Mark 9:2-9 (NRSV)
2 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, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 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.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 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.
Belief, disbelief and mystery are themes that are woven throughout the book of Mark. This passage comes just after Jesus and his disciples were in Caesarea Philippi. The preceding paragraph ends with the fearsome “whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” This context casts this story in a different light. It is the chiaroscuro – the darkness that makes the light shine all the more.
There are a few theories of where the Transfiguration took place. Many suggest Mount Hermon, a snow-capped mountain close to where the events of the previous chapter had occurred. Today Mount Hermon lies on the border of Syria and Lebanon. Paths through this mountain have been used over the past seven years for people escaping the war in Syria to look for refuge in Lebanon. This involves a fifteen mile hike across the mountain, always undertaken in darkness. The mountain is also home to an Israeli ski resort, a UN post at the summit, and is one of the bordering features of the contentious Golan Heights. That’s a lot of life piled on life for one mountain.
Peter, James, John and Jesus have just reached the top of this mountain, when all at once all is light and Jesus is transformed, and suddenly they are no longer alone. They are joined by Elijah and Moses on the mountain top. I see this like those moments in big rugby or football matches, when the camera pans to some veterans, some past heroes of the game in the crowd, that stand as a reminder that this is all part of a legacy, a grander story. We see Moses descending from Mount Sinai unaware that his face is radiant because he has spoken to the Lord (Exodus 24:29). With our retrospective insight, we see Jesus’ ascension too. The flashbacks and foreshadowing occur all at once in one bright white moment.
This interplay between past, present and future is echoed in the words of God. God repeats his salutation to Jesus at the beginning of his ministry – “This is my Son whom I love” but this time followed with the command “listen to him”.
Reading the story it is the tension that hits me the most. The tension between future and past, belief and disbelief, the tension between the burden and the freedom, the tension between the light and the dark. The tension between ski resorts and journeys of courage, between death and life, between terror and beauty. The tension between taking up your cross, and the realisation of glory. I struggle between belief and disbelief even reading something like this. If I was on that mountain I’d like to think I’d be taking in the glory, but I’d probably be wishing to be anywhere but there, it all just seems a bit too much. I don’t blame Peter for suggesting they set themselves to making tents, as if in some way trying to normalise this extraordinary situation.
But I think there is something powerful in these tensions. Anxiety is so often experienced in all or nothing thinking where our bodies and minds persuade us that there can only be one outcome, the exhausting castastrophising, where we replay worst case scenarios as our truth. Maria Popova wrote recently of it as a “totality that sweeps away the elemental belief that another state of being is at all possible … your entire being contracts into the state of what is, unfathoming of what has been, can be and will be.” Conflict too is so often wrought with an all or nothing simplicity in relation to one’s views or opinions, where issues so complex our minds can barely take them in are reduced to bitesize arguments that creates an impossibility of understanding another’s point of view.
It seems a freedom to know we do not have to surrender to the terrible anxiety, or terrible simplicity of all or nothing thinking; to learn to hold two possibilities and two realities in tension. The older I get, and hopefully I’ll get a lot older yet, the more I am conscious of how absolutely beautiful and absolutely terrible the world is, and yet we have to live. So what holds the tension in a meaningful way? I think it might be the mustard seed, the tiny seed of faith that allows the balance to be just barely tipping in the right direction. The disciples and all who encountered Jesus are given so many chances for that tiny 1% shift, that suspension bridge that brings us from disbelief to belief. It is that tiny of glimmer of hope that maybe there is glory – “dazzling, more than all the bleach in the world could have made it” and maybe there is a cross that is meaningful. It is Peter standing on the mountain, in the tension, saying “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here”.
Emily is currently working part-time as a youth worker in Kilkenny alongside studying for her Masters in Community and Youth Work. She is passionate about tag rugby, proper conversations, dancing, poetry, public transport as a lifestyle choice and seeing people and ideas come together.