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The Transfiguration in Mk 9:2-10 (Part 2)

(by Claudio Bottini, ofm - translated by Lionel Goh ofm)

II. Principle themes

After six days
The immediate reference to this chronological indication appears to be the episode of Peter's confession; but according to some authors it could have lost its chronological value and took on a more profound meaning. Briefly it may be: an allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles, basing on Peter's proposal to erect 3 tents (v 5); a reference to Ex 24:16 in which is said that the cloud covered the mountain for 6 days and on the 7th day, God called Moses; a remains of a primitive account of the resurrection; a synchronization of the Transfiguration and the 7th day of the week of the Passion and Resurrection; a recourse to a Semitic scheme in which the event of the 7th day constitutes a climax; a use of an ancient Judaic literary scheme and of primitive christianity in which the 6th day took on an importance as the day of God's revelation on Mt Sinai and the day which the Law was given.[13]

"He took with him Peter, James and John"
From the group of disciples Jesus chose 3, whom according to Mark's Gospel were present at the resurrection of Jairus' daughter (Mk 5,37) and will be close to Jesus in Gethsemani (Mk 14:33). These are 2 significant moments because in the 1st, the 3 disciples become witnesses to the divine power which Jesus revealed by resurrecting a dead person, a sign of eschatological power which will be realized in the resurrection of all believers. In the 2nd event the 3 disciples are witnesses to the supreme hour in which Jesus, the Son of God (Mk 14:36) and "Son of Man was given over to the hands of sinners" (Mk 14:41). Analogically it may be considered that the restriction of the immediate witnesses to these 3 disciples underline that the Transfiguration is a culminating event of Jesus' revelation and the mystery of his death and Resurrection.

"He brought them up a high mountain
where they could be by themselves"

The topographical data is important for its message. Besides the symbolic resonance of the adjective "high", Mark records elsewhere the motif of mountains which help interpret this verse. In 3;13 the mountain is the place where Jesus reveals himself as the founder and leader of the community by choosing some disciples, "making them" the Twelve and giving them the eschatological power to announce the Gospel and to cast out demons. In 6:46 the mountain is the place where Jesus after having multiplied the bread and before walking on the Sea of Galilee, went to pray; 2 revelatory events in the presence of the disciples. In 13:3 the mountain is the place where Jesus, alone with 4 disciples, reveals the signs of the eschatological coming of the Son of Man. The mountain of the Transfiguration thus appears to be an element which accentuates the aspect of messianic revelation with reference to the community in which the 3 disciples represent.[14]

The place of the Transfiguration away from the public, found near to places where some significantly messianic miracles were worked (1:40-45; 5:21-43; 7:31-37; 8:22-26) and the prohibitions to divulge these miracles (5:37.40 cf. 5:43; 7:33 cf. 7:36; 8:23 cf. 8:26; the Transfiguration 9:2 cf. 9:9), becomes clear in the light of Mark's characteristic theme by which "that which he kept hidden from the masses came to be revealed to his disciples, the nucleus of the future messianic community."[15]

"He was transfigured in their presence;
his clothes became dazzlingly white..."

The verb used by the evangelist is also found elsewhere - see Rom 12:2 and 2Cor 3:18 - and it indicates a spiritual change. Here however it treats of a visible transformation. The context shows that it is not a metamorphosis of the Hellenistic type whereby Jesus acquired a nature of another living thing or of another person or had taken on a disguise. Jesus does not appear to be a divine being who took over a human body, nor was found to be in an unrecognizable form (cf. Mk 16:12 and Lk 24:16). On Mt Tabor the disciples had no trouble in recognizing him; his personal and physical reality did not undergo mutation. The evangelist does not speak of the type of transfiguration undergone by Jesus. He speaks only of a unique and heavenly candour of the clothes. From this one may consider that "it treats of a transformation to a heavenly condition which matched the resplendent whiteness of the clothes." Moreover according to the connection between 9:1 and 9:9, to see the Kingdom of God come in glorious power is to see Jesus transfigured. It speaks of a transfiguration in which Jesus assumes the splendour of the eschatological Glory in the might of the divine power of the Kingdom.[16]
But it is also possible to maintain simply that, like the jewish apocalypses, the candour of the clothes is a sign of the heavenly glory that is given to the elect who become like the angels (cf. Mt 28:3; Rev 3:4; 4:4). It is difficult to show that in the whiteness of Jesus' clothes, one ought to see a motif which links to the young man "dressed in white" and seated in the opened tomb as found in Mk 16:5, and then to establish that this points to a relationship between the Transfiguration and the Resurrection of Jesus.

"Elijah appeared to them with Moses,
and they were talking with Jesus"

The meaning of the presence of these two renown heavenly figures who represent the Prophets and the Law next to Jesus, most probably is that the times are fulfilled in Jesus and that Jesus is the Messiah. It is unique that Mark names Elijah first, but it is difficult to give an explanation for this.[17] It appears that Mark stressed the function of these 2 persons with regard to the disciples.

"Master, it is good for us to be here;
let us make three tents..."

Peter, having experienced this heavenly event, expressed his joy and proposed to keep as long as possible Jesus and the 2 heavenly figures. Various authors see in these words of Peter an allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. Ex 23:16; Lev 23:27-34; Dt 16:13). But if this were to be true, then Peter ought to have had proposed the building of tents also for the disciples. This feast in the time of Jesus was linked to the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.[18]

"He did not know what to say; they were so frightened"
In this comment by the evangelist is found, as also often elsewhere, the theme of fear, awe and the like of the disciples. Significant parallels within Mark's gospels are 14:40 and 16:8. The 2 statements in 9:6 appear to be a fusion of these 2 other texts which joins the unintelligibility of the disciples in Gethsemani with the fear of the women at the tomb. In this way, the evangelist appears to allude to the incapacity of the disciples to understand both the tragic and glorious events; of the mystery; and indirectly that the glory of Jesus transfigured is intimately linked to the glory which Jesus will obtain through the power of his Death and Resurrection. "It is the Glory which corresponds to the Passion and Death and that death brings with it the glorious Resurrection. The Transfiguration of Jesus was not meant to make a paradise out of the mountain; it was to stimulate, to fortify each step in the journey towards the Passion. The christological revelation is oriented towards an ecclesiological parenesis for a community placed in the journey which leads the Passion."[19]

"And a cloud came, covering them in shadow"
The way this is expressed indicates that the action of the cloud is meant to protect and guide the frightened disciples from the event. This meaning seems to be reinforced by the fact that the cloud elsewhere in the Old Testament indicates the coming of God in His manifestation to His people in the Exodus (Ex 40:35; Num 9:18.22; 10:34). The function of the cloud was to guide and protect the people in their journey in the desert (Ex 33:9-10; Num 11:25; 12:5). Perhaps it can allude also to the eschatological cloud which covers the elected people as found in Is 4:5. The cloud can therefore indicate the benevolent action of God on the disciples called to follow Jesus in the journey towards the Cross.

"There came a voice from the cloud
'This is My Son, the Beloved. Listen to him' "

The association between the cloud and the voice is found in biblical literature (Ex 16:10; 19:19; 24:16; Num 17:7) as well as ancient jewish literature (Num 21:6 in Targum Yerulshalmi I ; Gen 22:10 in Targum Neofiti). It treats of a voice within a theophanic or revelatory framework which proclaims a divine oracle. Peter had practically equated Jesus with Elijah and Moses. The voice instead made the distinction very clear.

The statement of the divine sonship recalls without doubt the declaration which the evangelist had referred to at the moment of Jesus' baptism in Mk 1:11. There the divine oracle was addressed to Jesus, here however it is addressed to the disciples and through them, to the community and the crowds. Indeed with the command to listen to Jesus, the voice indirectly presents Jesus as a prophet whom all the people must listen to (cf. Acts 3:22 citing Dt 18:15). It is a unique command valid for all time.

The "messianic secret" and the incomprehension
of the Passion and the Resurrection"

It is written "As they came down from the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They observed the warning faithfully, though among themselves they discussed what "rising from the dead" could mean." In the descend from the mountain, Jesus spoke to his 3 disciples about what happened on the mountain and gave them an order. This is the well-known "messianic secret" (cf. 1:34; 3:12 and especially 8:30) followed immediately by the incomprehension of the disciples regarding the announcement of the Son of Man's Passion and Resurrection (cf. 8:32-33; 9:31).

In the first instance regarding the messianic secret, there is brought the prohibition to divulge the messiahship of Jesus (8:30) and the event of the Transfiguration inasmuch as it is the manifestation / revelation of the Son of God (9:9); "The function of the prohibition is to link strictly the messiahship of Jesus to the event of Cross and the Resurrection; outside of this event Jesus cannot be understood nor proclaimed".[20] In the second matter regarding the incomprehension of the Passion and Resurrection by the disciples, Mark shows that it remained up till the end and was overcame only by the illumination of Easter. A common element to these 2 themes - to which could be added also the incomprehension of the parables (cf. Mk 4:13.33-34; 7:18) - is the recognition of the "incapacity of the human mind towards divine revelation, the transcendental grandeur of the mystery and the gratuitousness of his giving it to believers".[21] Moreover it is noted above all that it treats of an incapacity of a "past time" which now, in the time of Mark's readers, had been overcomed. Hence it harks back in history to the revelation itself and cannot be an interpretative key exclusively parenetic, much less polemic.[22]

