At Caesarea Philippi, he had just been telling them, for the first time, about his suffering and death. Peter didn’t take too kindly to the news. In silent consent, Jesus affirmed Peter’s confession “You are the Messiah!”, but the mum Messiah quickly became the mad Messiah after Peter rebuked him for all his negative talk about an execution: he called Peter’s protestations satanic. Peter’s got power problems: quite conventionally, he expects a king to deploy troops to conquer his enemies; a nonviolent Messiah, a suffering Messiah, doesn’t compute. He likes his kings in purple. (We’ll come back to colour coordination.)
Jesus gives Peter six days to get over his strop. Six days later, according to Mark, with the brothers James and John, Jesus takes Peter up a “high mountain”. “High mountain” – ring a bell? It would for Mark’s readers. Mountains, in the scriptures, are the topography of divine disclosure. God speaks on mountains. Remember Moses on Mount Sinai? Booming thunder on that occasion. Remember Elijah on Mount Horeb? Still, small voice on that one. But revelations both. This time too. But this one will be different.
So the four of them mountain-climb. Jesus is always striding ahead at pace in Mark, so you can imagine the three huffing and puffing as they arrive at the top, Jesus waiting, checking his watch. They rest. They look. They rub their eyes and look again. Are they hallucinating? They look again. No, nothing has come over them, but a change has come over him – a transformation, a “transfiguration”. From Mark’s Greek we get the word “metamorphosis”: Jesus emerges as a butterfly from a chrysalis. It is like a new creation. It is a new creation.
Mark drops the clue at the very beginning of our passage: I remind you, “six days later,” he writes. “Six days” – ring a bell? It would for Mark’s readers. The “six days” of creation, of course. The seventh day is the Sabbath, the goal of creation, the day of completion, the day of perfection. There is glorious sunshine over the whole world on the first Sabbath. Is it any wonder that on this Sabbath Jesus shines with the brightness of “a thousand splendid suns” (Khaled Hosseini)?
The three are overwhelmed. Too right. And then two more: yep, Moses and Elijah. Talking with Jesus. Man, if mountains had walls, wouldn’t you like to have been a fly on that one? Mark doesn’t tell us what the three were talking about, but Luke does. He says that they were talking “about the way in which he [Jesus] would soon fulfil God’s purpose by dying in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). In other words, the same conversation that Jesus had been having with the disciples at Caesarea Philippi, the one where Peter didn’t get the point. Does he get it now? After all, he’s got Moses and Elijah – the Law and the Prophets – the representatives of the entire tradition of Israel, to help, a veritable seminar on salvation.
Peter interrupts the conversation. (Peter is always sticking his oar in.) “Teacher, how good it is to be here!” Not a promising start. It’s got to be the biggest understatement in the Bible! And it gets worse. “We will make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Like a three-ring circus! Again, as at Caesarea Philippi, Peter tries to be (in this case, literally!) accommodating; but, alas, his words only go to show that he has, again, missed the point. He still doesn’t get it. Mark is terse: Peter, he writes, “didn’t know what to say.”
What’s the problem? Same old same old: it’s the crucifixion thing. In Mark’s coded language, Peter’s very first word gives the game away: “Teacher”, “Rabbi”. The word will occur at two later points in Mark’s story. In the first, Peter grieves over Jesus’ repudiation of the Temple (Mark 11:21); in the second, Judas infamously betrays Jesus with a kiss. Both narratives reflect, to lesser and greater degree, the disciples’ failure to see how radical is Jesus’ break with the religious establishment, and with the ideology of power that supports it. Here, on the mountain, Peter’s failure becomes apparent when he proposes to build a shrine, as if to start a cult to a “great man”, flanked by the shrines of Israel’s two most historic figures. But Jesus is not this type of “great man”. He resists this type of adulation. True, he will eventually be flanked by a couple of figures, but not by the great and the good, and not on the kind of throne about which Peter fantasises. No, he’ll be hanging, from a gibbet, and to his left and right will be two criminals, not two saints.
So again Peter gets it wrong, and again he is rebuked. Not this time, however, by Jesus but by Jesus’ Abba, more in consolation than condemnation but equally urgently, in a voice that repeats the Father’s testimony at Jesus’ baptism, but is now directed at the disciples themselves: “This is my own dear Son – listen to him!” God speaks from a cloud, traditional symbol of divine revelation – but also, I wonder, anticipating the darkness at noon of the approaching fateful Friday?
But let’s not be too hard on Peter. It is hard not to sympathise with him. Like Peter, do we not all want our heroes, our gold-medallists? And do we not desire the security of place and structure? Do we not prefer our gods to be tied down with tent pegs? Do we not resist the wild wind of the Spirit that drives us from those exhilarating mountain-top moments we occasionally experience – a birth, a marriage, a healing, a success – drives us from the heights back to the lowlands, into the valleys of the everyday and, worse, the bad days, when we battle our demons and struggle with old, intractable problems and new, impossible challenges? We look around – Mark says the disciples looked around. Is there no one to help? – Mark says they saw no one else. But then he adds – concludes – “only Jesus was with them.” Only Jesus? Only Jesus! Jesus was with them.
Still, he doesn’t let them get comfortable. It’s time to go. Like the grand old Duke of York, he marched them up to the top of the hill, now he marches them down again, to hit the road, the road to Jerusalem. In fact, that this road is the via dolorosa is expressed in the vision of the transfigured Jesus itself. Observe Mark’s sartorial observation, about how white Jesus’ garments were, “whiter than anyone in the world could wash them”? (I said I’d come back to colour coordination.) No, Mark is not advertising Ariel Ecological or Fairy Non Bio! He is alluding to the symbolic garment of the martyr, the white robe. The glorification of Jesus and the crucifixion of Jesus – these are not opposites. The risen Christ will still bear the wounds inflicted at his death. Even the reigning Christ will not wear royal robes. Jesus is the Man in White. White, not purple, is his colour. Easily soiled, of course.
Yet how culturally correct it is to remove the stains of suffering and death from life, and all signs of weakness and failure, debility and age. We must keep the garments of our lives fashionable, colourful, clean. We worship youth and beauty, status and style and Colgate smiles. Suffering, infirmity, and death are our social taboos. We must keep them out of sight, on hospital wards, in nursing homes, at sorrowless funerals. We do not see that by trying to garnish or banish the shadow side of life, we actually sacralise death, turn it into an idol that we worship with fear and trembling, offering it the sacrifices of the failures, the sick, and the elderly, but thus only demonstrating how determinative of our lives death actually is, how bewitched and enslaved we are by it. Deep down, however, we know that human frailty and finitude will outstrip our resourceful yet desperate and finally vain attempts to keep them at bay; we know that, inexorably, they will catch and overtake us. This is no way to live. It is not living at all.
So listen to the Man in White. He tells us to accept our vulnerability and insecurity. He tells us that helplessness is not the threat we think it is, that, in fact, it is a blessing, a grace. He tells us that acceptance, not denial, is the gateway not only to freedom but also peace, even joy. Our breakages and cracks – as Leonard Cohen so memorably put it – they’re how the light gets in. We usually think of faith as the sharing of plenty, but it always begins and ends in the honesty and openness of simply sharing our need, and with one beggar telling another where to find bread.