Mark 9:2-8, The Transfiguration of Jesus

[February 15, 2015] The Season of the Passion comes to us early this year for Ash Wednesday is this week. As far as our Gospel meditations go, we jump then from Jesus’ début in Capernaum to his transfiguration on the mountain, which closes our seasonal meditations on the Epiphany (or manifestation) of Jesus. At the beginning of the Season of Epiphany, when Jesus was baptized as a penitent by John in the Jordan, heaven opened within him and the voice of his Father spoke: “You are my Son, the Beloved; in you I have found my delight.” At the end of this season, after the disciples finally began to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, heaven opens to them and they hear the voice of their Father: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Hear him!” Jesus’ words to the disciples in the Gospel according to John were thus validated when he told them, You haven’t seen anything yet; “in all truth I tell you, you will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51).

The episode on the mountain echoes the theophanies on Sinai in the days of the exodus and to Elijah (YHWH appeared to both Moses and Elijah on Mount Sinai, and both Moses and Elijah were assumed into heaven, Moses according to legend, after his death, Elijah without dying; and from thence they appear to Jesus), gathering in one occasion and in unity the witness of the Law and the Prophets. The transfigured Jesus also is arrayed like the Ancient of Days in the 7th chapter of the apocalyptic Book of Daniel, a book not from the collection of Prophets but from the Writings, the third section of the Jewish canon. Unlike the theophany to Elijah, in which God sends Elijah back to anoint the prophet Elisha in his place—Elijah’s ministry reverberated with judgment, Elisha’s with grace—the Son of Man who appears in Daniel 7 overcomes the kingdoms of the world and establishes in their place the kingdom of God. All of these allusions are present in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.

In the transfiguration Jesus is glorious, but this proves that he is heavenly, not that he is divine (God in person), though the glory is from the participation of his humanity in divinity. It is the voice emanating from the cloud that hid Jesus which revealed him to be the divine Son (God in the person of the Son, distinguished from God in the person of the Father). Jesus’ divinity is likewise hidden elsewhere in the gospel and revealed only inwardly to individuals by the Father’s favor (i.e., by grace).

Please read my post from five years ago, The Glory of the Faithful One, for a detailed exposition of the passage.

This event comes at an important point in the Gospel according to Mark, and I thought we might spend a moment to appreciate that.

  • The gospel begins with the baptism of Jesus, of which his fasting is part (1:1-13). This establishes the “beginning of the gospel,” the basis of Jesus’ story, which follows, and of our own story as Jesus’ disciples.
  • Then Jesus appears on the “stage” (so to speak), announcing the Gospel and serving in grace (1:14—3:12).
  • 3:13—6:13 begins with Jesus selecting the Twelve to be with him and ends with him sending them away (out). Between these two events the question is raised as to who is with Jesus and who not: who is his family and with whom is he at home? In this context Jesus tells a group of parables and then performs signs with symbolic import.
  • In 6:14—8:30 Jesus manifests himself, showing and revealing who he is. We move from the spiritual blindness of Herod to the healing of a blind man, who at first can only partially see, alluding to the disciples, whose understanding at this point is also fuzzy and partial. The closing pericope is Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah.” But does he understand what he is saying? What will truly open the disciples’ eyes?
  • The section from 8:31 to 10:52 ends with the healing of the blind beggar Bartimaeus, who sees clearly and “followed Jesus in the Way” (en (i) ho(i)). It begins with Jesus announcing the way of the cross—that he is going to the cross and that his disciples must follow him in this “Way.” After the Transfiguration scene that follows this, Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem (to the cross), and the episodes and teaching snippets happen along this Way. Two more times, punctuating this section, Jesus reminds his disciples that he is going to the cross and will rise again.
  • What follows in 11:1—14:11 is his messianic arrival in Jerusalem and his pronouncement of the judgment as a consequence of the divine holiness. It ends with the conspiracy of the powers, the devotion of his loved one consecrating him for the messianic task ahead of him, and the betrayal of one of his own, affirming the implications of baptism.
  • 14:12—16:20 tell the story of Jesus’ faithfulness unto death and his vindicating resurrection. It ends with Jesus telling his disciples—alluding to the presumed reader—to return to where he began (in Galilee) “where you will see him.” There the vindicated one commissions them to do what he did in the beginning, “proclaim the Gospel,” only now, “go out to the whole world.”

Seen in this light, the Transfiguration story takes place in a certain context. The disciples finally admit that they realize that Jesus is the Messiah, but they do not really understand what this means. Implied in what happens here is the beginning of the Gospel, when Jesus takes on the yoke of penitence by being baptized: he identifies with sinners, entering into solidarity with them and, in that place, putting himself under the same divine judgment that lays on them. The only way of being the Messiah (the anointed Prophet, Priest and King) is to take up the way of the cross. The transfiguration only takes place after Jesus announces that this is the way he is taking. Moreover, it takes place in the context of “seeing.” The disciples say he is the Messiah but their vision is fuzzy and partial. What clarifies their sight is when they understand that the role of Messiah and the way of the cross are the same, and when they take up this way themselves. Even though they hardly understand at the time of the transfiguration, they have not abandoned Jesus after his announcement and the associated dictate: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” They have decided to follow Jesus “in the way.” Only this will lead to their finally “seeing.” As a “sneak preview” the transfiguration takes place for three of them (Peter, James and John).

Notice that Jesus was revealed to the disciples (“This is my Son”) not when he was shining so brightly but when the cloud overshadowed and hid his glory. So is he revealed to us only in humility and the cross. Yet, that glory which was manifested IS something which he will share with us, not now (!) but when he comes in glory.

In the context of the Gospel according to Mark, the transfiguration thus serves two roles. It manifests the glory of Jesus that was otherwise hidden, and it manifests the glory that shall be ours too if we follow Jesus in the Way. In the above context, the transfiguration serves the first role because, in 6:14—8:30 Jesus has been manifesting himself in various ways leading up to the question, “Who do you say I am?” (he is already this transfigured one, revealed by the voice from heaven), and 8:31—10:52 is about how that blindness is overcome (if he is already this transfigured one, this is the reason we cannot see it: we divorce his messianic title from the cross). The transfiguration serves the second role because Jesus has just invited the disciples to accompany him and thus save their souls. This accompaniment is that toward which the earlier section, 3:13—6:13 (stressing the important of being with him), was pointing forward. The transfiguration is, therefore, all about the way of the cross. The transfiguration is the glory hidden by the Way and it is the glory toward which the Way leads.

The transfiguration is the glory of the Way of the cross because the Way of the cross is God’s own way, the way of love. It is the way of God’s nature, which is self-giving love. We are becoming like God when we take up this way, and because we can only do so because the Holy Spirit is operating within us, by God’s grace, we are—in doing so—participating in the divine nature, for it is the divine nature that is at work in us through the Holy Spirit. That participation is the glorification of our nature, but the glory is hidden in our humility.

The transfiguration is the glory towards which the way of the cross leads. Even though that glory is hidden in the way of the cross, it will not always be so. When Christ is universally manifested, we too shall be manifested with him; when he comes in glory, we too shall be glorified with his glory. We shall be raised, and when we are raised, we shall be like him.

When he rose from the dead, his human nature was divinized. This means that it was not only divine because it was inseparable from his divinity, being united by his being only one person (hypostasis); it means that his human nature began to share in all the perfections (properties) of his divine nature. His divine nature was native to him; his human nature is what he participated in, and by the participation of his person in our human nature, his entire human nature—in all its aspects—became divine. The resurrection took things further. His human nature took on, in addition to what it was—and without losing what it was—the qualities of divinity. The Son shared his native divine nature with his human nature. For example, his human nature became eternal and omnipresent. It became in every respect what has divine nature was. This is what will happen to us. While our person remains human and created, our nature will take on the qualities of divinity without our losing the integrity of our humanity. Our human nature will begin to share in the properties of the divine nature: we will be glorified.

This, however, depends, on our following Jesus in the way of the cross. Though we are redeemed, and our bodies will be resurrected, the salvation of our souls on the day when Jesus comes in glory will depend on our faithfulness now, our faithfulness to the Way of Jesus, the Way of the cross. Jesus says this quite explicitly.

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