Transfiguration | Mark 9:2-29
Maybe it never happened. According to Mark, at the top of a mountain three men saw Jesus changed, transfigured, wearing dazzling white clothes and talking to supernatural visitors.
We don’t know what they saw.
Maybe it never happened, and the entire passage is metaphorical. Maybe it happened just as the story says. Either way, it could be true.
At the mountaintop, everything is bright, breathtaking, amazing, and while Peter, James and John don’t understand what they are seeing, they have no trouble believing they are experiencing it. Afterward, at the bottom of the mountain, nothing is bright or clear. A boy is thrashing on the ground in some sort of fit, and faith is hard to come by.
Mountaintops and dust.
Our lives are like that, mountaintops and dust, and so of course the story is a metaphor. That has nothing to do with whether any of it really happened. Some of the truest stories never happened, and plenty of things that happen are pretty thin on truth.
What do we read the Bible for anyway, I ask you, we who claim or try to be people of faith? Is it to find out what happened? If so, we’re reading the wrong books. We’d do better to find some good histories or to read an archaeological journal.
I think we start reading the Bible because someone told us it was true. It’s just that most of the time they don’t go on to tell us what that means, to be ‘true’, and so we wander off or begin to argue about what it says.
I think that what we are really looking for is something to improve our lives. That’s the kind of truth we need. If we’re walking down in the low dark places, feet covered in dust, or if like the boy in the story we are lying on the ground like a corpse, we need to believe that something can happen, that our life can change, that somewhere there is an end to the valley and that somewhere the sun shines so brightly that we could not bear to look at it. Or, if we cannot manage to believe that we ourselves can make it to the mountaintop, we need to believe that someone will come down and take us by the hand, show some compassion, help us up from the dirt and the dust.
We have always been fascinated by the idea of change. Look at the stories that our ancestors cherished. The Greeks told stories of gods who changed into bulls, horses that spread their wings and flew. Metamorphosis. Butterflies amaze us when they emerge, and so do people. Good men who become taciturn, bitter, resentful old geezers. Self centered, manipulative youths who grow into responsible, caring people. Cells that metastasize. Stars that explode. Mr Hyde and Superman. Old grievances that do not matter any more.
That is what we want from this story. Change. We want it to change us, like every great and true story does. Why do we think telling such stories is the single most human thing we do? From firelight on cave walls to movies on widescreen televisions, we keep doing the same thing — listening to stories. And while we want to be entertained, we keep looking for the same thing — truth, the kind that matters, the kind that tells us that we are not alone, that others have been here before us, and that life can be better, or if it does get worse, that we can bear it.
Maybe Jesus on that mountain was just a symbol, a metaphor. That is fine, we need our symbols, and we need our stories to help us understand our lives. Maybe it all really happened, and Moses and Elijah stepped through some wall that separates us from all that we cannot touch in this world. Maybe we are always surrounded by light and voices, angels and demons, and it is just that we do not have the eyes to see them.
None of that matters, not really. What matters is what truth we manage to take in, to carry away with us.
When we are up there in the light, it matters that we remember the folks who are lying in the dust. When we’re the ones who have been knocked in the dirt, it matters that there is light up on the mountain. And sometimes we just need to hear the stories, because stories hold more truth than rules ever could.
Below is an excerpt from my novel I,John. The story from Mark’s Gospel is retold from the points of view of two characters: Adriel, an angel, and John, one of the three disciples invited up onto the mountain. Sometimes just hearing a story told in a different way helps us to hear something new. I hope you enjoy it.
There are four of them and they are climbing a mountain. It has nothing at the top but a view of the bottom, so I think that what they are doing is odd. Perhaps they are more like us, doing unlikely things for the pleasure it brings.
The one named Peter is the strongest, but he gives little thought to his path. Along the way he has to stop, baffled by rock, and turn back to the path behind Jesus. I sit on an outcropping watching them pass. Jesus is the only one who seems to know I am there. When he glances over at me, the one named John follows his eyes and pauses, staring at my rock perch though I do not believe he can sense me. James only wipes at the sweat on his forehead. Peter mumbles curses.
A cloud is moving across the peaks, hiding the long fall to the valley. Their group has scuffled their way to the top. Peter collapses, his back on the mountain, and stretches out as to sleep. I move past them when I feel the change. It is like waking from a dream when you did not know you were sleeping. Sunlight strengthens, but the shadows are cast away from the figure of Jesus, light coming from him and now from the others who are with him. They are not the three who made the climb, now lying face down on the hard rock. These are two more, men I think, though even I am not sure.
Jesus turns and tells the three to rise.
“These you know,” he says. “Here are Elijah and Moses. Do you not recognize them?”
I do not understand how this has come to pass. Neither, it seems, do these three men. James and John are standing. Peter drops back to his knees.
“Good! It is good, Lord!” Peter’s eyes move from one to the other, his arms stretched out wide. The other men say nothing at all. “We shall make a camp for you!”
He is babbling.
