We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
With Christ’s announcement of his coming passion, allied to the conditions which are embraced by those who can truly be called disciples, we have come to a key moment at the heart of the kingdom proclamation. This next moment marks the profound change from epoch to epoch, a necessary part of the kingdom’s presence felt and evident in the world. For those who belong to Christ there can be no looking backwards, no living in the past, even though, as we see here, the past is formative in our own developing relationship with God who commands history and brings all things to their fulfillment.
The transfiguration event is astounding, by any stretch of the imagination. It’s difficult to dismiss it as some type of literary invention: it is simply too unique in its presentation and properties and details. Each of the Synoptic gospels gives a slightly different account, adding details which are not present in the other two, but the central core of this powerful account remains unchanged: Christ is revealed, in glory, to three of his disciples, who are aware that with him in this place are the towering historical figures of Moses and Elijah. So significant is the event that the author of the Second Letter of Peter cites it as formative:
“It was not any cleverly invented myths that we were repeating when we brought you the knowledge of the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; we had seen his majesty for ourselves. He was honoured and glorified by God the Father, when the Sublime Glory itself spoke to him and said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour’. We heard this ourselves, spoken from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain”.2 Peter 1:16-18
Of course, the transfiguration prefigures – we can’t ignore this because this is how the account begins, and very specifically: “Six days later”, writes Mark. It’s hard here not to think back to the framework of the creation myth in Genesis: six days saw God bring creation into being, and the seventh day saw him rest. Now the sacred author asks us to think about a new creation taking place, but through the same creating Word spoken by the Father, all leading to a new Sabbath, which will see Christ truly revealed, because he will have suffered, died and risen. In this sense, the transfiguration is part of that ongoing narrative which is so crucial for Mark: this is the Christ, this is his revelation: see him, know him, accept him.
The Encounter with Moses (Exodus 33:18- 34:35)
The inclusion of Moses in the transfiguration revelation is, on many levels, significant. Usually we recognise that he is present because through him God established the great covenant of identity and relationship with his people, Israel, by giving the Law. Moses in his turn is recognised as the lawgiver, the one who gives voice and word to the divine law which helps establish Israel as a people in relationship. In this context, then, Christ is revealed here as the fulfillment of the law given through Moses, and not only the fulfillment but the one who goes beyond that law and its prescriptions and observance. With Christ the new law of the new covenant is established, and it will never be replaced or superseded. Christ, then, is both lawgiver and law.
But much more is at play here. In Moses, the entire story of Israel’s emergence as a people revealed as pilgrimage from slavery to freedom, from exile to return, is narrated. Moses is the narrator, if you like, of that entire history, and in his person carries the history of his people in these formative moments of birth. So it is clear that all those revelation events are present when he is present: the encounter at the burning bush, firstly, when God calls him into service, and into service of his people, and at the same time reveals himself by speaking his own name, a name which will come to signify unparalleled holiness. Moses becomes mouthpiece and mediator, moving back and forth between God and the emerging people Israel as the new relationship, salvific and sanctifying, takes form.
The revelation of God’s presence and plan continues in the pivotal plague which becomes Passover. The establishment of the covenant relationship in blood, which will take place at Sinai, is begun here in the killing of the passover lamb, and also in the death of the first born of all in Egypt. The blood from the lamb is smeared on doorpost and lintel, a sign that the angel sent will “pass over” those houses of Israel, sparing all within – the blood of the lamb, then, saves, and without it death follows. In that very moment slavery is ended, and bondage in Egypt, under Pharaoh’s rule, is consigned to history. The people of Israel, in an astonishing fashion, walk out of the country which has been their home since Joseph came up, and his family followed, which had once promised salvation but which quickly turned to oppression, and which now becomes a symbol of the beginning of their return to a land promised them. Passover defines Israel.
