Lectionary Thoughts: Mark's Transfiguration (February 11)

The apse of the Basilica of SantApollinare in Classe, near Ravenna, is decorated with a famous and imaginative depiction of the transfiguration. Image in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia. 

The apse of the Basilica of SantApollinare in Classe, near Ravenna, is decorated with a famous and imaginative depiction of the transfiguration. Image in the public domain, taken from Wikipedia. 

The gospel of Mark often gets described as the earliest of the canonical gospels (although that's not a unanimous opinion). Because of that, Mark is also usually described as primitive. It is pretty rough around the edges; the author relies a lot on the word "immediately" as a transition between scenes, for example, and the ending of the gospel somehow manages to be both abrupt and messy. 

Careful readers of Mark will notice a lot of sophistication behind all of those primitive words. There are big themes that carry all the way through, like the "messianic secret" and the bumbling cluelessness of Jesus' disciples. 1:1 shows a certain confidence about Jesus' identity, even as the gospel goes on to hedge its bets quite a few times. Mark 13 is the biblical equivalent of that scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian where everything suddenly turns to some strange spaceship; it interrupts the story in a weird way that never quite makes sense. There are signs throughout that Mark, for all of his awkward writing, knew what he was doing. And this week's lectionary gospel text, Mark 9:2-10, is evidence of that. 

This is the scene usually known as the Transfiguration. There's a lot going on in this scene, even in Mark's version, which is a little shorter than Matthew's and a lot shorter than Luke's. There are echoes of the Festival of Booths (Sukkot) in the "dwellings" comment from Peter. There is a possible prefiguring of the resurrection (which doesn't really occur in Mark in any holistic way; that's a story for another day). Some of the old heroes of the faith return; Moses and Elijah hang out and talk with Jesus. There's an overshadowing cloud, with echoes of Sinai where Moses received the law on the mountain. All told, this story is probably meant to signal to the reader that Jesus is special, and not just special, but special in a way that mirrors Elijah and Moses. But it's not even just that--the dazzling white clothing probably plays on angelic or divine stereotypes. The reader, encountering Mark 9, is supposed to understand that Jesus is really special. Maybe divine? Mark is never quite that forthright, but all the hints are there if you want to see Jesus in some divine role. 

The climax of the scene is the voice from the cloud that said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him." This is pretty close to what the voice from heaven said at the baptism in Mark 1:11: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (Remember that there are no capitalizations or punctuation in the Greek; the NRSV notes that it could also easily be read "You are my beloved Son...."). There are signs--breadcrumbs really, dropped along the way, that lure the reader into an understanding that Jesus is someone extremely important. But Mark never beats you over the head with it. Even a showy, flashy scene like this one leaves you wondering what it's all supposed to mean, especially once Jesus does that typical gospel-of-Mark thing and tells everybody to stay quiet about what they just saw. Who is this guy and why is he so cagey about who he is? Mark doesn't quite want to tell you. 

I think that's a feature of Mark's telling, not a bug. As I began by saying, Mark often seems crude and unsophisticated, but behind all of that he has a keen sense of what he's up to. By refusing to come right out and tell you who Jesus is and what he means, Mark is inviting you to figure it out. By having it all be a secret, Mark wants you to guess. By having the disciples perpetually misunderstand, Mark provokes you to ask what understanding might look like. The Transfiguration story is a great example of that. Jesus' identity is never made quite clear, but that's because Mark wants you to keep asking about it.