The Least and the Last- Understanding the Transfiguration in Mark 9

Palm Sunday (April 9th) will mark the start of Holy Week. In the Christian calendar, Holy Week follows in Jesus’ footsteps towards Jerusalem, and ultimately to the accomplishment of the Cross and the Resurrection.

Having grown up in a non-liturgical environment, it was an opportunity for employment at a Lutheran Church nearly 10 years ago that opened my eyes to the richness of the Christian liturgy, something I had taken for granted up until that point (and still do, to be honest, even on my best days). I have come to understand that following the Christian calendar can help breathe life into the Christian narrative in personal, practical and theological ways. Stepping into the narrative in (intentional) ways helps to remind me that I am a part of this story, a part of the Christian story.

In the Lutheran tradition (as with the larger Christian tradition), Easter is considered the High Season of the Church, meaning that it is considered the most revered and celebrated part of the narrative. In the scope of the liturgy itself, it begins with the solemn process of Ash Wednesday (from dust to dust we come to embrace the idea that we are in need of a Gospel), continues through the forming work of the season of Lent (emptying ourselves in preparation of the Gospel work), and ends with remembering the death and Resurrection (the celebration of new life in Christ that forms the Gospel message and that fills us up anew)… well, actually it is worth mentioning that Easter Sunday actually begins a journey of learning to live in the midst of this Easter season in the months leading up to Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit (June). Easter is more than simply one weekend folks, it is a way of life, the shaping of a worldview.

The great part of engaging the Christian liturgy is that it reminds me of how much of the Christian story there still is for me to discover and rediscover in the changing seasons. There is much to anticipate in the Christian calendar, but what is most rewarding is the forming and learning process of the journey itself. Indeed, having just finished Mark 9, the Transfiguration stands as a great example of a passage that I still have much to learn from after all these years, a passage that seems as foreign to me today as the theological concept of Epiphany did yesterday (a word I had never heard before walking through the doors of the Lutheran Church).

What the liturgy does is help place these important events into a larger context, and in a similar fashion, recognizing Mark’s placement of the Transfiguration within the context of a series of three “foretelling” passages of Jesus’ death and Resurrection has helped shed new light on why it is an important event to consider as we engage the Gospel itself.

What I want to do with the rest of this reflection is the following:
1. Look at how the Transfiguration passage connects to the first foretelling of Jesus’ death.
2. Talk about two common themes that connect the three foretelling passages in Mark 8,9 and 10.
3. Show how these two common themes can help shape the message of the Transfiguration for us as readers.

1. How the Transfiguration connects to the first foretelling of Jesus’ death
Some scholars have recognized the presence of a connecting piece in the narrative that fits between the Transfiguration and the first foretelling of Jesus’ death that precedes it. Their motivation for seeing this connection flows out of the words of Mark 9:1, which seems to indicate that what the Transfiguration is trying to say has much to do with what has just been said in the passage before it.

“And he said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
Mark 9:1

In this passage, “they” would appear to be the crowd of 8:34, and the some (who will not taste death before seeing the Kingdom come with power) would seem to be referring to the disciples in the passage that follows. Therefore, some scholars point to the idea that the moment on the mountain that happens “after six days” is actually the moment in which they see the Kingdom of God come with power.

Whether this is an accurate position to take (or not) remains somewhat subjective, but I do believe these scholars have correctly recognized the importance of the placement of the Transfiguration story in the midst of these “foretelling” passages. Further, I believe looking at the three “fortelling” passages together (8:31-38; 9:30-32; 10:32-34) can help unmask the larger purpose for these declarations in Mark’s Gospel, and it is by understanding the common themes in these three passages that the Transfiguration itself can ultimately gain a bit more clarity.

2. 2 Common Themes That Connect The Three Foretelling Passages
There are two common factors that each of these three passages shares. First, in all three cases, we find resistance and misunderstanding to the Way of God, which in Mark is the Way of Jesus or the Way of the Gospel. Secondly, all three passages invite a similar response from Jesus in declaring the Gospel to be about the least and the last in the Kingdom of God.

  • Common Theme Number 1- Resistance to the Way of Jesus
    On the first occasion, Peter does indeed recognize Jesus to be the Christ, but he goes on to resist Jesus’ declaration that the Way of Christ is that He must be rejected, die and rise again.In the second passage, it says that the disciples still don’t understand and continue to resist the way of Jesus, and we find them arguing about who is the greatest disciple in the Kingdom that Jesus has come to build. While it says that they did not understand what Jesus was saying, it also says they were afraid to ask Him what he meant, which is intriguing to me. Why were they afraid? The fact that Jesus’ question (about what they were discussing) causes them to go silent seems to indicate that they knew they were off the mark (9:32-35), and this causes them to fear the words of Jesus’ death and rejection. And so they resist it, ignore it, seemingly shove it under the rug. 

    In the third passage, this resistance and their awareness of this resistance appears to grow even greater. It indicates that Jesus was walking ahead of them, and suddenly they were amazed and they were afraid. Again, this is an intriguing reaction, and it feels like they are gaining a more innate and intimate sense of what is about to happen (10:32). As the passage continues, I have to think that the whole request of James and John for a seat at Jesus’ right hand comes in the midst of a sense of desperation and exasperation. And yet it is out of this desperation that Jesus persists in revealing to them just how His kingdom is intended to work.