Lastly, the relationship which Moses has with God is never far from the text and understanding of Israel’s return history. It was a relationship which resonates immediately with that previously enjoyed by Abraham: call, intimacy, trust, dialogue, revelation, knowledge of God. That Moses should so frequently speak with and hear God speak to him leaves us in no doubt that he is towers above others in the Old Testament narrative. So, the encounter – a complex text in itself – which the sacred author presents to us in Exodus 33 and 34 seems to summarise the entire richness and otherness of Moses’ relationship with God. Having told us in the first instance that God would speak with Moses face to face as a man speaks to his friend (Exodus 33:11), the text goes on to assert the more traditional point of view that no man could see the face of God and live (Exodus 33:20). We have, of course, two different literary and theological traditions represented here, the one which reveals God in almost human and sense-perceived terms, inserting himself intimately into human history, and the second with its depiction of the God who is transcendent, above direct human experience, essentially unknowable save as he allows. But both aspects are important: this God of Israel allows himself to be known, to be the friend of his people, and especially of his chosen one, Moses, and yet he is a God who transcends any and all particular history: he is the God of salvation, whose very name cannot be uttered. Both aspects are essential at the transfiguration event.
The Encounter with Elijah (1 Kings 19:14)
It’s no coincidence that the author who relates the Elijah history does much to mirror the text of Exodus 33-34 in his own telling of Elijah’s formative encounter with God. The parallels are very deliberate, and place Elijah on the same exalted plane as Moses. The gripping Elijah saga sees the prophet appearing at a time in Israel’s history when the covenant has all but been forgotten, and Israel has fallen into open idolatry, symbolised by the worship of the god Baal and the prominence of his prophets, and the pursuit of the prophet Elijah by the king Ahab, and his degenerate wife, Jezebel. The struggle reaches a dramatic, emotional and definitive pitch at the great “anything you can do, I can do better” head to head between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. It has all the elements of comedy and tragedy, and finally, slaughter. The tradition of Israel’s monotheism is re-established and the polytheism of foreign nations supplanted once again, and all in the context of sacrifice and divine action. And even after this – and it must have been an exhausting trial for Elijah – the battle is still not won, and he must flee into the wilderness, the archetypal place of encounter with the Holy One.
We get some glimpse into the devastation which all of this wreaks in Elijah’s life – he is at the point at which he wishes his own life would end: “God, I have had enough. Take my life” (1 Kings 19:4). Later, the prophet Jonah will have just such an experience and want death to overtake him. At this lowest ebb, Elijah discovers that God is present, and strength.
The encounter with God at the cave on Horeb is a passage which has few rivals – it’s poetic turn of phrase, and its gently leading us into the mystery of God’s presence as he shows himself to Elijah, and Elijah perceives his presence in something approaching silence, has rarely been bettered. This is a God who defies our expectations, and surprises us when we have spent all the ideas which we can conjure up and imagine as the place of his habitation and revelation. And yet we need to be in a place, prepared, perhaps even with all our usual defences taken away or left aside, to be able to become aware of him. And the encounter at Horeb for Elijah becomes a new source of his going out to do God’s work: his mission is renewed, he has new purpose, and God’s plan is laid out for him to follow.
Elijah is the one who re-affirms the unassailable place of the one God in his chosen people’s life. He is the one who challenges idolatry and the rejection of the true God for a host of make-believe deities. He is the one who, even though his human frailty struggles to accept it, is peculiarly open to knowing God present, and to being in that relationship with God which allows God to take command and the prophet to follow.
The same make-believe idolatry which invents gods as and when persons and societies need something new to hang a hat on didn’t end with Elijah’s defeat of the prophets of Baal. It’s with us yet. We all have a tendency when we ditch the true God to find a need to invent our own gods to fill the void that we, not he, have created.
Both Moses and Elijah already, in a sense, prefigure the transfiguration: the conversation which is ongoing between each and God; the capacity to be able to step apart from the ordinary into a place in which God is more immediately felt and known; the deep sense of Israel’s salvation history inextricably linked to the covenantal relationship which transforms and redeems; the challenge to false gods so that the True God will be recognised. All of this, and the necessary development and completion of all of this, will be caught up in Christ’s revealing on the mountain.
The point has been made about the transfiguration that, in fact, there is nothing new here about Jesus. The newness, or the transformation, comes about in the three apostles who suddenly are given the grace and sense and eyes to see Jesus as he is, in his glory, a glory which will begin to be fully revealed in the resurrection. Even then, none of the gospels describe the resurrected Jesus in the terms which we encounter in the transfiguration. Perhaps this extraordinary glory was what the night witnessed on that Holy Saturday at the tomb. Perhaps this will be the glory which we will perceive at that Second Coming when Christ makes all things new and restores them to the Father. Whatever it might be, the Gospels which relate the transfiguration event leave us in no doubt: Jesus is God and is revealed as such here. The presence of Moses and Elijah, in conversation with him, quite apart from the fulfillment and superseding of the Law and Prophets, is as much to confirm this.