Jesus continues talking with the other beings for a while, not remarking on Peter’s plan. The light begins to increase and the wind makes the men’s robes ripple and slap against them. There are voices and more beings, a wall sliding away. I hear a great voice speaking, and I know I hear it also long ago in my memory, but I do not know the words. I cannot tell whether the sound begins from above us or comes from inside us, and I am lost. The three men are flat on the rock of the mountain, none of them looking up. I see many figures streaming through the light, then one light as though somehow the sun is within the cloud, and the energy of it sounds like static, so loud, it hums every frequency at once, and then everything stops.
The clouds are gone, as is the light. Now there is ordinary sunlight, no longer appearing so bright on the top of the mountain. Jesus is gazing down into the valley, and it seems to me that he has been standing there the whole time, only looking, that nothing has happened.
Gravel shifts and I realize the three men are still there, Peter beginning to stand, John and James helping one another to move. They are looking around them as though just now waking.
None of us speak. None of us moves.
Jesus turns and looks at the three. Saying nothing, he starts back down the mountain just as they had come. They follow, as do I.
Part of the way down is a rock shelf, high and wide enough for all of them to stand together. Jesus is again watching the valley. When the others catch up to him and stand there waiting, he turns to them.
“Tell nobody what you have seen.” He watches them for a moment. “One day you may understand it, and then you may speak of it. Until then, keep it within you.”
He does not turn to leave but waits, looking at them. Peter is staring, mouth open. James is little better, looking from his brother and Peter back to Jesus. It is John who managed to speak.
“Lord.” A pause. “That was Moses? And Elijah?”
Jesus’s face softens.
“Yes, in a way.” He turns to look back down into the valley. “Such things are hard to explain to you now, but one day you will understand. Elijah was here. Moses was here.”
No one speaks. Jesus keeps watching the valley, the small figures gathering at the bottom of the mountain. There is a village in the valley, and the other followers of Jesus are there waiting.
Jesus turns, and they begin the slow climb down.
I barely saw the rocks. I only remember the feel of them under my feet and in my hands, hard and flinting away into flakes and sand as we made our way down that mountain. What had we seen?
Maybe there was no air, our minds taking leave of us at the top, but we had all seen it. Peter had talked about making a camp. The light had been so bright that everything else still seemed to be in shadow, even in the afternoon sunlight.
I did not know what voice I had heard, and the more that I thought about it, the more I think about it now, the more I seem to have heard. That voice was saying things that I would not hear until time had passed. I still hear them. The right time comes and the meaning becomes as clear as though Jesus had simply turned and spoken himself. There was nobody on that mountain but us, and there was a complete world without sky and without form. Perhaps it was God speaking, I do not know. It was not a voice like anything else that I have ever heard. It spoke that day, but it spoke outside of time, and the meaning cannot be heard until its purpose has come.
Perhaps God says everything at once, and it is the hearing of the words that require time. The meaning is already there, carried within us, and suddenly we understand it when the time comes. That it why we cannot make out what the voice is saying. It is all the words we will ever hear but spoken at once, and it is time that translates them to our being.
I stumbled on a stone at the bottom of the mountain. James caught my arm, and then when I had recovered he nodded for me to look ahead. Jesus was walking toward the other disciples, all of them standing together with a crowd circling, voices raised. Some of the crowd saw Jesus approaching and turned to run toward him. Their faces were a strange mix, some glad and some with the look of men watching the spectacle of a circus.
Jesus kept walking toward the center, the crowd falling back to let him pass. A boy was lying on the ground, his body stiff and thrashing on the ground. I had never seen such a thing, yet I was sure Jesus would touch him and stop whatever was wrong.
He did not touch the boy, though, but stood a few feet from him and watched. The boy’s father came and took hold of Jesus’s sleeve, then knelt in front of him.
“How long has he been like that?” asked Jesus. The boy was thrashing on the ground, clearly about to hurt himself, and Jesus was asking questions as though he were a tourist attraction.
“Since he was a child,” said the father. “We do not know what to do to help him, but we keep him from rolling into the fire or hurting himself.”
The father paused and looked back at his son. He was ignoring the crowd.
“Can you help him? Your followers have been able to do nothing. Are you able to help him?”
Jesus looked across at the other disciples. All of them looked down at the ground or away.
“All things are possible,” he said. “Do you believe this?”
I was not sure whether he was speaking to us or to the boy’s father. It was the father who answered.
“I believe, yet I do not believe. That is the truth of it, and I would not lie to you.” The man looked at his son, then back at Jesus once more. “Still, can you help him?”
Jesus reached out and put his hand on the father’s shoulder. More people were hurrying up the path from the village, all of them holding their heads up to see over the crowd already gathered there.
He spoke to the boy, or to something. I could not remember his words. The father turned to see, and the boy stopped moving and lay still. The father crawled across the dust to him and lifted him.
“He is dead.” It was someone in the crowd saying so. Peter looked across the faces, and I knew that it was good he could not tell which of them had said such a thing out loud.
“No,” the father said. “He is not dead.”
We heard the boy gasp for air, and his father turned to look up at Jesus.
“He is alive, my boy is alive.”
In his father’s arms the boy was limp, breathing as though he had run a race, but he was not thrashing anymore.
“You had faith enough,” Jesus said. “If you had told me you had no doubt, then you would have failed me.”
He turned and walked away from the boy and his father as though the crowd were not even there.