A Provocation: Transfiguration Sunday: February 11, 2018: Mark 9:2-9

Mark 9:2-9
9:2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,

9:3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

9:4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

9:5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

9:6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

9:7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

9:8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9:9 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.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is it so important for the storyteller to emphasize how very alone they were on the mountain?
  • Is that the only reason?

Some Longer Reflections:

Interpreters have paid careful attention to the way the Transfiguration scene echoes the Baptism scene, and to the way both scenes set up the audience for the Crucifixion.  These three linked scenes create the structure that makes Mark’s story work, and we have known that for a long time.

So this time when I sat down with the Transfiguration scene before me, I wondered about it.

I have heard good sermons that began by considering the mountain as one of the “thin places” known in Celtic spirituality, as a place where the divide between the earthly realm and the realm of the spirit was especially thin and permeable.  One ought to expect spiritual revelations to occur in a thin place.

I have heard good sermons that explored the Transfiguration as a revelation of the essential Divinity of Jesus.  The best of these sermons did not ignore the countervailing humanity that a theology of Incarnation must insist on, but all of these (generally very helpful) sermons saw the scene in Mark 9 as an occasion in which the “meat shield” (an odd term that emerged in a discussion of this scene the other day) broke open and Jesus’ deep Divinity shone out.

But I found myself wondering about how all of this works when the Transfiguration and the Baptism are linked with the death by torture with which the story reaches its goal.

In all three, Jesus is at the center of vision.  In all three there is an Elijah, even if he only appears in a taunt delivered by a crowd of Roman murderers who cannot understand Aramaic, the Jewish language.  In all of them Jesus is identified as “son of God.”  In the last scene, however, the identification comes, not from God, who should have broken the silence and spoken, but by the centurion in charge of the murder.  Imagine the power of the scene if God had, once again, claimed Jesus as son.  The storyteller set up the story so that we would imagine that, so that we would NEED that.  The story would indeed offer a spiritual revelation if God spoke, saying the only words God ever says in Mark’s story: “This is my son.”

But the storyteller denies us the release that we need.

The centurion finishes the shameful murder by taunting Jesus’ corpse, hanging lifeless on the cross.

So I have been wondering: what happens to the Transfiguration when it is linked to the murder of a man who cannot save himself and come down from the cross?

As I wondered, I picked up Martin Luther’s translation of this scene, and found a small surprise.  The Greek tells us that Jesus was μετεμορφώθη (“metamorphosed”) before them, using a word that almost begs for interpreters to imagine Jesus as a caterpillar in the process of becoming a butterfly.  Luther tells us that Jesus was, in the presence of Peter, James, and John, verklärt.  Your German lexicon will tell you that verklären means that something earthly is heightened into something more (my Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch uses the word Übererdische here).  This is a wonderful word to use in this scene, and offered a nice surprise since I had expected that a more common word for “transformed” would be used.  Part of what makes Luther’s translation so interesting to me is the fact that verklären sits in the lexicon right next to verklaren, which means “clarified.”  Oh, what a difference an umlaut makes!

So I looked also in my grandfather’s Bible to see how this scene was rendered there.  In Swedish, Jesus is förklarad, which means “clarified.”  (Except in biblical situations, my lexicon tells me, where it uniquely means “glorified.”)  I have long distrusted theology that requires words to mean something different inside the “church world” that they don’t mean in the real world.  (As Bonhoeffer wrote in the EthicsDie Welt Welt bleibt, the world remains the world.)

So what if we read this scene not as a transformation of Jesus, but as a clarification?

It is intriguing to me that the Swedish also tells us that Jesus’ clothing became “klar,” which means exactly what it sounds like.  His clothes, in Swedish at least, become transparent.  This suggests that my grandfather might just have grown up imagining that the revelation on the mountain was a revelation of Jesus’ regular human body.

I like this way of reading this text.  It connects better with the Crucifixion, and makes it clear (!) that both scenes reveal Jesus’ human body, vulnerable, beautiful, and exactly like our bodies.

I heard a story on NPR today.

It was a story about a border agent who patrolled the desert of the American south looking for people entering the country illegally.  He told of his commitment to his work.  He told also of his decision to leave that work.  That decision was rooted in his reflection of the night that he arrested a middle-aged woman who had been abandoned in the desert by her guide.  She was alone.  She was lost.  And she was injured.

The agent knelt before her, tending to her badly injured feet, and the woman thanked him.

“How could she thank me?,” he said.  “I had arrested her and she would be deported.  How could she thank me?”

Her injury, her vulnerability, her human reality, bodily, physical, and needing care,  led him to rethink his work and his responsibilities.  All of that was clarified when he tended to her injured feet.  So he changed.

What if that is the real transfiguration in this scene?

What if it is Jesus’ human vulnerability that matters, both on the cross and on the mountain?

You can read this scene other ways, customary ways, and read it well.  This time I am going to read it differently, just in case there is a revelation hiding in his body exactly like mine: vulnerable, mortal, limited.

3 thoughts on “A Provocation: Transfiguration Sunday: February 11, 2018: Mark 9:2-9

  1. Thank you for this – what a wonderful interpretation!

    I heard once that in the Resurrection garden, Jesus may well have been naked (as gardeners apparently working naked in the heat of the sun). If true, I love the emphasis on the vulnerability of the body – of the Word becoming flesh, of his clarification on the mountain, of his weakness on the cross, and in resurrection.

    Also, the way that light and dark are played with in each telling of these stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Please may I ask about the ‘taunt’ of the centurion at the crucifixion once Jesus is dead?
    I have only ever heard it read and expressed with utter sincerity – I love this reversal, but am curious as to where the mockery reading comes from…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have laid out the larger textual argument for this reading in a few places. Maybe the easiest to find is in my book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary. Donald Juel also makes a similar argument in his book, Master of Surprise, I believe.

      Liked by 1 person

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