The Transfiguration: Eyes to See and Ears to Hear

Transfiguration 2 resized
The Transfiguration, Edward Burne-Jones

Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?
Mark 8:18

On this Feast of the Transfiguration, the readings are attention-grabbing:  they aim to capture our internal sight by tapping into our external vision.  The author of 2 Peter emphasizes that the faith he testifies to is true because he is an eyewitness.  The Book of Daniel uses vivid imagery of a court flowing with fire and the grand arrival on clouds of one like a son of Man.  The Gospel of Mark describes the “dazzling white” of Jesus’ clothing as he is transfigured, and the sudden appearance of Elijah and Moses.

To be transfigured is to be “changed in outward form or appearance.”  Transfiguration ought to change what we see and believe as well.  Yet in Mark’s gospel what needs transforming is not only our seeing, but also our hearing.  As Jesus, Elijah, and Moses converse together, the disciples hear a distinct voice:  “This is my beloved son.  Listen to him.”  This isn’t the first time the voice of God is heard in Mark’s gospel:

On coming up out of the water [Jesus] saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.  And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1: 10-11)

Hearing this voice sends Jesus on his mission—first to the desert to confront temptation, then back to the people to preach repentance and conversion to the gospel, and eventually to his death and resurrection.

Since we don’t encounter God’s voice again for eight chapters after Jesus’ baptism, hearing it during Jesus’ transfiguration should make us sit up and take notice.  Tone matters in determining meaning, and context is needed to get tone.  Taken out of context, we might interpret God’s statement to the disciples as a simple directive to listen to Jesus, or, more mildly, as good divine advice.  After all the disciples are Jesus’ students—they are supposed to be listening to him in order to learn from him.

The problem with interpreting “Listen to him” in this way is that the disciples are more than Jesus’ students in Mark’s gospel:  they are Jesus’ struggling students, and Peter, James, and John are the worst.  Case in point:  Back in chapter 5, this trio was invited to a special tutorial with Jesus that involved bringing the dead to life (Mark 5: 35-43).  Later, in Mark 9:10, when Jesus instructs them not to tell others about the transfiguration until after the resurrection, the disciples “kept the matter to themselves” [so far so good] while “questioning what rising from the dead meant” [epic fail].  These are the disciples who witnessed Jesus bringing Jairus’ daughter back to life from the dead.  We would expect them to find rising from the dead awesome and mysterious, but not a complete unknown.  It seems the disciples have seen, but haven’t believed.

This is all part of a larger pattern for Peter, James, and John, who also do not listen to Jesus’ teaching.  For instance, just before the transfiguration, having declared Jesus the Messiah, Peter almost immediately contradicts Jesus for predicting his passion for the first time.  Not to be out done, after the transfiguration James and John ever-so-tactfully follow up Jesus’ third passion prediction by asking to sit at his right and left hand in glory.  Really guys?  Really?!?

In the context of Mark’s gospel, the tone of God’s voice at the transfiguration is not one of encouragement.  Rather, God’s tone is of stern intervention, a divine endorsement of Jesus meant to compel respect for Jesus’s teaching:  “In universal surveys, Jesus’ prophecy is preferred by one out of one God.”  It is not kindly counsel, but rather a rebuke of the disciples’ inability—or unwillingness—to be transformed through hearing what Jesus has to say.

What is the root of this inability to listen?  Mark’s gospel consistently presents fear as the enemy of faith.  Note the description of the disciples just before God’s voice is heard:  “they were terrified” (Mark 9:6).  Fear combined with a desire for glory—not at any cost but at no cost—makes the disciples difficult students to the very end of Mark’s gospel.

I confess that one of the reasons I delight in the Gospel of Mark is that, as literature, it is so good at highlighting the disciples’ ineptness.  But if that’s the only thing I have to confess after reading this gospel, then I’ve missed the point and avoided asking myself some hard questions:  Do I listen to Jesus?  What fears prevent me from hearing Jesus’ voice?  With what dreams of glory do I pave over the way of discipleship, ignoring that Jesus’ road leads first to the cross rather than immediately to the triumph of an empty tomb?  Do I have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?