February 25, 2018
The transfiguration of Jesus is based on the belief that gods can change into different forms. Some schools of mysticism believe that humans and animals can also change form. Movies like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Harry Potter contain contemporary expressions of this understanding. In the Jewish tradition the righteous will take on a new heavenly form. Many people hope that their heavenly body will be much different than the body that is theirs while on earth. In the text here, Jesus is transfigured not in the sense of taking on a totally new form, but in the sense that the way he appeared to the disciples is dramatically altered.
The fact that Peter, James, and John are present and witness this event makes it an historical event, not one that takes place only in the spiritual world. Nor is it a vision or dream of some moment in the future when the fullness of God’s presence will be revealed. Jesus is the only one who is changed, and he is the only one who enters into a dialogue with Moses and Elijah. But the disciples are participants in the event as it unfolds. They witness and participate in what is taking place: they see a change in Jesus’ appearance, they recognize Elijah and Moses as they converse with Jesus, Peter addresses Jesus, they are overshadowed by the cloud, and they hear the voice from heaven speaking to them. What is taking place occurs in such a way that they can experience it and participate in it to some extent. From the text it is not clear if they were able to hear and understand the conversation that took place between Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.
Mark’s community would have recognized many of the elements that Mark describes here as being similar to events from their religious heritage. Moses and Elijah each ascended a mountain and there encountered the presence of God. Both underwent a kind of transformation. When Moses returned with the tablets on which the commandments had been written, his face became so bright, after he had spoken with God, he had to cover it so that people could look at him. (Exodus 34:29-35) Elijah, when he died, was taken from earth in a flaming chariot. (2 Kings 2:11) For the people of the day, Moses and Elijah represented the law and the prophets, the whole of their religious tradition.
The cloud is another familiar image from the Hebrew scriptures that expressed the presence of God. For example: God spoke to Moses from a cloud; while in the desert a cloud led the people and would descend upon the tent whenever Moses entered to confer with God; a dark cloud totally enveloped the temple at its dedication so that the priests had to leave; and the Jews believed that when the Messiah returned the cloud would once again descend upon the temple.
Peter’s suggestion that they build three tents on the mountain reflects the custom associated with the feast of Tabernacles, when the Jews remember a period of their history of living in tents as they wandered in the desert. By the time of Jesus, the feast not only celebrated an important aspect of their liberation from the slavery, but also took on overtones of hope for a time when they would be liberated once again. Peter’s suggestion that tents be built may be an expression of his hope that this time of final liberation might be what is signaled by the events taking place before him. However, Jesus’ exhortation as they come down the mountain to tell no one of the experience “except when the Son of Man has risen from the dead” reminds Peter that there will be no glory before Jesus’ rejection and death. As Mark’s community hears the description of Jesus’ transfiguration, their own hopes for the future are also touched. Jesus’ note of warning would help them maintain some hope as they hear Mark describe Jesus’ rejection and death.
- What is your experience of climbing significant hills or even mountains?
- Why do you think climbing a mountain is used as an expression of going to encounter God?
- Have you had experiences that changed you?
- How has your relationship with God changed you?
- Do you feel more like Peter, James, and John, invited to go up the mountain with Jesus, or more like one of the disciples waiting at the bottom for their return?
- As we begin Lent, what transformation do you hope for in the world, in the church, or in yourself?
- Do you see the transformation you seek more as something you are called to strive after or as something that God is going to accomplish?
- Why do you think the Church gives us this reading for the Second Sunday of Lent?
- Can you talk to God about the change you would like to see within yourself, or about that change that you suspect God might be inviting you to undertake at this point in your life, or about some other thought that arises in you as you read this gospel?
The gospel background and reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.