‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
‘As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.’
If I may be honest, I have been finding recent weeks hard going. I know that I am not alone in this. There may be light at the end of the tunnel, but in the meantime, to press that analogy, the railway carriage is claustrophobic. I am not taking in the mountain air. I cannot even watch the mountains drawing ever nearer through the window: only the ghost of the carriage reflected back at me. How do I meet with God, in this airless box?
The gospel reading for this Sunday is truly astonishing. It takes the seemingly ordinary, and reveals something extraordinary, as we shall see. And that might be exactly what is needed, today.
Our passage is set in a time when nothing has happened for six days. ‘Six days’ echoes the six ‘days,’ or epochs, of creation; and so, six days is more than the inside of a week: these days, in which nothing creative is recorded, sprawl on and on, outside of time. These days could just as well describe the insubstantial days I have ghost-walked through since last Sunday. And six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John.
In recent days, various combinations of our household have gone out for a walk around the block. But this phrase Mark chooses, took with him, is more than a record of who came along. It is the same word Matthew uses when he recounts an angel telling Joseph do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. It means to actively, intentionally, join another person or persons to yourself. In this action, Jesus brings Peter and James and John into covenant relationship with himself, to the effect that from here-on in you can read ‘Jesus and Peter and James and John’ as ‘Jesus-Peter-James-John,’ or ‘Jesus = Jesus + Peter + James + John.’ An ordinary little phrase, took with him, that transforms all their identities.
Next, Jesus led them up a high mountain. Again, the phrase ‘led them up’ means more than simply that they were out for a ramble with Jesus out in front. These words are used to describe offering something up a sacrifice, and also to bring something through a sequence of stages to a consummation or goal. In other words, Jesus joins his friends to himself as one common identity—later described as the Body of Christ—and presents that new being to his heavenly Father, in order that it might reach its ultimate purpose.
And this is revealed in what happens next. Jesus was transfigured before them. Now, unlike ‘took with’ or ‘led them up,’ ‘transfigured’ is not exactly an everyday word to us. And yet, it describes something absolutely familiar. It is the same word from which we get ‘metamorphosis,’ where something changes form in keeping with its inner reality. It describes the process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly; or an acorn, an oak tree. Acorns don’t look anything like oak trees; but they are one in substance. We can confidently say that acorns don’t become butterflies. We can also observe that oak trees produce new acorns, and so the lifecycle carries on.
When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, what we are seeing is the Church, embryonic in Peter and James and John, as it will be in maturity, once the Son of Man (a communal term Jesus borrows from the prophet Daniel to refer to himself as representative of his followers) had risen from the dead. We are beholding the acorn and seeing the oak tree. We are observing the caterpillar and imagining the butterfly on the other side of the traumatic death-and-rebirth of the cocoon tomb. And there to witness this vision are Elijah and Moses, both of whom had solid credentials in witnessing God pass by them on a mountaintop, neither of whom had directly seen that divine glory revealed in this life.
Despite being terrified, the three friends grasp the significance of this fairly well. In suggesting that they build three tabernacles, for Jesus and Moses and Elijah—no mention of themselves—they have understood that they are now one with Jesus. But—nod to Moses and Elijah—the mountain itself, with its clefts and caves and cloud covering, is the place of meeting with God on the mountain; the tabernacle is the place of meeting with God in the valley. Go down, Moses, Elijah. Go down, Jesus-plus. Go down, press on to death and the tomb, trusting in love that is stronger than death and in the new life that springs from that love.
And what of us, in our confinement, acorn buried in the hard winter ground awaiting the spring? What about us in the shabby reality of our present circumstances, a Church that is so far from all that God would have us be, her clothes stained by scandals and injustices so ingrained that no launderer on earth could bleach them clean?
Even here, Jesus takes the initiative; comes and takes us to himself, not to a place but into the closest imaginable lifelong relationship; lifts us up, presenting us before the Father, into their shared delight; and brings us through to maturity, not back to how things once were but to where they are heading, to an altogether greater glory. That is where we are going, together. To be honest, some days I identify more with Elijah, with Moses, with seeing only in my minds eye what others will experience in their bones. And yet, Jesus. And yet, Jesus.
Perhaps we might make three dwellings after all, not on the mountaintop but in the valley of the shadow of death; and learn to embrace the now-and-not-yet—the kingdom at hand, breaking-in, and the kingdom yet-to-come—as Jesus brings us through the sequence of stages that end in the consummation we long for? Before we get to Eastertide, we must journey through Lent. May God grant us a vision of that glory, to strengthen us to endure these days.