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.
The story of the “transfiguration” begins with a time stamp—it occurs six days after Jesus makes his first disclosure to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to be rejected, suffer, be killed, and be raised. Jesus goes on to say that those who would be his disciples must take up their cross and follow him in that journey.
For many faithful Jews, Jerusalem was a destination city, a pilgrimage site for reconnecting with the tradition, being assured of forgiveness, and receiving new life. Whether they could actually make the journey annually or even once in a lifetime, it was of prime importance for many Jews to know that each year, during particular festivals and sacred days, the temple was free and functional, the priests were anointed and cleansed, the sacrifices were prepared and offered. One did not go to Jerusalem for a picturesque wedding or honeymoon. One went to Jerusalem because the fate of the world rests in the continuation of God’s promise to Abraham and to his seed, in whom all nations would be blessed.
For Jesus, Jerusalem was a destination city as well. He uses a Greek word, dei, that is often translated softly as “I must go,” but actually has a stronger sense of necessity in it. For Jesus, Jerusalem represented a destination city in a way quite different from the way it functioned in the popular imagination. Rather than reconnecting with the tradition, he was destined to be spurned by the religious leadership. Rather than the assurance of forgiveness, he was destined to suffer. Rather than new life, his destiny was death.
That’s pretty gruesome stuff. It certainly doesn’t offer much motivation for anyone, much less a devout Jew, to become a disciple of Jesus and to join that awful journey. And yet, six days later, Mark weaves a story that turns the prospect of going to Jerusalem on its head. The story of the “transfiguration” is a moment of sheer wonder in the middle of a journey that is all about blood, sweat, and tears. There, on a high mountain—a seeming anomalous feature on the typical itinerary from Galilee to Jerusalem—Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to see things that lay utterly beyond their usual frames of reference.
First, Mark says, Jesus was “transfigured.” We have no idea what this means to Mark, since he does not elaborate. When Matthew and Luke repeat this story, they say that Jesus’ face was made radiant, an echo of what happened to Moses when he went up another mountain and stood in the presence of God. Second, Mark says that Jesus’ clothes were made radiant—“dazzling white” in the New Revised Version of the story—well beyond what the fullers of Mark’s day would be able to accomplish. That kind of apparel was typically associated with heavenly beings, such as angels or anticipated messiahs. Third, Jesus was in conversation with Moses and Elijah—the two persons who most embodied the sacred writings called “the law and the prophets.” That is to say, Peter, James, and John witnessed Jesus become something beyond description, in the raiment of heavenliness, and in dialogue with the tradition. And they were struck stupid.
It would be nice to say that they were dumbstruck, but in the gospels Simon Peter is never speechless. Peter blurts out. His suggestion to build three skin tents—in honor of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus—may have some merit, but in the story Peter’s comment is misbegotten. In response, a voice from the heavens declares Jesus the beloved son and commands the onlookers to listen to him. God’s response is typically interpreted as a smackdown to Peter for ruining the moment by speaking out of turn. It would be nice if we could chalk this moment up to Peter’s propensity to say something, anything, and fault him for it. To do so, however, would be to misunderstand what this story is really about. It is not really about Peter’s habit of blurting. It is not really about Jesus’ shiny clothes. It is about a moment of encounter with something glorious, too fine for human comprehension.
This mountaintop experience—a curious side stop on the journey of blood, sweat, and tears—is a moment of sheer bedazzlement for Peter, James, and John. What they see is not what they get. What they see, they cannot begin to fathom. It all looks familiar—Jesus, Moses, Elijah, clothes—but it’s all wrong. Moses is dead; Elijah left in a burning chariot ages before; Jesus is … well, whatever “transfigured” means; and those clothes—Mark struggles for a way to say that they are looking like what clothes don’t look like. It’s all familiar but unfamiliar at once. Beyond words, one might say, but … yet Peter blurts. He blurts because giving voice to our wonder is what we do. That’s why we undertake the presumption of writing memoirs, testifying in court, opining on political matters, or doing theology. We assume that what we experience can be captured in words, communicated to others, and comprehended fully enough. But, then, there are those mountaintop experiences that defy that presumption. We see things that are not possible. We feel things that don’t fit any existing category. We strive for analogies and add, “But much, much more.” We cannot capture, communicate, or comprehend it in words, but words are all we have. Blurting is how we pretend to capture, communicate, and comprehend. So we blurt—just when it would be wise to wonder. And listen.