The Terrifying Wonder of Transfiguration – Mark 9.2-9 – Transfiguration Sunday
In one chapter of her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard shares about reading accounts of the first cataract operations performed in Europe and America.
The blind or nearly blind patients had little, if any, understanding of form, depth, size or space before the surgery, Dillard reveals. After the surgery, their ability to see radically altered their conception of the world by literally opening their eyes to new dimensions and perspectives of which they had been unaware.
Before the operation, Dillard writes, a doctor would give a blind patient a cube and a sphere; the patient would tongue it or feel it with [their] hands, and name it correctly. After the operation the doctor would show the same objects to the patient without letting [them] touch them; [and] now [they] had not clue whatsoever what [they] were seeing.
Based on these reports, it seems that receiving sight was and is cause for both terror and wonder. Objects that patients had known and been able to identify before seemed foreign and unfamiliar. Spaces that patients had known and been able to walk through before proved difficult to traverse without running into objects. They could see, which was wonderful, but the world they had come to know apart from sight was forever altered, which was terrifying.
For some, terror overwhelmed wonder and they shut their eyes, refusing to use their new vision—preferring to live as they had before. For others, wonder overwhelmed terror and they kept their eyes open, embracing their new vision—preferring to live in a new way that was not possible before receiving their sight.
In our text for this morning, something no less abrupt, no less terrifying and no less wonderful happens to the disciples and the readers of Mark’s gospel. They too receive new sight and must decide what they will do with it. This, after all, is what Transfiguration Sunday is all about—a new sight, a new vision, a new understanding of Jesus as the Christ.
When we read this story we often focus on the change in Jesus’ clothing, which suggests that the transfiguration is about a change in Jesus’ physical appearance. And yet, Jesus is the same before and after this scene. It is the disciples who see him differently—or have a choice to do so. In other words, the transfiguration story is about a change in the disciples understanding of Jesus.
So, let’s look again at Mark’s account to understand why the change in Jesus’ appearance should be understood as a metaphor for the change in the understanding, the “sight” of the disciples.
We begin with verse two. Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James and John and led them up a high mountain. This is a confusing statement without context. It should cause us to ask, “six days after what?”
Looking back to chapter eight we find the answer. Six days prior to ascending the mountain, Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah at Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8.27-30). Immediately after this confession, Jesus revealed that as the Christ, the Messiah, he was going to be rejected, killed and ultimately raised up to new life (8.31). He also said that any who wanted to be his disciples must walk this same path by “taking up their cross and following him” (8.34-38).
Six days after this new revelation, this new vision of Jesus and his way of life, Jesus and three of his disciples climb a mountain. Then Jesus was transfigured before them, Jesus was changed in their sight, and his clothes became dazzling white such as no one on earth could bleach them (Mk 9.2b-3).
There appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. And then Peter said, ‘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 afraid.
Just then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud came a voice, saying, “This is my son, the beloved one, listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore except Jesus.
When you read the text closely, several things become clear.
First, the whitening of Jesus’ clothing is a result of the transfiguration, not the transfiguration itself. Again, the change in clothing is meant to visualize the change in the disciples’ perception of Jesus. It is Jesus, not really Jesus’ clothing, which appears different to them.
Second, the event caused confusion, uncertainty and fear in the disciples. They see things differently, and are not sure how to respond.
Finally, the climax of the scene comes with the proclamation: “This is my son, the beloved one, listen to him!” This imperative reveals the disciples’ struggle to accept the new vision, the new understanding of Jesus they have received at Caesarea Philippi.
All of this suggests that the scene is a metaphor for what happened to the disciples’ understanding of Jesus and their calling as Jesus’ disciples in chapter 8. The transfiguration scene is an artistic rendering of the conversation Jesus had with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, which transfigured their sight, their perception of Jesus as the Christ and of themselves as followers of the Christ.
To understand the radical shift that happens at Caesarea Philippi and that is illustrated in the transfiguration scene, we must recall that until Peter’s confession Mark’s narrative is positive and focused on Jesus’ teaching and miracles. The teachings provided hope by calling people to believe the glad news that the reign of God had come near (Mk 1.14-15), describing God’s reign as fresh, new and life-giving (Mk 2.18-27; 7.1-12) and speaking about God as a profligate seed sower who flings the healing news of endless compassion upon everyone. The miracles provided hope as well, because Jesus cured the demon possessed (Mk 1.21-28; 5.1-20), made well the sick (1.29-34; 6.53-56) and healed diseases such as leprosy (Mk 1.40-45), paralysis (Mk 2.1-12), arthritis (Mk 3.1-6), hemorrhaging (Mk 5.24b-34), and deafness (Mk 7.31-37); calmed storms (Mk 4.35-41), raised the dead (Mk 5.21-24a, 35-43), fed two huge crowds of people with a few fish and loaves of bread (Mk 6.30-44; 8.1-10) and even walked on water (Mk 6.45-52).
