2Six 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, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then 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.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9As 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.Mark 9:2-9
The unsettling splendour of the transfiguration, the needs of the world and the disciples’ despair, are all captured by Mark in just a few sentences. My reading of this momentous event stems from being an Indian Dalit Christian married to a Canadian German who is serving as a Church of England Vicar, together raising a mixed-race family in the North West of England. Having experienced Caste discrimination all my life in the Indian church and society, it didn’t come as a surprise to experience racism and prejudice in England. The difference is, it took much longer for the Church of England to acknowledge that it is institutionally racist, steeped in its colonial past, and primarily defined by its white normative theology.
Broadly, in the backdrop of Brexit driven English nationalism, growing racial tensions, it was apparent that the church was called to introspect and repent for the sin of racism, paving the way for the wider society. While the UK government still refuses to acknowledge institutional racism, the politics of racial inequity and its socio-economic fault lines has been seriously exposed by the pandemic. What our current times globally has brought to the fore is, firstly, social fragmentation underpinned by ideological and economic polarisation, and secondly, racial and ethnic tensions primarily fuelled by a threat to traditionally held privilege (white, caste and tribal). In other words, the disfiguration of human dignity is unfolding right before our eyes. This is not just my isolated experience; rather it is a fact that is unfolding across the world. The fragility of democratic process has been laid bare, cleverly manipulated through lies and deception by autocratic tendencies and religious nationalism. It is in this context a glimpse of the unsettling splendour of transfiguration can transform our view so that we can refashion our lives and the societies that we inhabit.
The way Mark frames this mountain top event looks very similar to the exodus of Israel out of Egypt, passing through the wilderness to the promised land after their liberation from slavery. Jesus is positioned on the mountain top much like Moses when he met with God and received the commandments; Moses’ face, too, was transfigured by that encounter. To complete this portrayal, a voice comes from the cloud, calling upon the disciples to listen to him. Jesus did not get carried away with the glory but gets down to the reality of life in all its messiness. Jesus was preparing for his difficult journey towards Jerusalem. Jesus makes known the inevitable journey to the cross. This journey is Jesus’ exodus moment. He states: “The son of man has to endure great sufferings and to be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, to be put to death and to be raised on the third day” (Mark 8:31).
Peter pulls him aside and rebukes Jesus that “such things will never happen to him!” Only to be reprimanded by Jesus for his actions. Jesus resists. Peter, even in his bewildered state wants to capture the moment in a special sacred place and bottle it by pitching a tent. Peter on the mountain wants to get busy with his own agenda because he didn’t like the agenda Jesus had in mind. Jesus was very clear about his journey to Jerusalem, to the heart of religious and political power in defiance, to challenge and subvert them. The disciples are caught up in the cloud, enchanted by this vision.
But at that very moment, when it would seem that Jesus is emphasizing the mystical and transcendent dimension, Jesus himself takes the disciples away from visions, away from the mountain top, to meet the ones who needed them most in the valley. Jesus takes them to the man whose son was possessed by a demon. Jesus himself leads them down to the bottom of that mountain, to the valleys, to the hurting people, unbelieving officials, the ineffective religious institutions and the demons below.
In this reading of the Gospel, we cannot ignore the gulf between Galilee, the colony, where Jesus had most of his ministry and where he is heading to, Jerusalem, where the colonial power of Rome was on display. The political forces were disfiguring humanity of the colonised by taking their dignity away, sadly some religious elements were complicit in that process. Significantly, the mountain top experience becomes the bridge between these two worlds. Jesus imagined the relationship with God and people should not be defined by fear but by love. Jesus offered love as an alternative to the violence unleashed by religious and political power.
The context of Jesus’ journey was not a comforting one, neither to his disciples then, nor to us now. Jesus condemns religious hypocrisy and political apathy. He recognised that injustice and inequalities had become a norm under the empire. On the back of this glorious vision, Jesus charged his disciples to go into the hostile society, living under Roman imperialism. When Jesus says that he is sending them like sheep among wolves, the disciples knew the danger involved. Jesus implicates the councils, governors, kings and the religious authorities in this prejudiced social order. Jesus knew that his view would inevitably put him on a collision course with the earthly powers. Jesus offered an alternative, a resistance movement, the politics of love, rooted in justice and truth.
