Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -- because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid. And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!" Suddenly, when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with themselves.
Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant. And they asked Him, saying, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" Then He answered and told them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things. And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him."
- Mark 9:2-13
Yesterday, we read that Jesus and His disciples went out to the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the road He asked His disciples, saying to them, "Who do men say that I am?" So they answered, "John the Baptist; but some say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered and said to Him, "You are the Christ." Then He strictly warned them that they should tell no one about Him. And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many thins, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, "Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men." When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." And He said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power."
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. I'm always intrigued by the numbers given in the Gospels. Why after six days? This would be the seventh, a number of fulfillment (just as we read of the symbolic value of seven loaves in the feeding of the four thousand in the wilderness). A high mountain is an indication of spiritual revelation (such as in Moses' encounter with God). Jesus' transfiguration is a "theophany," a manifestation of God. The clothes that shine, and are a brilliant white such as no launderer on earth can whiten them are signs of divinity. Many Orthodox icons paint this light with a touch of blue, indicating a heavenly or other-worldly light, God's uncreated energy (see 1 John 1:5). The speaking with Elijah and Moses indicates a heavenly communion. Not only do the disciples recognize both Elijah and Moses without words, but limitations of time and space are suspended here -- all are present together. In the theme of completeness, Moses and Elijah represent, respectively, the Law and the Prophets. Also, Moses is symbolic of all those who have died, Elijah those who live in Christ -- as Elijah did not experience death. All witness to Jesus as Messiah, the fulfillment of the Old Testament.
Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -- because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid. This isn't as confused as it might sound to us; the Transfiguration can be linked to the festival of Sukkot, the Festival of Booths or Feast of the Coming Kingdom, in which the time that God dwelt in the tabernacle with the Jews journeying in Sinai is commemorated by the building of booths (or tabernacles). If Peter does not understand exactly why this is happening, his instinct correctly give to us a "type" of the revelation of the Kingdom and God's presence.
And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!" Suddenly, when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with themselves. The cloud gives us again an image of the presence of God from period the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, the pillar of cloud standing at the tabernacle door. The voice of the Father completes the manifestation of the Trinity. We note that we don't hear that Jesus has "become" My beloved Son, but that He is My beloved Son, indicating Christ's nature as Son, a permanent present state. As suddenly as they were in the presence of God, the disciples find themselves back in their normal state, only Jesus with them.
Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant. Once again, Jesus commands silence on the revelation of Himself as Christ (Messiah) and Son. The disciples cannot begin to grasp Jesus' foretelling of the Resurrection.
And they asked Him, saying, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" Then He answered and told them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things. And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him." Jesus refers to John the Baptist as Elijah returned -- a manifestation of prophecy that Elijah would return before the Messiah. We observe the ties between John the Baptist and Jesus, the work of the Spirit as one, another kind of communion of saints. Jesus makes an important observation, and His words mean they (and we) must make note: they did to him whatever they wished; it will be the same for Christ. Isaiah prophesies that the Suffering Servant, or Man of Sorrows, will suffer many things and be treated with contempt.
Highs and lows, ups and downs, the high mountaintop and Jesus' teachings about what will happen on Golgotha -- all of these are present in today's reading. Possibly the mountaintop experience is given so that when Christ's prophesy about His death manifests, the disciples will hang on to what have been revealed to them. Once again, we see this pattern in which only Jesus' closest disciples are allowed to witness a particular revelation. (It occurred earlier during the healing of Jairus' daughter, when Jesus would allow only them with Him, besides her parents.) This would seem to be clear evidence that -- at least at this stage -- these disciples are those with the strongest faith. These will see the rest of the disciples through the difficulties to come after Pentecost and the early foundations of the Church. Peter is already spokesman for all of them, James will become the first martyr among them, John will give us one Gospel, three Epistles, and the Revelation. The other remarkable thing we may consider about these three men is their remarkable capacity for holding fast to truth, and for proclaiming it. Peter's oratory skills after Pentecost are testified to in many places; his commanding capacity to lead will continue in his ability to speak for as "first among equals." John and James were already remarked upon by Jesus as "Sons of Thunder." We know of John's prolific capacity via his writing and teaching (even if one debates exact authorship, there is no doubt each work was the product of his own disciples if not himself, the "voice" consistent throughout), and we may imagine the reasons for James' early martyrdom. When Herod decided it was time to "harass" the Church, the first one to be killed was James, by Herod's sword, an indication of his effectiveness. Here in the fullness of the Transfiguration, we're given one of the basic foundations of our faith: that as He is transfigured, so God's work in us is one of transfiguration. Our conversion may be a lifetime experience, in which we move forward in faith, and find ourselves changed. The transition of these men from imperfect disciples to pillars of apostleship is one of which to make note. There are several incidents given in the Gospels when each is pulled up by Christ to note their shortcomings. Peter will deny Him three times the night of His arrest. James and John will be demanding to be the greatest men in His Kingdom while on the road to Jerusalem. These are hardly things of which they would be proud! Christ takes us all forward, as He does them, particularly by His own example. The great Kingdom manifest that these men expect will be nothing like what they imagine it to be. It will not be a material kingdom like that of Herod or any of the historical kings of Israel, even David himself. It will be nothing like the pomp and honor and might of a worldly kingdom, but one that will call everything they have within themselves to be challenged, and made powerful by grace. Jesus gives them -- and us -- this mountaintop experience so that we may know that He is divine, that He is God the Son. And then He gives them -- and us -- His life, Passion, death on the Cross, and Resurrection so that we may come to understand, as they did, the paradox that strength is found in humility, in weakness. It is in that strength that Peter may become the first among equals, in that strength that James becomes the one Herod must eliminate, in that strength that John will give the world so much of the foundation of Christian teaching. Let us remember the strength that endures, the self-emptying to which He calls us in exchange for who we may become in the life He gives. It's only in that paradox that we find Him and the true measure of stature to which He calls us.