With all of this we enter our lectio slowly, and moment by moment. This is a lectio about our encounter with God, and his revelation of himself to us. The transfiguration is about God’s light in our life, a light which transforms, and reveals a new approach to God. Particularly in the transfiguration there is the extraordinary realisation that God allows himself to be known and recognised: Jesus Christ reveals the Father and allows us to speak to the Father, as it were, face to face, in Jesus Christ, and he speaks to us as one would speak to his friend. The Father and the Son are present to us in this moment, and so, without even having to be explicitly mentioned, is the Holy Spirit, the bond of love between the two other Persons, the One who makes possible the name The Beloved. So, the transfiguration is already a trinitarian experience, as was the baptism in the Jordan.
The desire to remain, expressed by Peter, seems entirely to be expected – who would want to leave such an experience! Peter is searching for a way to express his experience and his desire that the experience be captured, held, preserved in some way. He does so by referring to the tradition that he knows best: the tent, an expression of God’s journeying with his people, of God’s dwelling among his people, of God’s chosen place of encounter with his people. Even in this moment perhaps the evangelist is inviting us to think beyond the terms of this narrative: just as the tent of meeting gives way, in Jewish experience, to the temple built in Jerusalem and consecrated by Solomon, so the tent suggested by Peter here is entirely unsuitable since it must give way not to a place of God’s dwelling but simply, overwhelmingly, to God dwelling. There is no need for a tent: the place of encounter is Christ, and for all those who follow Christ, are baptised into Christ, the tent and temple is already the person. God creates us as the place of his habitation and encounter. It will be left to John in his own Gospel to find the theological terminology which expresses this new tent of meeting best, and it begins right in the Prologue of his Gospel: the Word is made flesh and dwells among us, he pitches his tent in the midst of his people by becoming like us in all things but sin. This wonderful transition finds its great expression in the teaching on the indwelling of the God: God makes his home in each of us.
St Paul, needless to say, on his own marvellous theological canvas, teaches us the same:
“Didn’t you realise that you were God’s temple and that the Spirit of God was living among you? If anybody should destroy the temple of God, God will destroy him, because the temple of God is sacred; and you are that temple”.St Paul
Peter’s confusion here is ours also: the perennial question with which all of us at some stage struggle is to encounter the God who is already more intimately present to us than we can know and yet who seems to be utterly distant and still unknowable. We continually seek to hold onto an experience of God and expect God to reveal himself to us only in that way. But God cannot and will not be confined to the parameters of a single experience: he reveals himself to us, makes himself present to us as he chooses, through myriad means and ways, asking us to use the graced eyes which he gives us to see him as he is. Perhaps, again, this is the point of the transfiguration experience: there is at work here the command to see God waiting to be seen!
God fills this place! Not for nothing does the evangelist once again revert to the language of the Exodus and the consecration of the Solomonic temple: the cloud, the Shekinah, the symbol of God’s enveloping presence, which accompanied the wandering pilgrim people in the wilderness and which filled the temple so much so that the priests could not fulfill their duties (let’s face it – God was there, they didn’t need to!), embraces this entire scene, casting its shadow over everything, and allowing the voice of God to name the Son as Beloved. God pours himself into every experience that he chooses to consecrate, and into every heart where he is invited.
Again, can we hear the words which God addresses about the Son? The relationship of Father and Son is the only way in which the persons of God relate in love to one another: it is the chosen way of being together. And so it has to be for each of us, dwelling place of God. The stark invitation is heard again and again: do I know that God calls me into relationship as beloved son or beloved daughter? There is no other premise upon which our relationship with God is established. And it is he who establishes it as this.
Lastly, we cannot relate to the Son, and therefore to the Father who loves him, unless we listen to him. In all of this the heart which is turned to God becomes the means for relationship to grow. Nothing will happen if I am the one telling God how it should be. And he will wait until I learn to stop speaking and start listening. He won’t interrupt, or butt in, or monopolise the conversation. In one sense, I must exhaust all my useless talking in order to learn what is necessary when I stand before God. Without this exhausted silence, in which words have been exhausted because they are superfluous and inadequate, I cannot hope to hear what he longs to say to me. And that is central: God longs to say something to me which will mean nothing else ever need be said, and nothing else that has been said is of any great importance.
