I have always struggled with the story of the Transfiguration. First of all, I didn’t grow up in the church, but I did grow up in the 80s. Growing up as a boy in the 80s means you were obsessed with Star Wars. So when I first read this story, and every time since then, when I read about three glowing figures, all my mind can see is Obi-Wan-Kenobi, Yoda
and Anakin Skywalker appearing in ghostly form at the end of Return of the Jedi. Perhaps this is why this story is so strange for me. I find it weird, uncertain and out of place. Nevertheless, there it is and it is a huge story.
One of the running themes throughout Mark has been power: What has it, who doesn’t, and who thinks they have it? We are consistently seeing the power of God in Jesus through healings and the casting out of evil, but we also see the power of the world in people like Herod and the beheading of John the Baptist. Though we are six days later from the last few days’ readings, they are presumably still in Caesaria Philippi. Caesarea. That is, Caesar. That is, a city named for Caesar. And it is just prior to this passage that we heard Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1, emphasis added).
It’s in that context that we get what is known as “The Transfiguration”. It is called this because the text tells us that before them Jesus was “transfigured”. The Greek word is μεταμορφόω (metamorphoō, where we get our word “metamorphosis”). Yes, right there Jesus went from a little caterpillar to a beautiful little butterfly. Aw, how sweet. Except that it’s a beautiful little butterfly who is actually a real and present threat to the power of Rome. They are in Caesarea, where Jesus appears in God-like fashion with the two Hebrew figures associated with the end of all things (Moses and Elijah), and in it we get a flashback to Mark 1, with a voice saying “this is my Son, the Beloved…”, only this time it’s not “in whom I am well pleased”, but “listen to him.” You see, in Mark 1, it was a message to Jesus: “You are my son…” Here it’s a message to us: “This is my son…”
This is all about just how powerful Jesus is, and it’s a big reason why I believe that part of Mark’s target audience is one man: Caesar. And in that way, not one man, but one entity, which is, whoever sits on the thrones of political and worldly power. The message is “look out, Caesars, there’s more going on here than you know.”
Earlier, toward the end of Chapter 8, Jesus said those somewhat famous words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:35). The word for life there is not the word that generally means “living”. It’s ψυχή (psychē). It’s where we get our word “psyche”. It speaks to the whole of the self, the soul, the deepest parts of who we are.
The power of God in Christ is that while the Caesars of this world may have power over us in various forms, the good news is that they can never take our actual life, our psyche. God owns that. And the path to that “life” is by living in ways that we give it up for others, just as Jesus will do. We are made for the sake of one another. We lose ourselves when we forget that. And it is in this that Jesus saves us from ourselves. When we give ourselves to him, to his good news (the Gospel) we are saved from ourselves. That is we are saved from the prison of working to make sure that I’m ok and freed into the beautiful life-giving world of making sure that we’re all ok.
So, we listen to Jesus, and just as he shines “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach” (9:3), so too do we. Let’s go shine light into Caesar’s darkness.