What options are available to us beyond merely admiring Jesus’ Transfiguration? Or, said differently, from Moses to Elijah to Daniel to Jesus to today, what could it mean to talk about practicing Transfiguration?
The Rev. J. Carl Gregg Mark 9 24 October 2010
Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland
How can we make sense today in the 21st century of the mountaintop events Mark describes in what has become known as the Transfiguration of Jesus? This morning I invite you to consider these events with me from three different angles: first, looking back at the precedents in the Hebrew Scriptures that set a pattern for the Transfiguration described in Mark; second, looking forward to Transfiguration parallels at the end of Mark’s Gospel; and third, considering what Transfiguration-like experiences are available to us today. The question I will finally be inviting us to consider is what options are available to us beyond merely admiring Jesus’ Transfiguration? Or, said differently, from Moses to Elijah to Daniel to Jesus to today, what could it mean to talk about practicing Transfiguration?
First, let’s begin with the precedents in the Hebrew Scriptures which set a pattern for the Transfiguration described in Mark. The more I study the Christian Scriptures in conjunction with the Hebrew Scriptures, the more I see the roots, antecedents, and patterns in the Hebrew Scriptures that served as inspiration and templates for the Christian Scripture. This morning I want us to look briefly at three precedents: Daniel, Moses, and Elijah.
Consider the vision described in Daniel 10:5-6. Daniel says,
I looked up and saw a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl [which is a mineral], his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.
Sounds like Mark’s Transfiguration in which Jesus’ “clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” Perhaps even more strikingly, in Daniel 10:11 the blazing figure says to Daniel, “Daniel, greatly beloved, pay attention to the words that I am going to speak to you.” These word choices echo in Mark 9:7 when a voice says to the transfigured Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” There is a common thread both in the use of the word beloved as well as in the command to listen or pay attention to what is said.
Another important allusion to the Hebrew Bible is in the explicit appearance of Moses and Elijah in Jesus’ Transfiguration. At the broadest level of comparison, both Moses and Elijah experienced God’s presence on a mountaintop during what biblical scholar Ched Myers calls, “crucial periods of discouragement in their mission.”
In Exodus, after the Golden Calf incident when Moses breaks the Ten Commandments tablets, Moses must re-ascend the mountain. When Moses comes back down after his mountaintop experience with God, “the skin of his face was shining” — just as Jesus’ clothes shined in Mark.
Intriguingly, it seems that Matthew and Luke were both acutely aware of this parallel between Mark’s Transfiguration account and Moses’ experience in Exodus 24. When Matthew and Luke retell Mark’s story in their own Gospels, they both independently add that, not only were Jesus’ clothes shining (as in Mark), but also that Jesus’ face was shining — making the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration even more like Moses’ experience!
When you lay Exodus 24 and Mark 9 side by side, it quickly becomes obvious that the basic template from the Moses story in Exodus was recapitulated in Mark. Both mention “six days,” have three named companions in addition to the central figure, both happen on a mountaintop, both result in shining figures, both have God speaking from a cloud.
In addition these precedents in the Hebrew Scriptures, I want to invite you to consider the significant parallels between the Transfiguration account in Mark chapter 9 and the events at the end of the Mark’s Gospel.
When we read the crucifixion story in light of the Transfiguration, we see some striking contrasts. Mark’s story of Jesus moves from the blinding light of the Transfiguration to a shocking “darkness” at high noon as Jesus is crucified, from clothes dazzling whiter to clothes stripped from Jesus’ body, from two saints flanking Jesus on the mountain to two criminals flanking him on the cross, from the disciples wanting to stay on the mountain with Jesus forever to the disciples fleeing arrest and denying any knowledge of Jesus, from God reiterating that Jesus is his “Beloved” to Jesus calling to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” Thus, the Transfiguration shows us that our choice to follow the way of Jesus can take up to the peak experiences of the mountaintop, but also to the valley of struggle, persecution, and even martyrdom.
I have taken the time to point out these Hebrew Bible parallels as well as the parallels within the Gospel of Mark itself as a reminder that the authors and editors of the writings that were eventually incorporated into the Bible were often operating at a quite sophisticated level. That is, Mark’s mountaintop story of the Transfiguration is not a simple journalistic report. Instead, the telling of the Transfiguration has been shaped both by patterns in the Hebrew Scripture as well as by narrative themes within Mark’s own Gospel. And I believe that seeing this echoing pattern of transfiguration from Moses to Elijah to Daniel to Jesus invites us to extend our vision to see how the pattern of transfiguration light is being refracted in our own day.