All of this happens in the first eight (8) chapters of Mark. It was an exciting, triumphal and hopeful time. Who wouldn’t want to be a follower of Jesus when all of this is going on?
But then at Caesarea Philippi everything changes. Peter says Jesus is the Christ and Jesus reveals what this means—not triumphal procession from glory to glory; not endless miracles that magically cure all the ills of the world; not ever-increasing praise and glory and power for Jesus and his followers. Rather, suffering and death for the Christ and the same fate for his followers. Jesus as the Christ, and the disciples’ identity as followers of the Christ, is radically transfigured.
Understandably, the disciples struggle with this new vision. Jesus becomes nearly incomprehensible to them from this new vantage point, which is why Peter rebukes Jesus at Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8.33) and why he offers to build tents on the mountaintop (Mk 9.5). Both of these stories are intended to illustrate the disciples’ confusion resulting from their new perception of Jesus as the Christ. The text reveals that the disciples became like the patients Dillard described who received their sight, which was wonderful, but also terrifying because they were able to recognize an object before receiving their sight but could not do so afterward.
If it wasn’t already clear that Mark intends us to understand the transfiguration scene as a metaphor for this new way of seeing and understanding Jesus as the Christ, he makes it more obvious by placing two miracles in which Jesus heals blind men (Mk 8.22-26; 10.46-52) as “bookends” to this section of the story, which runs from 8.22 to 10.52.
The first blind man is healed just prior to Peter’s confession. Then we encounter Peter’s confession (Mk 8.27-30), followed by Jesus’ three “passion predictions” about his ever-approaching suffering and death (Mk 8.31-33; 9.30-32; 10.32-34), as well as four teaching moments in which Jesus says that to follow him requires disciples to give up their life, their power, their prestige, their pride, their possessions and their privilege (Mk 8.34-38; 9.33-37; 10.17-31; 10.35-45). After all of this, just before Jesus enters in Jerusalem, he heals two more blind men who receive their sight and begin following Jesus on the way (Mk 10.52).
This humble, self-less way of love that counters and contrasts the prideful, selfish way of power is revealed in the teachings I mentioned, which follow the transfiguration scene.
In Mark 9.33-37, Jesus interrupts the disciples’ argument about who is the greatest by telling them that the greatest is the most humble person who willingly serves everyone else. The way of Jesus gives up the power that comes with place.
In Mark 10.17-31, Jesus then tells a rich man that he must sell everything and share it with those in need to follow him. The way of Jesus gives up the power that comes with possessions.
Finally, in Mark 10.35-45, Jesus, again, corrects the disciples who became angry after two of them asked Jesus for positions of authority, telling them that the greatest in God’s kingdom is not the tryant or autocrat but the humble servant. The way of Jesus gives up the power that comes with prestige.
In all of these ways, Mark proclaims that to understand the Christ and to be a disciple of the Christ requires new sight and transfigured vision. The new perspective to be embraced is that strength is found in weakness, greatness in humility, authority in service, power in powerlessness and life in death. This is the way of the cross that Jesus models for his disciples and the way in which Jesus all of us to follow. The way of Jesus is found in refusing to grasp after power and privilege in order to gain the whole world and instead choosing to give up power and privilege in order to serve the whole world (cf. k 8.36).
There is an old, familiar adage: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That the life of Jesus, the one who renounced the way power over others, ended with his unjust death at the hands of the power brokers of his day proves the truthfulness of that statement. This was and is the bad, tearful news.
But the good and hopeful news of Jesus, the glad and joyful proclamation of Easter is this: Selfless love redeems, and absolute selfless love redeems absolutely. That the life of Jesus, the one who renounced the way of power over others and embraced the way of humble love, began again on the third day proves the truthfulness of that statement. This was and is the good, glad news.
So here is the question we must answer: will we accept our transfigured vision, our newly given sight and live our lives accordingly, or will we shut our eyes and go back to our former way of seeing?
With this question, we return to one of the post-operative cataract patients Dillard describes.
A twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, ‘the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; [and] she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘O God! How beautiful!’”
It was a terrifyingly wonderful occasion, strikingly similar to the transfiguration scene we reflect upon this morning. The disciples receive their sight, and, like the patients Dillard describes, they had a choice to embrace this new vision, learning how to use their eyes and letting it shape their lives for the better or to reject their new sight, refusing to use their eyes and living their lives as they did before. This is the same choice each of us is offered this day and every day.
It is my hope and prayer that each of us would keep our eyes open—choosing to use our transformed vision, our healed eyes—as we embrace the way of humble, selfless love that offers hope, healing and redemption to all.
Though the sight, the light bursting into the darkness of our vision, may cause us to shut our eyes for a time due to its overwhelming brightness, the glad news of Jesus and the promise of Easter is that “the more we direct our gaze upon everything about us with our healed eyes” and choose to follow the path of humble, self-giving love, the more we shall repeatedly exclaim: ‘O God! How beautiful!” AMEN.
 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974), 25.
 Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 29.