Jesus embodied the politics of love by bringing health to the sick, raising the dead, touching the untouchables, proclaiming freedom to the slaves and kicking out the oppressive demons. Jesus was not promising his disciples security and well-being but disorder and disruption to the status-quo. Because the good news of love they are carrying directly challenges the powers and authorities who ruled their society. Peter, James and John needed the mountain top experience of transfiguration to face the challenging days ahead and perhaps Jesus did too- the glory they saw, the heavenly voice, the command to listen to him, all this would sustain them along the road to Jerusalem, the way of the cross. The reason Jesus takes the journey to Jerusalem through the valley is critical because he doesn’t intend to grab power through an armed revolution; rather, he wanted to transform human relationships and build a new order from the grass roots. The politics of love built on pursuit of justice and truth in every sphere of life.
Jesus was antithetical to the earthly powers, proclaiming God’s nonviolent love. It is not a cop out in the midst of evil power, especially its desire to delegitimize justice and truth. Non-violent love is not to rationalise passive suffering as spiritual and political virtue. Rather it is an invitation to demonstrate love that resists evil and does good. The way of the cross cannot be privatised as an individual spiritual journey. The cross becomes a dynamic public pursuit of fraternity, liberty and justice rooted in love. The cross and subsequent resurrection has overcome the world’s power game of domination, exploitation, greed and deception.
Love without justice is vacuous. The politics of love is rooted in justice, righteousness and mercy as proclaimed by the prophets. It rattles the status-quo, flies in the face of councils, governors, kings, imperial powers, presidents, prime ministers and high priests who control the lives and trample upon hopes of people. The Gospel proclaimed by Jesus calls Christians to name the evils in our society, confront injustice, proclaim the good news of justice and live the alternative social order in the shape of Jesus movement.
Transfiguration is an affirmation of an alternative way of loving and redeeming the world. Peter becomes a model for us. We want to domesticate and institutionalise God’s power shown through Jesus. The church is a good model for power grab and idolatry by basking in Jesus’ glory and divine power. That was not the intention of transfiguration; the intention was to take the journey on the way of the cross, downwards to the valleys of death so that people might have life. The purpose of Jesus taking his disciples up the mountain is to give them a reason to believe and go into the word and bear witness to this transformative path of love, non-violent love that brings redemption and life.
The charge from Jesus to his disciples of present day is to accept our flawed humanity, where prejudice, discrimination and bigotry abounds. The church, both individually and institutionally, charged to expose the inequities that we know exists. The church must examine our theologies that inform and sustain such inequities and offer radical alternatives for a new social order in the light of the Gospel. The church must protect common good by resisting political manipulations, not simply patch-up old structures of injustices that benefit our self-interest.
What our current situation has taught us is that past structures of inequities have been the fountainhead from which discrimination and prejudice freely flows. Jesus charged his disciples to take the good news of change to the hostile world, not continuing business as usual but insisting on fundamental change that is going to put everyone at odds at each other. The church can no longer confine the revolutionary spirit of Jesus and remain a captive of a hostile social political order. We need to be transfigured and transformed. Christians are called not to be defined by narrow ethnic, racial and familial connection but draw from their identity in Christ. This means Christians must rise above self-interest and self-preservation that privileges “us” against “them.” Christians are called to go beyond our immediate identities and not to be blindsided by our self-interest.
When we experience God’s profound presence, we might be tempted to stay in that “bubble” like Peter. The trouble is that as long as we continue to do that, we will not be able to reach the place of freedom. The foretaste of glory on the top of the mountain is to encourage us to go down and follow Jesus through his exodus of death and resurrection; that’s how our suffering and that of the world will be transfigured and redeemed. Transfiguration is not something that could be bottled and preserved, but it ignites and sustains further action. But the truth is, the world, which is eagerly seeking Christ, gets to meet only the perplexed and failure of disciples! Disciples who are caught up in their own struggle to make sense of their calling, to tackle the challenges and pain caused by human limitations and their lack of faith.
Transfiguration is an invitation to reframe our perspectives through redeeming human dignity. Transfiguration means to be challenged and governed by a different set of norms, in opposition to this world and the powers that disfigure the image of God in each one of us. Theologically, transfiguration is an eschatological vision that transforms and revolutionises our present.
This twin experience of the glory of transfiguration, and despair of disciples, challenges us to reconsider our call to be faithful, our call to believe and our call to deliver, our call to reach out to the world that is crying for help, hope and love. The same voice that directed the disciples directs us today as we stand on the verge of this journey into the season of Lent, into suffering, to the cross, for which this transfiguration is intended to prepare Jesus, the disciples, and us. We need to connect the mountain top to the valleys of our ordinary life. We need not despair, as in the prophetic words of Amanda Gorman,
For there is always light,Amanda Gorman
If only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.