The first words of this morning’s gospel (Mark 9:2-9) are Six days later. The timing refers to the day when Jesus told his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again….and Peter rebuked him. Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection forms the backdrop for the rest of the gospel for this day.
The gospel continues…Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. Peter, James and John had become the inner circle of disciples. They were the only ones named in Mark 5:37 when he raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead. They would accompany Jesus deep into the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33).
The situation, a high mountain apart, by themselves, recalls the meeting of Moses with God when Moses went with three companions, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. (Exodus 24:19).
And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. The transfiguration revealed Christ’s divine character. Up until this point, Jesus’ disciples may have regarded him as a great teacher, a healer, a miracle worker and a holy person. Despite these qualities he appeared to be one of them… only better. But, in this moment, he revealed his divine essence. The comment about Jesus’ clothes suggests that Jesus’ presence “radiated” through the clothing making them whiter than any bleach could have. His own being transformed the things around him. This transforming power was the fuller reality of Jesus’ person.
And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt and was emblematic of the Law. Elijah symbolized the prophets, and particularly his proclamation of the One God: Yahweh. Their presence with Jesus suggests that he was the one to whom the law and prophets had pointed. Both Moses and Elijah knew when their departures were coming and had told their followers…as did Jesus. By Jesus’ time, both had been gone for centuries, but here they were. Their attendance meant that, in Jesus’ presence, there was life after earthly death.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here” This is the first occasion in Mark’s gospel where someone addressed Jesus as Rabbi. While rabbi is often translated as “teacher”, that was a later use. In Jesus’ day the term would have more of the meaning of “Majesty” and would have indicated the sense of awe that the disciples experienced.…let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
The shining appearance of Jesus, combined with the presence of Elijah and Moses, appears to have overwhelmed the capacity of the disciples to interpret the experience and respond meaningfully. At the same time, Peter understood that he, James and John were witnessing something significant and he sought a role that could be of service.
Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” This passage echoes the words that John the Baptizer heard when he had baptized Jesus in the Jordan…As he was coming up out of the water, … a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved: with you I am well pleased.” But her, unlike Jesus’ baptism, when God spoke directly to Jesus, the words this is my Son, are spoken to Peter, James and John.
The voice from a cloud was significant. It focused on Jesus, not Moses or Elijah. By identifying him as the beloved, in language clearly addressed to the disciples, it formally validated Jesus and conclusively answered the question, “Can he be the One?”
Throughout his gospel Mark addresses the issue of Jesus’ true identity. In the opening verses Mark quotes John the Baptist as saying, a bit mysteriously, “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to … untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John is able to describe the person’s regal character but is unable to identify him.
In Mark 8:27-29, shortly before this passage, Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Elijah’s presence, but distinct from Jesus, was a visual confirmation that Jesus was different from Elijah. God’s voice, confirming Jesus’ identity as his beloved son, is, in some respects, the pinnacle of Mark’s gospel.
The transcendent moment brings together still-living icons of scripture and Jesus appears transformed in a way that makes even his clothes glow. The three elements, taken together, confirm Jesus as THE ONE.
As if more was needed, the words, listen to him, validate Jesus’ authority, even when the words, such as those about his death and resurrection, seemed incredible.
Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. Elijah and Moses’ disappearance must have been as astonishing as their appearance in the first place. Peter, James and John could not have made sense of where they had come from or gone to.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. It was as though Jesus was arming them with an experience that would stay with them during the coming days when he would be tortured to death. They could not fully understand or appreciate all the details of his changed appearance, the presence of Elijah and Moses or the voice telling them to listen to the beloved son, but the memory remained.
Mark wrote as though he had heard the story from one of the three who had been there. His references to the rebuke of Peter, just before this event, as well as later (Mark 14:72, when the cock crowed during Jesus’ trial before Pilate, and he recognized that he had denied knowing Jesus) suggest that Peter was Mark’s prime source. Regardless of the source, it seems that the three disciples recognized it as a supernatural moment and were still trying to interpret its full significance even as they told the story.