Perhaps this is the heart of contemplation: waiting for that word from God (the Word that is God) to be addressed to me, the word that is life giving. This is why some of us can commit ourselves to leaving everything, bit by bit perhaps, exteriorly and interiorly, to listen for that Word. In many ways, and at many different times, the contemplative life has found a point of reflection in the transfiguration event. It has become the quintessential expression of the mystery of contemplative life: the desire to remain and abide in God’s presence and in the encounter which Christ’s transfiguration signifies.
Pope St John Paul II, in his apostolic constitution on the consecrated life, Vita Consecrata, makes this point:
“For an overall picture of its essential characteristics, it is singularly helpful to fix our gaze on Christ’s radiant face in the mystery of the Transfiguration. A whole ancient spiritual tradition refers to this “icon” when it links the contemplative life to the prayer of Jesus “on the mountain. Even the “active” dimensions of consecrated life can in a way be included here, for the Transfiguration is not only the revelation of Christ’s glory but also a preparation for facing Christ’s Cross. It involves both “going up the mountain” and “coming down the mountain”. The disciples who have enjoyed this intimacy with the Master, surrounded for a moment by the splendour of the Trinitarian life and of the communion of saints, and as it were caught up in the horizon of eternity, are immediately brought back to daily reality, where they see “Jesus only”, in the lowliness of his human nature, and are invited to return to the valley, to share with him the toil of God’s plan and to set off courageously on the way of the Cross.”Vita Consecrata 14
The one who desires contemplation desires at the same time to look upon Christ, and it is the whole Christ whom we seek: divine and human, beyond time and yet born in time, crucified, dead, buried, and raised to life. As St John Paul notes, the transfiguration is the point of contact between the transcendent and the immanent: the reality of the high mountain and the experience of God there is indisputable, but for the moment we must always be ready to descend the mountain, and be inserted once more into the mundane.
But Christ descends with his disciples! He continues to accompany them and does so also with us – he is not about to remain transcendent or removed or beyond our reach. Perhaps this is what makes the event of the transfiguration so appealing to us, so relevant to our experience, so necessary for our relationship with God: our experience tells us that God is part of our lives, and yet understanding how this is so entirely is, for the moment, beyond us. The three apostles witness this: a stunned realisation of what it is they are seeing, and yet questions remaining which, by themselves, they cannot answer.
The transfiguration event, in which Christ “is changed” so that we see him in a state beyond this earthly state, nonetheless provides an ongoing narrative for our daily Christian living. Where is the wonder in my life when I become aware of the transfiguring presence of God? And this must be acknowledged: God’s presence transfigures, it takes our experience and the things of our experience beyond the simply mundane to a point where they are revealed for what they really are – not merely signs but means by which we experience the ever-creative God at work in our lives.
How do I view my own history caught up in the transfiguring and historical Jesus Christ? Moses and Elijah, for all their extraordinary presence and influence in Israel’s history, essentially remain two-dimensional until the third dimension is added to their personalities by fulfillment in Christ. They are categorically and wonderfully rounded out in him – there is nothing disjunct about this particular trinity on Horeb: it fits together remarkably, with Christ as the fulcrum. In him, the eternal priest, prophet and king, the great leader – the patriarch, Moses – and the greatest of the prophets – Elijah – are revealed as bearers of a tradition which will be a living mission and gift in Christ.
Ultimately, the realisation that the transfiguration event reveals that for which the Old Testament longed and reveals that it has been given to each of us, children of the new dispensation, must be our prime consideration here always: we are the ones now who can speak to God face to face. The revelation of the Father in Christ Jesus makes possible the transfiguring relationship into which we are all invited through the redeeming person of Christ. The fact that the tent of journeying and pilgrimage, the tent of meeting, with all its apparel and ornamentation, superseded by the Jerusalem Temple, twice built and now no more, pales into insignificance because God chooses to make his temple – the place of his own revelation and the awesome place of encounter – in the person who is created in his image and likeness, is transfiguration indeed! Christ, the Easter Jesus, the Word who takes flesh only to see that temple destroyed and rebuilt, is the guarantor of this mystery. Transfiguration happens within each of us, in the divine complexity of mystery and revelation, in every wordless silence which recognises His Presence. At the same time we remain in the midst of the Cloud which descends and descend from the height to walk amongst our brothers and sisters, faces unveiled, but children of God already, beloved by the Father, in Christ’s company.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-