- I Kings 2: 1-12
The time has come for God’s spirit to pass from Elijah to Elisha. The story includes human emotions, which are easily understood, as well as an event so spectacular it surpasses human language. On their trip from Gilgal, Elisha declares three times that he will never leave Elijah. When they come to the Jordan, Elijah takes his mantle, with its wondrous powers, strikes the river and it parts so the two men walk across on dry ground. (This crossing recalls God’s similar miraculous works through Moses crossing the Red Sea from slavery and Joshua’s crossing the Jordan into the promised land.) When they reach the other side, Elijah asks Elisha if he has one final request. “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit,” Elisha responds. As the two continue walking, “a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two men and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”
- Psalm 50: 1-6
Perhaps we have stanzas from a grand liturgical occasion in this psalm. The awesome ways in which God’s glory has been revealed in the past, marked by fire and violent storms, are recalled and then the choir requests a similar display by descending on “Zion, the zenith of beauty.” Here let heaven and earth connect.
- II Corinthians 4: 3-6
The appearance of Christ is, for Paul, comparable to a second creation, another display of God’s extravagant love. “Let the light shine out of darkness.”
- Mark 9: 2-9
This passage from Mark is rife with allusions to God’s past actions. “After six days,” seems to be a direct evocation of Exodus 24: 16 when God finally speaks after the sixth day. The mountain where Mark’s narrative has taken Jesus with Peter, James and John is shrouded by a cloud and God speaks, as God did to Moses. In Mark’s narrative, Moses and Elijah, the only two people taken into heaven directly by God, appear with Jesus, who is “transfigured” before them and “his clothes became dazzling white.” Only Peter speaks. He utters a complete non sequitur, “because he did not know what to say….”
Biblical narratives oscillate seamlessly between easily understood human situations and emotions and events that are so far beyond human capacities they outstrip human language. Like Peter, we do “not know what to say.” God’s encounters with a few people in scriptures are such events.
In an essay from the January 2010 edition of the journal Modern Theology, (see links on this site), John Panteleimon Manoussakis reviews the “typos” of mountaintop theophanies in scriptures. He writes:
“Between Mount Sinai [Moses] and Mount Horeb [Elijah], the evangelists of the New Covenant seem to claim, stands Mount Tabor. Christs’ Transfiguration on Mount Tabor is ‘biblical’ theophany, a revelation within the revelation, so to speak, where Christ the revealer, reveals Himself by revealing His Father and His Holy Spirit.” “…[T]his same God who appeared to the prophets and the Father of the Old Covenant.” (pp 84-85)
Earlier in this same essay, Manoussakis traced a line of thinking about biblical theophanies from de Saussure to Husserl and Merleau-Ponty to von Balthasar and concludes:
“God’s revelation neither scorns the physical world nor shatters the human senses; indeed, His [sic] revelation must involve the human body and its senses. On the other hand, what the senses experience is by no means exhausted by them but it remains inexhaustible, excessive, saturated with intuition; thus man [sic] knows that he [sic] is in the presence of Him [sic] who is beyond experience and comprehension and whose sole experience is precisely the one he is not comprehending, but rather comprehended by what seeks to comprehend. (cf Philippians 3:12.)” (p. 81)
Life is full of occasions when we experience something that engages our entire sensory being, surpasses words to explain it, yet makes “sense,” because it tells us something important even critical for living life fully. Such occasions may be strange, but they are not alien. They may exceed words, but they do not exceed meaning.
At one of those conferences developed by John Caputo as an exploration between postmodern philosophy and religion at Villanova University, (whose significance over time is only increasing), Richard Kearney moderated a memorable conversation between Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion. At one point Marion said, we sometimes have
“an utmost experience without words, the significations, the concepts to utter it, to explain it and to articulate it. One of the best examples, for instance, may be found in the transfiguration of Christ. The disciples witness the transfiguration and they say nothing but ‘Let us build three tabernacles. For he [Peter] knew not what to say.’ (Mark 9: 5-6) “If there could be any revelation, no mind, no word would be wide enough to host that revelation.” (God, The Gift and Postmodernism, p. 69)
Further on, Marion adds:
“To have an experience of the impossible means to have an experience of the impossibility prima facie, which I call ‘counter-experience’ of bedazzlement, of astonishment, of Beunderung. This counter-experience has to do with the fact that we can see, but cannot designate as an object or a being an event that we cannot comprehend but nevertheless we have to see. This counter-experience is, in fact, the correct, consistent kind of experience appropriate to every decisive evidence in our life– death, birth, love, poverty, illness, joy, pleasure and so on.” “The incomprehensible, the excess, the impossible, are part and parcel of our experience.”
Our lives are riven with events that far exceed our capacity to explain, yet they are essential for meaning. Events in biblical texts can be utterly strange, yet utterly essential for getting the whole picture. So, Elijah’s ‘ascension into heaven’ and the ‘transfiguration’ of Jesus are events that defy human explanation, yet are essential to the larger story-line of human existence. In Mark’s narrative, the ‘transfiguration’ of Jesus is placed carefully at the turning point in Mark’s entire narrative. He wants us to look back and to look forward. From our vantage point atop Mount Tabor we see back over Mark’s stories about what Jesus did and what Jesus said. God was at work through Jesus slowly revealing the depth and breath of love for every type of human being. From this perspective, we can see that all these individual encounters and parables began to form a pattern, a revelation of amazing love, amazing grace. Also from the mountaintop, Mark wants us to look into the future, when there will soon be another ‘transfiguration’ even more searing on the human imagination. He wants us to look toward Jerusalem, where the love of God will be revealed even more memorably in another ‘transfiguration’. In what will unfold, the most spectacular revelation yet of God’s love will be on display through Jesus. Rather than ‘define’ this event, it will define us, if we let it.