  • Common Theme Number 2- The Kingdom of the Least and the Last
    All three of these foretelling passages indicate a similar response from Jesus to the resistance and misunderstanding the disciples display in response to Jesus’ explanation that he must die and be rejected before he is raised again:

    Mark 8:31-38– In the first passage, Jesus foretells his death by telling the disciples, “those who lose their life will save it.”
    Mark 9:30-32– In the second passage Jesus foretells his death by telling the disciples, to be first in the Kingdom of God you must be last.
    Mark 10:32-34- In the third passage, Jesus foretells his death by stating that for the disciples to be great in the Kingdom of God, they must become a servant.

In all three of these passages, we find a great reversal, a Way in which we must seek to lose, in which we must seek to be last, in which we must strive to become a servant rather than a boss. This is counterintuitive stuff, especially in the context of the ancient world.

When Jesus asks the disciples in chapter 10 whether they can drink the cup that Jesus drinks and be baptized in the baptism of Jesus, he is actively reorienting their perspective towards the Way of the cross. The cup stands as an image of the Cross, and drinking the cup is participating in the work of the cross- losing our life, choosing to become the least, engaging the role of the servant. This is the road that Christ himself is on, and it is the road he is calling them (and us) to follow, and it is in the baptism of Christ that we find the promise of the Spirit, the spirit that can empower and reveal the Way of the Gospel, the way of the forgiven and forgiving life, in a very real and practical way.

When Jesus goes on to definitively declare that the right to “sit at Jesus’ right hand is not his to grant”, rather it is “for those which it has been prepared”, He is reiterating the themes that we have already found emerging in the Gospel of Mark up to this point. As I have mentioned before, seeing anything other than the forgiven and the forgiving life is to miss seeing Jesus, and in these passages we find the disciples miss what Jesus is saying and doing. Instead, they see a concern for earning, gaining and acquiring their place in the Kingdom of God rather than seeing God’s greater vision of a new Kingdom for the world, a prominent concern in the Gospel of Mark as a whole.

What the disciples resist is the way in which the forgiven and forgiving life calls us to give up our right and need to be in control. The idea of the Cross means that Jesus gave up His rights for the sake of the world, and He calls us to do the same. A part of this picture is giving up our right to decide who is and is not able to enter the Kingdom of God. For Mark, and the Transfiguration narrative, our focus and concern should be on our own hearts, our own lives. At the Cross we find forgiveness, and it is in becoming a servant, in submitting our right to be first in line in this Kingdom and this world, and finally it is by submitting (losing) our lives for the sake of a Gospel for the world, that we enter into the forgiving life. These are the important questions. This is the direction we must be looking if we are to see Jesus and participate in the kingdom He is building.

How these two common themes can help shape the message of the Transfiguration for us as readers.
In the Transfiguration story, we find ourselves being transported back through time in a sort of sweeping panorama of the Israelite history. We are transported back to Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop. We are reminded of the way in which God once revealed himself to both them and in the Israelite people in their own state of desperation. It’s an incredible scene that unfolds at the Transfiguration, one that left its witnesses on the mountaintop terrified and “not knowing what to say”.

If this indeed is the moment where the some (Peter, James, and John) were able to gain a glimpse of the Kingdom of God coming in power, it is a decisive moment where Jesus is declared to be the fulfillment of this Kingdom. As Elijah and Moses eventually fade from view, we are left only with the voice of God and the familiar words God once gave to Moses- “Listen to him”. It is in this intimate moment that God echo’s the words of John and the words of Jesus’ baptism- this is my beloved Son, the one who is to come who is greater than John the Baptist, who is greater than Elijah, who is greater than Moses.

And it leaves them questioning, “what this rising from the dead might mean” (9:10).

And isn’t this what Lent is all about, spending time reflecting on this very question? What does the cross mean for me? What does the cross mean for you? What does the cross mean for the world? In the Transfiguration, we find that it means everything. The point of the Transfiguration was to point to the Cross, and it is at the Cross that we find the means by which God enters the world- the great reversal in which God becomes (hu)man and our Lord becomes a servant. It is at the Cross that we find the means by which God promises to “restore all things” (9:12), and bring hope for a world that is in desperate need of restoration. This is the promise that Christ comes to fulfill, and this is the Way in which we are called to participate in God’s restorative work as Christ followers, by learning to give our lives for the sake of the Gospel, learning to serve rather than achieve, learning to enter into the space with the least of these as we purpose to give up our right to be first in this new Kingdom God is building.

As we move further and further into the period of Lent, we are being called to further reorient our sense of vision, away from ourselves and towards the One in whom we find our hope. Away from worldly ambitions and success, and towards the example of Jesus on the Cross. As the process of Lent continues to shape us, we are reminded that we do not need three tents (whatever those tents symbolize in our lives), we only need one. As when all else fades from view, it is only Jesus who remains.
FInally, in the words of Jesus, look at where we are headed, “see, we are going up to Jerusalem” (10:33). This is the direction we must be looking to see Jesus, towards Jerusalem, towards the cross, and ultimately towards the hope of His Resurrection. And what a beautiful sight it is.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: