Listen to your heart

Published on 19 Feb 2018
Mural of the Transfiguration

A reflection on the gospel for the 2nd Sunday of Lent by Dries van den Akker SJ

Mark 9:  2-10

1. Context

Jesus has just started on his journey to Jerusalem. We hear this mentioned in Mark 8:22. Mark will repeat this reference to a journey in in 9:33-34; 10:17, 32 and 46. It is a turning point in the life of Jesus.

In the first line of his gospel Mark announced that his book was intended to be a ‘Good Message’ (eu-aggelion) [or ‘good news’] about Jesus, Messiah, son of God. The word ‘Good news’ reminds us three prophecies of Isaiah. Isaiah never uses the substantive ‘Good news’, but always the verb ‘to bring good news’. In Isaiah 40:9-10 the Good News says that God will come to Jerusalem. In 52:7: that God will found his Kingdom in Jerusalem. In 61:1: that God will do this by means of his Anointed One (Christos, Messiah). This Anointed One is to be recognized by his soothing of the broken-hearted, proclaiming liberty to captives, releasing those who are in captivity.

According to Mark, that was exactly what happened to Jesus. First he did things the Messiah would do: soothing the broken-hearted, proclaiming liberation... in many different ways for many people. Till the moment came that people around him would recognize that he was indeed the Messiah (Christos). That moment came when he asked his disciples: ‘What do you think of me?’ Peter - in the name of all the others - answered: ‘You are the Christ (Anointed One, Messiah)!’ (8:29).

Now that Jesus has been recognized as the Messiah, Mark starts the second part of his Gospel. He shows how Jesus goes to Jerusalem to found the Kingdom of God there, exactly as Isaiah had announced.

So, in the text from today, Jesus has just began on his way to Jerusalem. Breath-taking. Is he indeed the one Isaiah announced, five hundred years earlier? Will we experience what so many before us hoped to experience? In the line that proceeds the story of today, Mark makes us still more curious: ‘Jesus said: “In truth I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power.” Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to found the kingdom of God there. And at the beginning of that way he takes three disciples with him and leads them up a high mountain. And there, that what is and was always present in him, breaks out: his divine spirit. Now visible for those who are there. A foretaste of God’s coming Kingdom.

Voice from heaven

In the voice from heaven (9:7), the story of today strongly reminds us of the story of Jesus’ baptism. There we heard a voice from heaven, saying: ‘You are my son, the beloved, my favour rests on you’ (1:11). That voice had a programmatic character. For the Messianic works Jesus would do, met with a lot of opposition from the religious leaders. It is as if the voice from heaven says: ‘But make no mistake. What Jesus does, is inspired by heaven. He has the same blood (‘my son’) as I have.’

In the reading of today we hear the voice from heaven again. Now it is speaking, not in the second person (‘You...!’), but in the third: ‘This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him!’ Again, it has a programmatic character. In the following chapters we hear Jesus teaching and preaching, much more than in the first part. So, ‘Listen to him!’.

Both voices from heaven mark the two parts of Mark’s gospel. Both work as an overture. The first voice is a prelude to the first part, where Jesus will reveal himself as the Messiah by doing messianic works. The voice of today’s reading is a prelude for the second part of Mark’s gospel, where Jesus goes to Jerusalem to found the kingdom of God.

Mural depicting Jesus with his disciples at the Transfiguration.

Jesus’s Transfiguration (‘The Meta- morphosis’) in the centre. Emphasized by the circle at the backgound. Left ‘Moyses’; right: ‘Iliyahu’ (= Elijah). On the ground: left Peter; middle John; right James. Jesus recieves three beams from heaven. From him beams are sent to the prophets and the disciples. Notice that the mount of Jesus is slightly higher than the other two. So is Jesus.

2. Disciples

Jesus takes with him three disciples: Peter, James and John. Three of the four who were called first (1:16-20). Notable is that Andrew, the fourth one, is not involved. Why? Mark doesn’t say. The only time we hear of these four disciples will be when Jesus sits with them facing  the temple and announces that all the beautiful buildings they are admiring will be destroyed (13:3ff).

Peter, James and John were also present at the raising from the dead of the daughter of Jaïrus (5,37ff). And the same three will be witnesses of a totally different ‘transfiguration’, when Jesus will pray in the garden of Getsemane, where ‘he feels terror and, and where his soul is sorrowful to the point of death’ (14:34). Is it because of that moment that these three are taken up to the mountain, where they may see the divine aspect of Jesus? Must they keep that in mind all the times they will see how Jesus has to suffer, how he is humiliated, how he dies... Are they invited to see the divine inside through the - sometimes horrible - outside of the things that are about to happen? In that case this story is a lesson in believing.

