“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.”
I speak to you in the name of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Mark is the shortest of the four gospels, lasting only sixteen chapters, and over one-third of it is about Jesus’s death. He performs miracles, travels, and teaches, but the whole narrative moves quickly toward the crucifixion. We read this narrative knowing what happens in the end, but throughout it, Jesus repeatedly impels those around him not to reveal his Messianic identity. Several times the text after a miracle story reads, “He sternly ordered them not to make him known.” Jesus thought it more important for people to see his work and example than to know his identity as the Son of God. In the story immediately before today’s Transfiguration text, Jesus asks the disciples, “who do you say that I am?” This question is being asked of the disciples, but also of us, the readers. We heard back at his baptism in chapter one that he is God’s son, “the Beloved.” But that is not the identity Jesus claims. In Mark’s Gospel he is not the glorious, otherworldly, divine-seeming Messiah that we expect. He is the humble servant leader.
Before looking at today’s text, let’s remember the call stories of Peter (formerly Simon), James, and John. Peter and his brother Andrew were fishing in the Sea of Galilee when Jesus passed them and said “follow me.” The brothers immediately got up, left their nets, and went. Soon after, Jesus saw James and John, mending their fishing nets, and again called them to follow him, which they did. There was no hesitation in these stories. Peter, James, and John don’t ask clarifying questions, or wonder out loud how long they’ll be gone. They just go. They are utterly devoted to Jesus from the start. Their faith and their love for him are clear.
So, let’s think about today’s Gospel from their perspective. They follow Jesus up the mountain – at this point, they would likely follow him anywhere – and suddenly, before their eyes, he is transfigured, his clothes transformed to dazzling white. And, even more bizarre, standing alongside and talking to this otherworldly Jesus are Elijah and Moses, two of the most significant prophetic figures from the Old Testament. The three disciples are terrified. What are they looking at!? Where did Elijah and Moses come from!? Peter immediately starts babbling about creating a dwelling for each of these men. This is more an act of desperation and a symptom of Peter’s terror and shock than a real offer. As the text says, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” I would be too! And then, as if the vision of Jesus with Elijah and Moses isn’t enough, the sky is overshadowed by clouds and a voice cries out, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Then, just as quickly as this spectacle began, it ends. The sky clears, the prophets disappear, and Jesus is once again his normal, human self, not particularly dazzling. He leads his friends back down the mountain. As they go, Jesus orders them to tell no one about what they have seen, until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead. Seriously, Jesus!? How are the disciples supposed to simply return to normal after seeing and hearing something so awesome? So awe-inspiring? And how are we supposed to relate this story to our lives?
Allow me to step away from the Sacred Text and to my sacred secular text: Harry Potter. I cannot even hear the word “transfiguration” without thinking of Professor McGonagall, the wise, snarky professor of Transfiguration at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Transfiguration is the magical technique of changing an object, person, or animal to another. In their first year, Harry and Ron are late arriving to Transfiguration class and are so pleased to see not a professor at the front of their classroom, but a cat. They are then mortified when the cat jumps off her stool towards them, and while doing so, transfigures into Professor McGonagall, who marks the boys tardy.
In a later class, Ron is almost successful transfiguring his pet rat into a water goblet, save for the long tail sticking out from the stem of the glass. Part of what is fun about reading and watching the Harry Potter series now, over twenty years after I started them, is to see the progression of characters and of my own understanding of the story. As I have grown older, I have learned that Transfiguration class is not only about the things being transfigured; the witch and wizard students are being changed, too. They are developing their skills and powers in ways that are transformative for them and their world. The people and the animals are the same inside – Professor McGonagall was still herself when she was in the body of a cat. But those who witnessed her transfiguration, her outward change, were inwardly changed. Their perspective on the world around them was altered.
In Mark’s Transfiguration story, Jesus is not the one being changed. He has known his divinity all along. He doesn’t feel different on that mountaintop; he only looks different. Peter, James, and John, however, witnessing Jesus’ transformation, are the ones who are inwardly transformed. Sure, they have seen Jesus perform miracles, but they have never seen anything like this. They have not seen him become something other before, not seen him seemingly leave the human realm for a moment for . . . what? The divine? They have never before heard God’s booming voice from the heavens telling them that their friend and leader Jesus is God’s son.
And still, the moment passes, they go back down the mountain, and life goes on. Jesus tells them not to mention what has happened, and their work and ministry continue as if nothing is different.
In our church calendar right now, we are marching toward Lent and then on to the Resurrection. We know that after 40 days, Christ will die, and after three more be raised from the dead. And we know that the day after that, we will wake up and nothing much will be different. We’ll walk down the mountain after Easter, and what? We will still be called to the Christian life – to radical love of God and one another. That will not have changed.
Maybe some of us will have a mountaintop transfiguration moment. We can hope for one. For a transcendent, life-changing moment of absolute belief, of assurance that God is real and Jesus rose from the dead. I hope that death will bring something like that. But until then, let us hear God’s booming voice from the heavens when it says, “listen to him!” Let us listen to Jesus. And let us be inspired by him. Let the life and ministry of the transfigured one transform us.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog