Transfiguration: hearing rightly

transfiguration mystagogyWhat are they to hear? What are they to listen to? While “all the words from Jesus” is a general answer, a more specific answer from our context is Jesus’ teaching just before our text (8:31-38). In these verses, Jesus speaks words that the disciples (especially Peter) were unable to hear – the prediction of his Passion and death. Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about his Passion. Peter doesn’t want to listen to such words. Peter’s problem, as Jesus indicates it, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (8:33). The same problem might be evident in his desire to build three booths.

What is ironic, is that just before this rebuking of Peter by Jesus, Peter’s had made his good confession: “You are the Messiah” (8:29), but this knowledge about who Jesus is doesn’t help Peter understand what Jesus will do – suffer, die, and be raised. Peter rebukes him. Jesus wants him “behind him” and to set his mind on divine things.

In a similar way, in the transfiguration, they see who Jesus is: the glorified, beloved Son of God, but this revelation doesn’t help Peter understand what they should do. He wants to build booths. God wants him to listen. In the verses before our text, not only did the disciples turn a deaf ear to the words about Jesus’ suffering, they also failed to hear his words about the subsequent resurrection.

Brian Stoffregen has an interesting insight:

In Exodus 33:17-23, Moses asks to be shown God’s glory. God replies, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” Instead, God tells Moses to hide in the cleft of a rock and that he would be covered with God’s hand until God has passed by. With the removal of the hand, Moses would see God’s backside, but not God’s face.

In the human Jesus, we are able to see God’s face. The transfigured Jesus produced terror (ekphobos — stronger than mere phobos 9:6) and the disciples were unable to relate properly to the glorified Jesus. With verse 8, we have the “ordinary” Jesus again — one who relates to and carries on conversations with human disciples.

After weeks of miraculous healings, we return to a truth that …in Mark the true impediments to discipleship have nothing to do with physical impairment, but with spiritual and ideological disorders: ‘Having eyes can you not see? Having ears can you not hear?’ (8:18).

Our faith is about proper seeing and hearing and remembering. Generally, seeing, hearing, and remembering don’t produce faith, but one’s belief in God can produce changes in seeing, hearing, and remembering.

A Final Reflection (from Pheme Perkins, 632)

Despite providing the most dramatic evidence of Jesus’ relationship to God of any epiphany scene in the Gospel, the transfiguration cannot override the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death. It does sharpen the paradox of the cross. Although God spared Moses and Elijah from the normal processes of death, not only does God’s own beloved Son die, but also his death is at the hands of his enemies. Even the affirmations of exaltation and entry into the glory of his Father (8:38) cannot nullify the scandal of the cross. God’s command to heed the word of Jesus gives his teaching the authority of divine revelation.

Christians frequently think of the divinity of Jesus in terms of heavenly glory or the triumph of the parousia without recognizing the real presence of God on the cross. We tend to think that Jesus is most clearly Son of God in glory, not in suffering. This passage challenges us to revise our understanding of how God’s presence comes to the world. The command to silence reminds Christians that glory and suffering cannot be separated. Appearances of glory do not provide evidence for God’s truth. Sometimes people expect historians to describe Jesus as such an overpowering personality that others will be compelled to believe. Or they are scandalized by books that treat Jesus as someone whom the educated elite of his time would hardly have noticed. Mark warns that faith grasps hold of a different reality. Dramatic miracles and heavenly visions do not create faith. Christians know that the crucified Jesus is now risen and is exalted with God. Jesus Christ is present to believers without signs and wonders.

Although Mark never lets us forget the reality of the cross, the transfiguration also reminds us of the heavenly basis for our faith in Jesus. At Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9–11) God declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” The transfiguration confirms that testimony just as Jesus begins to instruct his disciples about the cross. The presence of Moses and Elijah reminds us that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the goal of the story of God’s salvation in the Law and the Prophets. The God who delivered Moses and Elijah will certainly be with Jesus and his disciples. The living presence of Moses and Elijah also reminds us that Jesus is not merely a great figure from the past. The Jesus of Christian faith lives as God in a way that transcends the life of the saints in heaven. As Paul says in Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38–39)

 

Notes

Mark 9:1 There are some standing…come in power: understood by some to refer to the establishment by God’s power of his kingdom on earth in and through the church; more likely, as understood by others, a reference to the imminent parousia.

Mark 9:2 transfigured: the Greek metemorphothe is the passive form indicating that the work of God is in play as the agent of revelation of the divine nature of Jesus. Interestingly, the same word is used in 2 Cor 3:18 when St. Paul writes: “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

Mark 9:2–8 six days: Mark and Mt 17:1 place the transfiguration of Jesus six days after the first prediction of his passion and death and his instruction to the disciples on the doctrine of the cross; Lk 9:28 has “about eight days.” Thus the transfiguration counterbalances the prediction of the passion by affording certain of the disciples insight into the divine glory that Jesus possessed. His glory will overcome his death and that of his disciples; cf. 2 Cor 3:18; 2 Pt 1:16–19. The heavenly voice (Mk 9:7) prepares the disciples to understand that in the divine plan Jesus must die ignominiously before his messianic glory is made manifest; cf. Lk 24:25–27. See further the note on Mt 17:1–8.

Mark 9:5 Moses and Elijah: They represent respectively law and prophecy in the Old Testament and are linked to Mount Sinai; cf. Ex 19:16–20:17; 1 Kgs 19:2, 8–14. They now appear with Jesus as witnesses to the fulfillment of the law and the prophets taking place in the person of Jesus as he appears in glory.

Mark 9:7 A cloud came, casting a shadow over them: even the disciples enter into the mystery of his glorification. In the Old Testament the cloud covered the meeting tent, indicating the Lord’s presence in the midst of his people (Ex 40:34–35) and came to rest upon the temple in Jerusalem at the time of its dedication (1 Kgs 8:10).

Sources

  • Alan R. Cole, Mark: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 2. Of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 213-17
  • John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 2 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002)
  • William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 1974). 314-29
  • Philip Van Linden, “Mark” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 921-22
  • Wilfred Harrington, Mark, v 4 of New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1979)
  • Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark in The New Interpreter’s Bible, VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 629-32
  • David Turner and Darrell L. Bock, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 11: Matthew and Mark (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005). 474-75
  • Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Social-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2001) 259-65

Dictionaries

  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture – The New American Bible available on-line at http://www.usccb.org/bible

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