Another depiction of the transfiguration combined with the resurrection and the scene at Gethsemane

This panel shows the connection between Jesus’ Transfiguration (centre), his prayer in Gethsemane (left) and his resurrection (right). 1726. Germany, Lüneburg, St-Johannis

Prophecies of the Passion and Death

Difficult lesson. That is illustrated by Mark, when he names these three disciples again. Not very striking, but nonetheless meaningful. For on the way to Jerusalem Jesus announces three times that he has to suffer and will be put to death... (8:31; 9:31; 10:33). However, the first time that Jesus announced this had already happened. It was Peter, one of the three disciples of the Transfiguration, who reacted in totally the wrong way. Peter ‘threatened’ Jesus. This reaction was so wrong that Jesus called him ‘Satan!’ (8:32) After the third time that Jesus announces what would happen in Jerusalem, it is James and John, the two other disciples of the Transfiguration who react in totally the wrong way. They ask to sit on the right and the left in Jesus’ glory. So wrong is their reaction that Jesus emphasizes that they should be humble and to be content to serve and not to be served (10:35-45). Finally, after the second time that Jesus announces what will happen with him in Jerusalem, it is all the disciples who react in the wrong way (9:35). They discussed the question which of them should be the most important one... after Jesus’s death?

These three of those who had reaccted wrongly to Jesus’ prophecies, are taken with him up the mountain. To learn a lesson in believing? To receive a vision of the divine presence one single time. That must be enough for the rest of their lives to discern God’s history on the inside through the outside of the history.

3. Moses and Elijah

Mark was the first to write a book about Jesus. Perhaps we must phrase this differently. Mark was not at all aware that after him, other writers would come to write their version of the Jesus story. I am convinced that Mark wrote his book supposing that he wrote the final chapter..., the final book of the Holy Books. His book was to be the climax, the grand finale of his Bible (our ‘Old Testament’). Jesus was God’s final word. He made true the prophecies announced in the Holy Books. He definitively founded God’s Kingdom in Jerusalem. The transfiguration on the mountain illustrates that.

Moses and Elijah are the representatives of the Holy Books. The Holy Books were often summarized by the name ‘Laws and The Prophets’. Moses is the representative of the Law, the first Five Bible books (Pentateuch), and Elijah the representative of the Prophets. So, on the high mountain all the books of the preceding Bible are present in the persons of Moses and Elijah. They are the confirmation that in Jesus God’s kingdom is coming.

References and Citations

Already the word with which Mark began his gospel, ‘Beginning’ was a reference to the book of Genesis, the first book of Moses. So was the descent of the spirit from heaven on Jesus, who is ascending out of the water (1:10) a reminder of the spirit of God that floated over the waters at the beginning of the creation story (cf.) Genesis 1:2). Jesus’s sojourn in the desert over forty days (1:12-13) was a reference to the story of Exodus, the second book of Moses. The countless discussions about ‘Sabbath’ were a reference to the Ten Commandments, as told in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. The discussions about ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ (7:1-23) were a reference to the book of Leviticus, the third book of Moses. In the following chapter (10:1-12) Jesus will refer to the story of the creation told in the book of Genesis.

To name just a few texts that refer to the Five Books of Moses. All these references make it clear that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law in the Old Testament.

In relation to the prophets, the references to them and citations are more than numerous. Every single word of the first line of Mark’s gospel (‘begin’, ‘good news’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Anointed’, ‘son of God’...) is reminiscent of texts of the prophets. The next verses after the first line (1:2-3) are literal citations from the prophets. Jesus is the fulfilment of the Prophets.

The psalms and the book of Wisdom are also present in Mark’s Gospel. The story of the multiplication of loaves is composed of the same words as we hear in Psalm 23. The same with the story of Jesus’s suffering: it is composed of the words of Psalm 22. The word ‘son of God’ is reminiscent of the Book of Wisdom (2,18). And so on… ‘Moses and Elijah’, as representatives of the books of the Old Testament, are present in every line, every word of Mark’s gospel, and even in the blank spaces between the lines and the letters. Jesus is definitively the last chapter, the final point of the Bible.

Moses and Elijah

Even the setting of the story of the Transfiguration itself is a reference to the Books of Moses and to the Books of the Prophets. The cloud reminds us of how God was present during the journey of the people through the desert. The Transfiguration takes place on a mountain, even a high mountain, the only time Marks uses the word ‘high’ in his Gospel. In the Old Testament, the highest of the mountains was the place were God was nearest. Moses met God on the mountain regularly. The prophets Micah (4: 1-5) and Isaiah (2:1-5) announced that once the mount of Jerusalem would be the highest of the mountains all over the world and that God would dwell there and found his kingship. And we don’t forget that exactly Moses (33:18-22) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:9-13) are the only ones of the Old Testament who ‘saw’ God on a mountain. So, if you need confirmation that Jesus is really God’s son..., that Jesus is God’s ‘Amen’ after the Holy Books, then you have no better witnesses than Moses and Elijah.

St Mark on the shoulders of the prophet Daniel, from a medieval stained glass at Notre Dame.

Saint Mark on the shoulders of the prophet Daniel: illustration of the fact that Mark is leaning on the texts of the Old Testament. Mark cites Daniel several times:In 4:11 he cites Daniel 2:27-28.47; in 4:32 he cites Daniel 4:9.18; in 13:7 he cites Daniel 2:28-29.45; in 13:13 he cites Daniel 12:12; in 13:14 he cites Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; in 13:19 he cites Daniel 12:1; in 14:62 he cites Daniel 7:13-14. 13th century. France, Paris, Notre Dame

4. Messianic Secret

Descending from the mountain, Jesus forbids the three disciples to speak about what they have seen. This is one of the numerous times in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus does this. Why? In the history of the exegesis this question is called ‘The Messianic Secret’ (‘Das Messiasgeheimnis’). It happened for the first time with the man ‘in the unclean spirit’, as Mark describes him (1:21-28). He loudly shouts that he knows Jesus and where he comes from. But Jesus tells him to keep quiet about it. He doesn’t allow to the unclean spirits to reveal him (1:34). He forbids the cleansed leper to tell about his healing (1:40-45). Why? The same remark in 3,12. When Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus forbids him and the other disciples to speak about it (8:30). In today’s reading, again. And so on. Why?

Mark’s Composition

I think that we have to distinguish between the two parts into which Mark divides his gospel. In the first part he makes it clear..., no, the people around Jesus have to conclude that he is the Messiah. Not by hearing that from others (unclean spirit, or even somebody who is healed), but by listening to their own hearts. Feeling that the words and deeds of Jesus make their hearts burn.

In the second part, Jesus forbids his disciples to speak of him as the Messiah ‘until after the Son of men had risen from the dead’ (9:9). The Messiah will die. That, for one thing, did not fit in with the expectations about the Messiah. But not only that: this Messiah will be tortured and killed by the people. And afterwards he will rise from the dead.

If the disciples would tell now, immediately after the Transfiguration, what they had experienced, people might think that Jesus’s story would be a success story. A story of glamour. Exactly as the question of James and John suggests: ‘Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.’ They didn’t know what they were asking. They hadn’t heard what Jesus was about to go through before he would reach his glory. No glory without suffering and being killed. In the same way: no real Messiah without suffering and being rejected.

I think that this is why Jesus forbids to speak of him as the Messiah before all things have taken place.

Second Part of Mark’s Gospel

The second part of Mark’s gospel tells us how Jesus-Messiah is on his way to Jerusalem to found God’s kingdom there. We are tempted to think that this kingdom is founded when Jesus enters Jerusalem on his donkey and is received as ‘the son of David’, just as a thousand years before, the son of David, Salomo, did (1 Kings 01,38-39). Mark’s story could..., should have ended there. But it didn’t. That is not the moment when God’s kingdom is founded definitively. That will be the case when the representative of the word power of that moment, the Roman Empire, recognizes that Jesus is the king. And that happens when Pilate, the Roman governor, places an inscription above Jesus’s head on the cross: ‘The King of the Jews’ (15,26). Certainly, he meant it cynically. But nevertheless it was the truth, according to Jesus’s disciples. Not until that moment is God’s kingdom definitively founded in Jerusalem. As foretold by the prophet Isaiah. Whoever could have thought that Isaiah’s prophecy had to be understood in this way!? And so we ask ourselves: how could the first Christians ever make this message acceptable and believable? It is precisely because of this mystery - this is my conviction - that Jesus forbids to speak of him as the Messiah before all these things will have taken place.


Stained glass showing the triumphal entry into Jerusalem

Both moments of Jesus’s kingship. Below his royal entrance into Jerusalem. In the top of the stained glass window: Pilate asks Jesus: ‘You are the king of the Jews?’ca 1530. France, Villequier, St-Martin


Related resources