Much of the modern Church appears embarrassed by the story of the transfiguration. In a scientific age, we find awkward stories of visions of the old Testament figures of Moses and Elijah on a mountain top together with Jesus reportedly changed in appearance so that his cloak shone with a dazzling white gleam,(Mark uses the word stilbein – which is also used for the glint of metal or even sunlight) and then as if this were not enough, there came a voice speaking out of a cloud…. small wonder then that those who compile our lectionary give us an easier text for the day as an alternative for the faint hearted.
It may also help to remember that as when Matthew and Luke describe the same event there were plenty of scriptural allusions. For example Exodus 34 tells us that when he returned from his second ascent Moses’ face shone. Matthew also claims Jesus’ face shone. The fact that Elijah was present may remind us that according to Malachai, Elijah was supposed to come again at the climax of history (Malachai 4:5-6), and from Deuteronomy, in the last days a prophet like Moses would appear (Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 18). We should also be cautious. Our bad experiences over the last few decades with those who claim to have found scriptural allusions to the last days and made faulty predictions as a consequence should cause us to question if it is all as straightforward as it might first appear. Small wonder too that the sceptics remind us that Mark who was recording the event was not present and that the whole experience was too unlikely to have happened.
Tradition claims that the Transfiguration happened on Mt Tabor, to the extent that the Eastern Church even calls the feast of the Transfiguration Taborion , but if so it was a very small mountain no more than 1000 feet high with a fortress on the top. What is more this Mt Tabor is in the South of Galilee and Mark seems to be suggesting the Transfiguration was nearer Caesarea Philippi which is in the North where at least there is a more likely mountain Mt Hermon which at 9,200 feet provides a much more appropriate isolated place. So yes, there may be genuine problems in the account as a factual and accurate report.
Yet I would like to suggest a different approach.
In this day and age we are normally careful to distinguish objective reporting from story-telling, yet this particular account comes from a different age. At the time of Jesus, it was common practice to use mountain top encounters as a way of introducing encounters with the divine. Stories of Mt Olympus, and of the mysterious high hill setting of Delphi, would have been familiar and not just to the Greeks. Then for the Jews it would have been Mt Ararat, the Mount of Olives and so on. It was also common to slip mysterious touches or scriptural allusion into stories to draw attention to key teaching. Precision in reporting was secondary to the message, which is presumably why the gospel writers often blithely contradicted one another when they reported on the same events. Nor, perhaps I should add – is a myth the same as a lie.
So what was the transfiguration and its message?
In terms of Jesus’ journey, the transfiguration is presented as the point at which he became convinced that he had divine confirmation that he was on the right track to go to Jerusalem and face his fate. The significance of the voice from the cloud was of course this was the same way that Jewish tradition says Moses met God, and that it was in a cloud that God came to the Tabernacle. There is also a reference to the cloud that filled Solomon’s temple when the building was complete. That Moses who was considered the archetypal guide to the people of Israel and was by tradition the supreme law giver, and Elijah, the supreme prophet in the eyes of the Jews should also be present might well have been another way of stressing that Jesus was correct in understanding he had divine support. But assuming it was an event and not a theological explanation, the real test of the transfiguration was not so much the question of whether or not the transfigured appearance of Jesus was literal – it was more whether or not Jesus and the disciples were affected by the experience.
Putting it directly, whatever happened, from that point, Jesus now appeared clearer in his subsequent actions but the disciples who had been with him were only partially affected. The disciples were still only partly convinced that Jesus should go to Jerusalem. Peter, remember, is recorded as inappropriately treating the transfiguration as one that needs a religious response – wanting to put up symbolic tabernacles or tents opting for a kind of artificial piety… in the same way I guess, as many today treat the task of honouring Jesus and the saints as more to do with magnificent buildings and adulation for Jesus and the saints rather than with altered lives.
When I search for a more contemporary example of that mountain top experience I think of Edmund Hillary making it to the top of Mt Everest with the Sherpa Norgay Tenzing in 1953. Certainly it was a life changing experience for Sir Edmund, but for him his personal transformation was partly in the way the experience taught him to see the Sherpa people in a different way. From that point he became dedicated to building schools and hospitals in Nepal and ensuring the trust he set up made a difference for those mountain people. Just remember too that life changing experiences are only life changing if we allow them to be. Many others too have since climbed Mt Everest and no doubt saw the same awe inspiring magnificent view, but not all saw the same vision for the Sherpa people.
