Last Sunday after Epiphany: On Not Understanding the Transfiguration

Gospel: Mark 9:2-9.

I don’t know what to make of this story – of the Transfiguration – at all. Mark’s point in telling it seems to be to clarify his understanding of the role of Jesus, to give the command ‘listen to’ Jesus directly from the mouth of God, and to make links through time: forwards to the resurrection, and backwards to Moses and Elijah. It puts Jesus firmly in a certain company, and in the context of the Jewish tradition: he is accepted by Elijah and Moses, who are talking to him when they appear. (The three disciples who are present don’t seem to hear what is said, and Peter’s next comment is to my mind a bit of a non sequitur – and it is followed by the information that ‘they did not know what to say’ which makes it somewhat strange that he speaks at all.)

The closest I can come to relating this story to my own experience is, frankly, not that close at all; and because the only experiences I have had which do seem to relate to this one came in contexts and have content which I would call Pagan, I’m hesitant to take that step. Is my – vivid, memorable, life-enhancing – experience of a visit by/vision of a Goddess really relevant to understanding a text which is so clearly set within the Jewish/emerging Christian tradition? One of the ideas which I spend a lot of time challenging in my academic work is the claim, made by many Christian pluralists and Quaker universalists and some Pagans too, that all religions are somehow the same, or that they all ‘really’ teach the same thing, or that all religious experience is of ‘the same thing’. These various claims tend to get bundled up together, and all of them are used as an excuse to claim that X from religion Y is ‘the same is’ A from religion B. I’m sceptical about that. Why should we think that, for example, the Inner Buddha Nature and the Inner Light are the same thing?

I don’t, then, want to assume that seeing Moses and Elijah having a chat with Jesus on a mountain is anything like meeting the Goddess in a garden. On the other hand, when I try to imagine what it would be like to stand on that mountain with Jesus and see Elijah and Moses join him, all I have to fill in the gaps, to provide the emotional resonance, is my own experience. Like an artist  who dresses the people of the Bible in the clothes of the artist’s own time, all I’ve got is my own personal Quaker-Pagan-a bit Buddhist-culturally Christian experience to help me understand this picture.

And from that point of view, the last bit of this story – the command not to tell anyone what they had seen until some future point which, although obvious to a reader now, couldn’t have been clear to the disciples at that time – does make a kind of emotional sense. It’s often a long time between a striking spiritual experience and the stage where one can discuss it freely with others.

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One response to “Last Sunday after Epiphany: On Not Understanding the Transfiguration

  1. Thankyou for the last sentence – aha! that’s what it’s about.

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