Conclusion

I have cited at the beginning of this paper a liturgical text summarizing the mystic theology and the existential spirituality which the event of the Transfiguration had inspired the Church. I now conclude with a liturgical text which seems to have as its basis the same fundamental text. It is found in the Preface of the Feast of the Transfiguration according to the Ambrosian Missal; "Christ revealed his glory before the witnesses pre-chosen by Him and in the poverty of our common nature He shone an incomparable light. Thus He prepared his disciples to bear the scandal of the Cross, anticipating in the Transfiguration the marvelous destiny of the entire Church, His Spouse and His Body; called to share in the fate of its Head and Lord".


notes

[1] In the bibliography compiled by F. Neyrinck and collaborators (The Gospel of Mark. A Cumulative Bibliography:1950-1999 [BETL 102] , Leuven 1992) are listed 95 authors who have studied Mk 9:2-1. This excludes the list of those who have examined individual verses of this pericope. 15 authors deal with this topic in specific monographs or noteworthy contributions.

[2] X. Leon-Dufour, "The Transfiguration of Jesus", in Studi sul Vangelo (La Parola di Dio 2), 3rd ed., Cinisello Balsamo 1974, 105-157, maintains that it is possible to see a transposition of events leading from the existence of the Incarnate Word to its "crystallization" in Jn 12:20-32 (p.149).

[3] The Apocalypse of Peter 15-17; The Acts of Peter 20; The Acts of John 90; The Acts of Thomas 143.

[4] Pistis Sophia I, 2-6.

[5] Cf. E. Nardoni, La Transfiguracion de Jesus y el dialogo sobre Elias segun el Evangelio de San Marcos (Teologia: Estudios y Documentos 2), Buenos Aires 1976, 25 and notes 3-7.

[6] Similar meanings are also expressed in the Preface of the Feast of the Transfiguration in the Roman Missal.

[7] Cf. C. Clivaz, "La Transfiguration au risque de la comprehension du disciple: Mc 9/2-10". Etudes Theologiques et Religieuses 70 (1995) 493-508.

[8] Cf. J. Dupont, "Il cieco di Gerico riacquista la vista e segue Gesu (Mc 10:46-52)", Parola Spirito e Vita 2 (1980) 105-123.

[9] Cf. I. De la Potterie, "La confessione messianica di Pietro in Marco 8,27-33", in San Pietro. Atti della XIX Settimana Biblica, Brescia 1967, 59-77; V. Fusco, Parola e Regno. La sezione delle parabole / Marco 4,1-34 / nella prospettiva marciana (Aloisiana 13), Brescia 1980, 129 and 115-132; K. Stock, "Vangelo e discepolato in Marco", Rassegna di Teologia 19 (1978) 1-7.

[10] Some authors claim that between 8:22-9:29 it is possible to find a chiastic structure according to the scheme: A (8:22-26); B (8:27.28); C(8:29.30); D(8:31-33); E (8:34-9:1); D' (9:2-6); C' (9:7-8.9-10); B' (9:11-13); A' (9:14-29). Cf. Nardoni, La Transfiguracion, 40-41 and authors cited.

[11] Cf I. De la Potterie, "La confessione messianica di Pietro in Marco 8,27-33", in San Pietro. Atti della XIX Settimana Biblica, Brescia 1967, 59-77; V. Fusco, Parola e Regno. La sezione delle parabole / Marco 4, 1-34 / nella prospettiva marciana (Aloisiana 13), Brescia 1980, 129 e 115-132; K. Stock, "Vangelo e discepolato in Marco", Rassegna di Teologia 19 (1978) 1-7.

[12] Nardoni, La Transfiguracion, 67.

[13] For a synthesis of the opinions and authors, cf. Nardoni La Transfiguracion, 197-199 and its relevant notes.

[14] From the beginning of the 3rd century the mountain of the Transfiguration came to be identified with Mt Tabor. For references from ancient pilgrims cf. D. Baldi Enchiridion Locorum Sanctorum. Documenta S. Evangelii loca respicientia, Jerusalem 1982, reprint, nn.490-529; for history of the place cf. M.T. Petrozzi, Il Monte Tabor e dintorni (Luoghi Santi della Palestina), Jerusalem 1975.

[15] Fusco, Parola e Regno, 135.

[16] Nardoni, La Transfiguracion, 203.

[17] Nardoni, (La Transfiguracion, 206-208) believes that it is possible to explain this because Mark in 9:10-13 made Elijah to be a "personified symbol of the Passion and Death of Jesus".

[18] This interpretation is actually found in Bibbia TOB which refers back to Mt 17:5 as well as Mk 9:2. For the latest discussion cf. Nardoni, La Transfiguracion, 209.

[19] Nardoni, La Transfiguracion, 210 which refers to 2 studies by A. Vanhoye and K. Weiss respectively.

[20] Fusco, Parola e Regno, 132-133.

[21] Fusco, Parola e Regno, 136.

[22] Fusco, Parola e Regno, 136-137.


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