As I consider what the Transfiguration means and looks like today, the quote that immediately comes to mind is from Marianne Williamson’s book A Return to Love. Williamson writes:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
As I have shared before, one of my central convictions is that following the way of Jesus is more important than admiring Jesus. And I believe Williamson’s words illuminate a way, not of merely being awe-struck by a mountaintop experience 2,000 years ago, but of potentially following Jesus — along with Moses and Elijah and Daniel before him — in a practice of transfiguration: the practice of allowing the light of God’s love to shine through us.
I do not think it is a coincidence that Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all experienced God on a mountaintop. And as with Daniel’s private vision of a transfigured person, our highest, most profound, most enlightening experiences often happen when we are alone or with a small, intimate group of close friends. So we pray and meditate, go on retreat, and gather together to worship. All of these acts, I invite you to consider, are ways of practicing transfiguration. These contemplative practices are ways of gently letting go of our ego, the masks we wear, our busyness, and our distractions. These practices of prayer, presence, and worship, open us from our isolation to connect us to God and to one another. We each reflect different aspects of the image of God, and practicing transfiguration allows God’s image to shine more brilliantly through us.
But as we have seen briefly in our preview of Mark’s ending, an experience of Transfiguration is no guarantee that the darkness will stay away. Just as Moses had to go back down the mountain to continue wandering in the wilderness, Jesus’ Transfiguration happens precisely as he seeks to redouble the efforts of his own ministry, turning his face toward Jerusalem, where his encounters with the powers that be will lead to his tragic death.
In my own practice, I seek to ascend the mountain about twice a day. In the early morning and in the early evening, I try to set aside about 45 minutes to pray and to journal. I try to spend at least half of that time in silence — not a rigid, blank, stiff, boring silence; but a contemplative, soft, gentle openness to the present moment. In my experience, this contemplative openness is what practicing transfiguration looks like: regularly carving out some time and space in our busy lives to simply be with God and to allow God to be present to us however God chooses.
In a few minutes, I will ring the bell and invite us into two minutes of contemplative silence. I invite you to consider any times when you may have witnessed a transfiguration in your own life. I also invite you to consider how God may be calling you to practice transfiguration. To inspire your contemplation, listen again to these transfiguring words from Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
I owe my title to a 2010 sermon of the same name by Dr. Bruce Epperly. His angle of approach — reflecting on Transfiguration as a practice — reminds me of Wendell Berry’s injunction to “practice Resurrection” from his poem “The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front.” I have approached the scripture in a related spirit, while moving in a similar, but different, direction.
1 To cite only one of many studies of the interplay between the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, see Richard B. Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.
2 For more on the parallels between Moses, Elijah, and Moses, see Myers, Binding the Strongman, 250.
3 The verse quoted about Moses’ face shining is Exodus 34:30. See the proceeding chapters for the larger context.
4 Mark 9:2-3 says, “And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. Matthew 17:2 says, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Similarly, Luke 9:29 says, “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
5 For more on the parallels between Mark’s Jesus and Exodus’ Moses, see Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), 1114-1115. Specifically, Marcus notes these parallels: “after six days” (Exodus 24:16 / Mark 9:2a), “3 named companions” (Ex 24:1,9 / Mk 9:2a), “ascent of Mountain” (Ex 24:9,12-13,15,18,34:4 / Mk 9:2b), “shining body/garments” (Ex 34:29 / Mk 9:2b-3), “God reveals self in cloud” (Ex 24:15-16,18 / Mk 9:7a), “voice out of cloud” (Ex 24:16 / Mk 9:7b).
6 For the parallels between Mark 9 and the end of Mark, I am following the lead of Davies and Allison 2.706-7 (qtd in Marcus 641): unearthly light (9:2-3) / supernatural darkness (15:33), clothes illuminated (2-3) / clothes stripped (15:24), two saints (9:4) / two criminals (15:32,35-6), good to be here (5) / disciples flee (14:50), beloved son (7) / abandoned me (15:34).
7 The Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition has the most robust conception of what it may mean to practice transfiguration. They call this practice “theosis” or “divinization.” See, for example, Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions.
8 A good introduction to contemplative practices is Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices by Daniel Wolpert.