As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. " We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
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. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
Three people were invited on three separate occasions into three privileged moments in the life of Jesus. They were handpicked each time. The person who chose them was Our Lord. The three he chose were Peter, James and John. Even though we got no formal invitation ourselves, the Lord won't mind our being there. We'll slip in and stay quietly in the background. We'll see what the apostles saw, hopefully. And we'll have the added advantage of observing their reaction. At the end of it all, with the help of God and the Gospel of St Mark, we'll draw our own conclusions. It should be interesting, to say the least.
The first place was the home of a synagogue official called Jairus. When Jairus first implored Our Lord to cure his daughter, he described her as “desperately sick” (Mk 5:23). Before they got near the house at all, the word came through that she had died. Jairus must have been hurrying Jesus along, begging the people who were pressing upon them to keep back, wishing the little woman with the running sore had chosen another time for her cure (Mk 5:29). Getting Jesus to the house before his child died was the most important thing in the world. To hear that she was already dead, and that they might have been in time to save her must have broken his heart. Jesus knew what he was going to do. That's why he chose Peter, James and John to go with him. Those three and the father, mother, and himself would be the only people in the dead girl's room. It's the casualness of the scene that makes it so momentous. He took her by the hand, told her to get up, watched her walk around, told them to give her something to eat (Mk 5:43). Life took over from death as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Almost imperceptibly, the ordinary took upon itself the quality of imperishability. The balance of forces between life and death was changing irrevocably in that – modest little room, and the three disciples were there to see it. It wasn't a time for levity, but you'd have to smile really, at the looks of astonishment that the three of them exchanged!
The second place is the Garden of Gethsemane. Again, the only three of his disciples Jesus took with him were Peter, James and John. This time Jesus didn't know what he was going to do! He was in such a state of terror and distress at the prospect of crucifixion that he was tempted, as never before, to give up on his messianic mission and get out from under the cross. “My soul is sorrowful to the point of death,” he told his disciples (Mk 14:34). “Take this cup away from me,” he begged of “Abba', his father (Mk 14:36). The acceptance of his father's will couldn't have come as easily in practice as it comes in Mark's prose. “Let it be, as you, not I, would have it” (Mk 14:36).
That “Let it be” had survived the biggest crisis in Our Lord's life so far and would still have to endure the pitiless searchings of Calvary. Acceptance of the Father's will, and the suffering it entailed, wouldn't be easy for the disciples either. They might have slept through his suffering; they wouldn't be able to sleep through their own. “Stay awake,” was his warning to Peter. “Stay awake and pray not to be put to the test” (Mk 14:3 8).
The third and last place is the Mount of Transfiguration celebrated in today's feast. This time it was the turn of the disciples to be frightened (Mk 9:6). If Gethsemane was to be one of Christ's darkest moments, the Transfiguration was the brightest so far. What frightened the three disciples wasn't the prospect of suffering, of course. It was the awesome encounter with the unfamiliar. Here was “the Christ” as they'd never seen him before. “Brilliantly white” in a way that couldn't be “earthly” (Mk 9:3). Adding to the unearthly and disconcerting nature of the experience was the presence of such illustrious figures as Moses and Elijah, who lived longer than others did in the memory of their people, but who, at the same time, had been a long time dead. Their presence must be, in some way, an exaltation of Jesus, an exaltation that reached its zenith and startled them completely when the voice came down from heaven. “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him” (Mk 9:8). There had been lances exchanged after the raising of Jairus's daughter. Glances must have been exchanged again after the Transfiguration of Christ.
What conclusions can we draw? Well, since the raising of Jairus's daughter and the Transfiguration came before Gethsemane, and since Jesus invited Peter, James and John to all three, he must have meant the earlier events to carry them through his Passion and Crucifixion. When the darkness came down on them they'd remember the light. The memory of the Transfigured Lord and the risen girl would help them to hold their nerve! The second thing that occurs (and it must have occurred to the three), is that there is something unusual, not to say unique, about this person Jesus. Anyone who could raise the dead, be transfigured himself, and emerge from Gethsemane as he did, forces us to raise questions about his identity. Who is he? This much can be said about the three events that we've observed: They nudge us in the direction of divinity.
The third thing that's clear is that fulfilling the will of the Father is extremely difficult. If it was difficult for Our Lord and his disciples, it's bound to be difficult for us. The recurring temptation for all of us is to get rid of the cross. “You should be awake and praying,” Our Lord said to Peter, “not to be put to the test” (Mk 14:38). As I write this, word has come through that a relative and friend of mine has just died. Before going down for her operation she said: “If God has plans for me, I. wouldn't want him to change them.” Echoes of Gethsemane, of the Annunciation. Stuff of discipleship. A lot of praying went into the composition of that sentence – I can tell you that. May we fulfil God's will in our responsibilities, in his commandments, in our courage in the face of suffering. Transfiguration is a slow process for all of us. It only comes at a price!
Sometimes we can work beside someone without really getting to know the person; then, one day, something happens which causes him to open up, to begin to let us get close to him, and we discover a depth of riches which we didn't know existed. This morning's gospel is about an experience analogous to that, where Peter, James and John are able for a moment to see who Jesus really is. For the three apostles, it is an experience of something beyond words: frightening and yet, at the same time, so wonderful that they would wish to prolong it by building three tents – for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Reflecting on the experience, years later, Peter would write: “We had seen his majesty for ourselves. He was honoured and glorified by God the Father, when the Sublime Glory itself spoke to him” (1 Pet 1:17.)
The gospel mentions the whiteness of Jesus's clothes; Mark says they became “dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them.” Saint Gregory Nazianzen tells us that this whiteness was the Divinity, manifested to the disciples. Traditionally, Moses and Elijah are seen as representing the Law and the Prophets, an interpretation which we find in the preface of today's, Mass. But Moses and Elijah were also people who had encounters with the Divinity. Both had to cross the desert, fast for forty days, and climb the mountain of God. Moses had prayed to God, “Show me your glory.” When God revealed his back (not his face) to Moses, he placed him in the cleft of the rock, and when he came to Elijah as a gentle breeze, it was at the mouth of the cave. Perhaps these two are present as representing all those who desire to see God's glory: “When can I enter and see the face of God?” Is. 42:2) What were Moses and Elijah talking about with Jesus? Luke says they were “speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31), and indeed it was in his Passion that the face of God was to be revealed, as John would later write: “No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father's heart, who has made him known” (Jn 1:18.)
In the Transfiguration, the Father's voice is heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” Gregory Palamas says: “The Father by his voice bore witness to his Beloved Son; the Holy Spirit, shining with him in the bright cloud, indicated that the Son possesses with the Father the light, which is one, like all that belongs to their richness.” Just as at the Baptism of Jesus, so also at the Transfiguration, the heavens are opened and we receive a glimpse of the inner life of the Trinity. Jesus is revealed as Son of the Father, who speaks from the cloud of Divine Presence, where in dwells the Spirit.
The three apostles who would see Jesus prostrate in agony in Gethsemane were given this glimpse of who he really is, to strengthen them for what lay ahead, and also to help them to understand what is revealed in the Passion. John says in the Prologue, “we saw his glory;” is he referring to the Transfiguration or to the Crucifixion, to Tabor or to Calvary? Or is there a sense in which these two mountains are one? Is Tabor simply a preview of Calvary, rather than an antidote: a deeper vision of the reality of the Crucifixion event?