2:1-12.
The prophetic reading presents the passing of the mantle from Elijah to Elisha.
For the age of the kings in Israel, Elijah is as massive a founding figure as Moses is for the Sinai age. When Moses was taken by God (Deuteronomy 34), all the provisions had been made for Israel’s life in the promised land, but the work of occupation was yet to be done. It was Joshua who was to complete the work (Deuteronomy 31:14-15, 23).
The same was true of Elijah. He had been the model of zeal for the Lord: he had defeated a host of Baal prophets on Mount Carmel and he had received the new revelation on the holy mountain authorizing him to overthrow the royal houses of Damascus and Israel. What was left undone at Elijah’s departure was to be completed by Elisha. Elijah was a new Moses for the northern kingdom and Elisha was his Joshua. (All this is in I Kings 17-19 and II Kings 2; Elisha carries out the revolution in II Kings 8-10.) Both Moses and Elijah were taken away to God (in approximately the same geographical location), and both were taken away before the completion of their work.
The enigmatic but clever story of Elisha hanging on to Elijah to the last second shows that Elisha was worthy of Elijah’s mantle (which he actually picks up in verse 13, just after our reading).
As the story is presented, Elijah, on his way to his rendezvous with God, keeps trying to put off Elisha, telling him there is no need for him to go further. But Elisha knows better. The several speeches to Elisha by the local companies of prophets are like the chorus of a Greek tragedy: he is leaving you, you know! Elisha hangs on, and is rewarded by being present when God’s fiery horses and chariot whisk Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind.
While this story is about Elisha, Elijah is the major figure standing as a colossus in Israelite prophecy. Elijah was such a favored one of God that, like Enoch before him (Genesis 5:21-24), he was taken to God without seeing death. Having gone to heaven without dying, Elijah was available to return when God had special work on earth at a later time (see Deuteronomy 18:15-18, Malachi 4:1 [3:23 in Hebrew], and Mark 9:11-13).
The Psalm reading is the opening section of a covenant liturgy in which God appears before the hosts in fiery and stormy presence to bring judgment. The later parts of the psalm address the question of what constitutes appropriate sacrifice (verses 7-15) and delivers an indictment of covenant-breakers (verses 16-23).
The opening of the psalm is a theophany. God comes in earth-spanning majesty to muster the covenant ranks. The rigor and discipline of this awesome parousia is presented very effectively in the New Jerusalem Bible translation:
The God of gods, Yahweh, is speaking,
from east to west he summons the earth.
From Zion, perfection of beauty, he shines forth;
he is coming, our God, and will not be silent.
Devouring fire ahead of him,
raging tempest around him,
he summons the heavens from on high,
and the earth to judge his people.
“Gather to me my faithful,
who sealed my covenant by sacrifice.”
The heavens proclaim his saving justice,
“God himself is judge.”
II Corinthians 4:3-6.
The Epistle selection presents the radiance of the new covenant against the background of the old.
Paul has just been talking about the old covenant brought by Moses (II Corinthians 3:7-16). There was a glory to that covenant written in stone, a glory that was reflected on Moses’ face after he had been talking with God. Moses put a veil over his face to protect the Israelites from its radiance—or as Paul suggests (3:13) to conceal the fact that the glory was fading. This veil on Moses’ face symbolizes the concealing of God’s revelation and glory from the elect people. “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” (3:15-16, NRSV).
In our passage, Paul says there are powers (“the god of this world”) that keep the power of the gospel veiled from some people. Nevertheless, when the gift of belief is given, the original first-created light of God shines in the hearts of the believers, and they behold the glory of God’s own self in the face of Jesus Christ.
The real “transfiguration” brought by the gospel is that unveiling from inner blindness, that showing forth of the image of God (verse 4), that is seen in the radiant face of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel reading is the “transfiguration” of Jesus before the three disciples of the inner circle.
This is a surprising narrative. If you are reading along through Mark, it leaps out from the surrounding narratives, because it is a heavenly intervention down into the human scene, like nothing else since Jesus’ baptism. In detail, the three disciples see Jesus brilliantly shining in heavenly clothes, as heavenly beings usually do in visions (Daniel 10:5-6) or as messengers (“angels”) do in special moments (Matthew 28:2-3). Talking with this heavenly Jesus are—Elijah and Moses.
The disciples suddenly behold Jesus in his real heavenly status, a figure especially beloved by God. The Voice declares that he is God’s own Son, the Beloved One.
Before the Voice speaks, however, Peter is inspired (or misled) to propose erecting three tents (“booths,” as at the Jewish festival of Sukkoth in the autumn) to memorialize these three heavenly lords. The narrator indicates that there is something wrong with Peter’s proposal (“He did not know what to say, for they were terrified,” verse 6). The Voice dismisses Peter’s proposal by declaring, “This is my Son. Listen to him.”
What is wrong with Peter’s suggestion? The answer, almost certainly, is shown by where this narrative comes in Mark’s Gospel. It comes shortly after Jesus has first revealed that “the Son of Man” (Jesus) must go to Jerusalem, suffer, and die, and that those who are his followers must lose their lives rather than save them (8:31-38). Peter has violently rejected this declaration by Jesus, and shortly afterward Jesus takes him with James and John up the mountain for the revelation.
Though Jesus has a primary place in the heavenly glory, the way of the gospel is not the way of glory, but the way of suffering and death at the hands of the tenants of the vineyard. “The glorious vision may be what Peter and many others want to see, but it is the message of suffering that all must hear” (Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel). And the Voice says, Listen to him!
The Feast of the Transfiguration was long observed in the Eastern Christian churches before it was observed in the West, but its date in both traditions was August 6th (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., “Transfiguration”). Why does Transfiguration Sunday now appear at the end of the season of Epiphany, just before Lent begins?
Surely for the same reason it appears where it does in the Gospel According to Mark: The epiphany of the Lord in power and good works (Mark 1:16-8:26) has reached a climax, sealed by this moment of glory. But what the disciples need to hear from here on (for the season of Lent) is that ahead lies the real cost of Jesus giving his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Special Note: Transfiguration as Resurrection Appearance
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, some New Testament scholars have seen Mark’s transfiguration narrative as his (only) report of a resurrection appearance.
The early versions of this theory thought of a piece of writing that got more or less mechanically transferred to the mid-point of the ministry in Galilee. Other scholars have said, “Oh this can’t be a resurrection appearance because it’s not at the end of the Gospel.” This misses the point, of course. This is not a misplaced vision of Jesus after the resurrection; it is a vision of the always real heavenly Jesus, the one who will return on the clouds as the Son of Man.
It is pretty clear that the transfiguration narrative is a deliberate revelation of the heavenly glory of Jesus, whether it's a secret glory for those who can see, or a preview of the glory that Jesus is headed toward—beyond the suffering. In this Gospel the Transfiguration is one of only two times when GOD declares who Jesus really is. (The other is at Jesus’ baptism.) But this declaration is not for Jesus only (as the baptism voice apparently is); this is for eyewitnesses, who are here given divine certification that the one who is about to suffer for “many” is really a glorious heavenly lord!
The End of Mark’s Gospel. It is striking that Mark does NOT have any appearances of the resurrected Jesus at the end of the Gospel. The revelation to the women at the tomb (16:1-8) has two main points: Jesus has risen, he is not here (at the tomb); and, “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7). To the great embarrassment of later Christians (who added Mark 16:9-20 in the second century), the women do not tell anyone, but run away in fear. So, Mark’s Gospel ends in what must seem confusion and disarray. How is that possible in a work that begins with the title, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…”?
Obviously, the Gospel has some resolutions built into it before the last paragraph. For example, in the midst of the Passion narrative Jesus says to the disciples, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, / and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:27-28, NRSV).
Mark is very much a Galilee-centered Gospel. In its overview, Jerusalem is a place of betrayal and death, not the place where the post-resurrection community had its beginning. It is Galilee that is the place of healing and life—the place where the announcement was first made, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near…” (1:15). In Mark, the risen Jesus leaves Jerusalem and goes back to Galilee before he appears to any of his followers. It is in Galilee that the heavenly Jesus has already been seen in glory by three disciples.
The Transfiguration on the mountain in Galilee, therefore, is Mark’s resurrection appearance of Jesus. The real work of building the community of Jesus-followers (like the mission Jesus sent them on in Mark 6) begins from Galilee. This is how Matthew’s community understood Mark a decade or two after Mark was written. Matthew retains Mark’s references to Galilee in the Passion and the Tomb narratives, and locates Jesus’ final commissioning revelation in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20).