Historically many of us have our own equivalent of mountain top experiences – those life changing events – both good and disturbing, that have the potential to alter our view and transform our lives. Soldiers have gone to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq, missionaries have gone out to live with head-hunters, tourists have visited the slums of Calcutta and stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Sometimes too the experience is mysterious, even troubling and almost impossible to put into words. Yet having the potential life changing experience is not enough by itself. Jesus came down from the mountain and set out for Jerusalem. Peter came down from that same mountain then denied his lord three times. Some tourists return from their trip to exotic places and sign up for child sponsorship programmes. Others see it merely as a chance to put five hundred photos together for a relentless data-show. Some soldiers return enthused to join international relief organisations and service clubs – others to take to the bottle or drugs – or at worst even commit suicide
We can be certain Mark was not present at the transfiguration according to his own record so his witness in recording the event must be second hand at best. Assuming that tradition was correct and that Mark, for a good part of his gospel, was indeed transcribing what Peter had been telling him in Rome some years after the event, he would have had every excuse to leave this particular story out – particularly as it sounds surreal – but rather than condemning Mark for including the story we might do well to remember that Mark was showing courage in committing to the message of these written words in an environment hostile to the message. Scholars tell us that both Paul and Peter died for their faith in Rome and the signs for those supporting Christianity would have been very clear indeed.
But surreal or not, there is no indication that Mark would have us stay with the mysterious, on the mountain top where the experience and the view was different..
Perhaps Mark is reminding us that the memory of the mountain-top experience may encourage us to see things differently but according to Mark’s account, Jesus led them from the place of high mystery to return to the bottom in the valley where they were straight away back with reality. There they would meet the epileptic child whose epilepsy was sufficient to have him burn himself in the fire, and face the upcoming confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees – in short underlining for us that there can be turmoil and real life challenge in the world that is at ground level, rather than the world as it might be above the clouds.
We may well derive our inspiration from those special experiences, but ultimately no matter how much we might like to keep the realities of the world at bay ultimately we have to decide between real and artificial religion. In a world where there are haves and have-nots putting the main effort into building tabernacles to honour Jesus and the saints won’t quite do it. In a world where obscene amounts are spent on arms, praying for peace while buying shares in the armament factories is not taking Jesus’ teaching seriously. Praising God for creation on Sundays and allowing the multinationals to lay waste to tropical forests for the rest of the week in order to satisfy energy needs with vast plantings of palm oil is a curious way of showing responsibility for the natural world. In a world where the survival and well-being of the poor and elderly is dependent on health assistance, for the wealthy to be arguing for tax reduction may well be meeting the needs of self interest but it is hardly consistent with the injunction to love our neighbour, especially in a nation that prides itself on its wealth and prestige.
The mountain top is a wonderful place to gain a sense of perspective but it is rather inappropriate as a place to live. Jesus appeared to need periods of meditation and even the mountain-top experience, but we should be under no illusion that his life was all about these mystical experiences because he showed his work was where the people who needed him could be found. We should perhaps acknowledge that prior to the mountain top Jesus was recorded as being busy with the realities of life beneath the mountain. To be a voice for the voiceless, a soother and healer of the hurting, a challenge to the hypocrites, those who put prestige first in the name of their religion – these must surely be the tasks of the valley. They were certainly the tasks to which he returned. It is of course tempting, to try repeatedly for the mountain top experiences and forget how they are related to relationships and living. Mountain climbing, balloon flying, even high church worship can all be immensely satisfying as a means to enhance a sense of wonder. Yet the high purpose of Church cannot be used as an excuse to keep ourselves above the world of the valley and the plain. Nor does an incident of transfiguration witnessed mean that we no longer have a personal need to be transformed. That, even those close to Jesus might have simply got it wrong and misinterpreted what they were experiencing when they at least were supposed to be present should be a salutary lesson to us. We were not present and as a consequence may need to pause in thought before rushing to announce what it all means.
I wonder if you have come across a different mountain top experience in the well-known and often repeated story of Sadhu Sundar Singh. This particular version is one retold by Dr Keith Wagner.
Sadhu Sundar Singh and a companion were travelling through a pass high in the Himalayan Mountains when they came across a body lying in the snow. They checked for vital signs and discovered the man was still alive. Sundar Singh prepared to stop and help the unfortunate traveller, but his companion objected, saying, “We shall lose our lives if we burden ourselves with him.” Sundar Singh, however, could not think of leaving a man to die in the snow without an attempt to rescue him. His companion quickly bade him farewell and walked on.
Sundar Singh lifted the poor traveller on his back. With great exertion on his part, which was even more difficult because of the high altitude, he carried the man and continued on his journey. As he walked, the heat cast off by his body began to warm the partially frozen man. He revived, and soon they were both walking side by side. Before long they came upon yet another traveller’s body, lying in the snow. Upon closer inspection, they discovered him to be dead, frozen by the cold. The man was Sundar Singh’s original travelling companion.
Sundar Singh may not have mastered the finer complex implications of Mark’s account of the transfiguration, but his actions suggest he was living the essence of the message.