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As we noted last week, the final Sunday in Epiphany is either the fifth Sunday of the season or the ninth, depending on the date of Easter. The lesson chosen for it is always the Transfiguration. This year we have the account from Mark, chapter nine.
Because of the significance, registered annually, of the Transfiguration, preparing us for the Lenten season to follow, all of the lessons have been selected in coordination for this Sunday. So the roughly continuous reading from Paul moves away from 1 Corinthians to a brief excerpt from his second letter to Corinth. The light that shines out of darkness is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, he writes. The selection has been made in order to link the knowledge in our hearts, granted by the Holy Spirit, with Jesus Christ transfigured, who appeared before three of his disciples on the mountaintop to grant them this vision of his dazzling eternity.
We are at that point in all of the synoptic Gospels where Jesus is turning from his epiphany earthly ministry and heading to Jerusalem and his passion and death. In the account provided by Luke this is actually the topic under discussion when the transfigured Jesus is conversing with Moses and Elijah, concerning his NT exodus.
The Gospel of Mark provides three statements from Jesus to his disciples about this exodus, each with a slightly different reaction, from Peter’s rejection and rebuttal in chap 8, to misunderstanding and fear in chap 9, to silent following in chap. 10. In Mark the Transfiguration comes just after the first of his declarations, and his charge that all who follow will take up a cross as he is to do ahead of and for us all. That is our Lenten walk in 2018 of course, and our daily walk in this life following him.
So it is significant that after this difficult charge we are made privy, as readers of Mark’s Gospel, to the encounter three of his followers, chosen by him, including the brash Peter, privately experienced. On a high mountain apart, as Mark compactly puts it.
Before we look more closely as this our signal reading for the day, the Old Testament passage is important to consider, since it provides some key information concerning the prophet Elijah, whose conversation with Moses and Jesus is at the heart of the Transfiguration event. So let’s go there.
Earlier in Epiphany Deuteronomy 18 spoke of a prophet like Moses who would arise. Though the text appears to refer to the prophets who appear in the wake of Moses, prophets like Elijah and Elisha, in time, after the twilight era of prophecy, it was understandably taken to refer to a resumption of prophecy, in one final appearance. Prophecy in totality focused in Jesus incarnate.
In these two mighty prophets we see today a passing of the torch, from one generation to the next. The references in the chapters concerning the affairs of Elijah and Elijah—fully 16 in total—point us to prophecy in a distinctive mode. We hear of bands/sons of prophets (NRSV = company), characteristic dress—Elijah’s famous mantle—feats of healing, rain-making, fire from heaven, fasting and great strength, an abbot or father and even a possible tonsure – Elisha is referred to as baldy in 2 Kgs 2 and not very wisely. One thinks of powerful monastic figures, like Bernard of Clairvaux, founding monasteries, counseling popes, defending the faith.
Elijah’s abbot ministry is coming to a close and he knows it, as do his sons, his prophetic followers. Elisha knows too. Elijah tries to move out of sight, to Bethel, then to Jericho, and at last to the Jordan, and though he asks Elisha to stay put, he refuses. With his mantle he parts the Jordan as Joshua, Moses’ follower, did once long ago. At last he confronts Elisha and asks what he would have him do. He wants a double portion of his spirit – and given what we have seen of it at work in him, we can understand Elijah’s statement that this is a hard thing. He does not so much give what Elisha asks as provide for the conditions under which it could happen: if he sees him going up into heaven, much in the same way, though for the last time, he has persistently accompanied Elijah in these his last days.
And the narrator shows us the prophet Elisha, keeping on watching, until he could see Elijah no further, and only then tearing his clothes in two, as the two prophetic men—son and father—are torn in two from one another. His last words are curious, “father” is clear enough, given the monastic like fellowship. But what of “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen”? The identical phrase is used just before Elisha himself is about to die, by Joash, the king of Israel, as he accepts this unwanted fate (2 Kgs 13). Most agree “chariots and horsemen” refer to the greatest in the human military arsenal – of Pharaoh, the Syrian commander of Elisha’s day, later empires of Assyria and Babylonia. The air, sea, and land assault weapons mighty nations today wield. Elijah and Elisha are that arsenal for Israel, more powerful than any force. The prophetic chariot is now separating and a whirlwind carries Elijah bodily into heaven.
Having gone bodily into heaven, the return of Elijah remained a feature of reflection. So he appears, mentioned before Moses here. Moses was of course the preeminent OT figure and so in time ideas related to his assumption into the heavenlies would emerge. Whether the pairing Moses and Elijah suggests “the Law and the Prophets” as the totality of scriptural testimony is plausible enough though not underscored. Both Elijah and Moses had significant revelatory experiences at Sinai. The “after six days” reminds us of Moses ascent after six days at Exod 24:16 though Origen also saw this pointing to the sabbath seventh day of paradisial time. The dazzling clothes also suggest the glorious garments traditionally held to be Adam’s eternal clothing in God’s unmediated presence in the Garden of Eden, before garments of skin, of corporality, were taken up after his disobedience. Mark does not refer to a shining face, but clothes with an intensity of whiteness unlike anything humanity could make or imagine. We should take it that this signaled already the different status of Jesus compared with the two heros with which he was conversing. In the Old Testament the eternal Word spoke to Moses and the Prophets. Now that fact is disclosed for what it in truth it was and is, and shown to the three privileged witnesses.
Peter did not know what to say so he proposed a building project. He was afraid. This is never the best time to make concrete proposals. Notice the difference here. Peter and Jesus. Elisha and Elijah. Elisha wanted to go wherever Elijah went and he refused to leave him. He did not seek to make him stay, but wanted only the means to move forward, with his spirit, in double strength. A model disciple. Taking up his cross and following.
The voice from heaven says just what was said at the Baptism of Jesus, with which our Epiphany reflections began. Here is however added the important words: “listen to him!” “He has just told you what he will do and where he is going. This prophet mightier than Elisha will walk to his death and he bids us follow. Listen to him. Not build anything or try to freeze the frame.” The path to new life, to eternal life, to dazzling fellowship, to victory over death goes through Calvary. The three cannot know the details of the path or of following, but they see before him the end point Jesus is tracking and that he will gain for us all.
The dazzling clothes are the clothes of his eternal life with God. He will put them on in the end in his resurrection body. They can count on that. They are given to see who this Jesus is, in his life with God, that he has come to give us.
He will not be whisked into heaven. By his act of love in dying for us he will claim for himself the bodies Moses and Elijah; of and all of the Old Testament saints; the halting three and the twelve and us now in our building proposals, our fears, our rebuttals. And he will make us like unto his eternal self. Robed in his glorious Body. In and by the Spirit, Paul says, he has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
As our psalm summarizes it.
Out of Zion—in the eternal Son—perfect in beauty, God reveals himself in glory.