Scholars to this day are not exactly certain what to make of the chronological location of the text. The two main schools of thought connect it to the Baptism of Jesus (as the Father’s affirmations are strikingly similar) or to a post-Resurrection appearance which Mark has edited somewhat. Liturgically the Church has always been comfortable with Mark’s pre-Resurrection placement in Chapter 9 as an act by Jesus to strengthen the Apostles by a taste of the glory of heaven, a lesson easily applied to a fasting Christian Church in Lent.
Looking at the text critically I am always surprised at its connectedness to the Hebrew Scripture, notably Exodus and the prophets, particularly Elijah. The location of the Transfiguration is not recorded by Mark, who would prefer us to stay focused on the fact that Jesus went up a mountain, period. The parallel to Sinai is so obvious that Mark doesn’t trouble himself to state the obvious. Sinai is the place where Moses sees the face of God; lo and behold, Moses is a central character here. In this instance Moses represents the connectedness or completeness of the Jewish law and expectations with the new Kingdom of God announced by Jesus.
Elijah’s presence adds another important dimension, particularly suited to the three members of the Twelve who might be able to absorb the implications. Elijah had a difficult time of things according to the chronicler of the books of Kings. Despite his dramatic works, he was often on the run from persecution, usually instigated by the wicked Queen Jezebel. In short, Elijah was the embodiment of the cost of discipleship if that term where alive then. Mark, it seems, is attempting in this treatment to connect the trials of Elijah to those of Jesus and to Jesus’ disciples.
Elijah’s departure in a chariot of fire is known by anyone who ever attended catechism class. What is less known is that the idea of his heralded return at the end of time was a prediction by a much later prophet, Malachi; the disciples evidently knew of Malachi’s prediction, and as they come down the mountain they fumble over two matters of great mystery to them. The first is Jesus’ prediction earlier in the Gospel of Mark that the Son of Man (Jesus) would be put to death and raised in glory. This is at odds with the disciples’ shared Jewish understanding of Elijah’s return; Jesus has announced his imminent death and glory, but there is no sign of Elijah. Jesus explains that Elijah has returned in John the Baptism. This could not have calmed apostolic nerves, for Mark 6:6b-34 is a long and gruesome account of the Baptist’s unjust imprisonment and death at the hands of another Jezebel, the spiteful Herodias, (disputed) wife of the reigning King Herod of Jesus’ day.
But there is another nagging question on the minds of the disciples, and Mark highlights it here in the context of the Transfiguration and matters of the future. The disciples, according to Mark, “discussed among themselves privately what rising from the dead meant.” This text has special meaning to me, as it almost sunk my boat during an oral examination many years ago. A professor asked me what a man in Jesus’ time and milieu would have thought about the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. The simple answer is that a small minority of Jews would have spontaneously conceived of life after death and the glorification in new life. Ironically, only the Pharisees entertained this new and novel idea. The majority of Jews—and certainly the countryside disciples—did not entertain this possibility. We see in Matthew 22:25-32 and Luke 20:27-38 that the old guard Sadducees attempt to poke fun at Jesus’ teaching on everlasting life with a ridiculous scenario of a woman widowed seven times.
It may be that Mark’s Transfiguration account is an attempt by the evangelist to help the early Church process the preaching it had heard about the Resurrection appearances and glorification of Christ after the grave. It is an interesting feature of all four Gospels that post-Easter narratives are marked by varying degrees of confusion and consternation. Perhaps we underestimate the quantum leap of bearings required of those earliest hearers of the Word. Couple this with the multiple other messages of today’s Gospel, and one can truly say that “Mark said a mouthful.”