Last after Epiphany B

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This page is part of the Lectionary series within the Living with Jesus Now project.


Lectionary

  • 2 Kings 2:1-12 & Psalm 50:1-6
  • 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
  • Mark 9:2-9


The lectionary use of the key biblical themes for this festival varies across the three year cycle:

  • YEAR A: The OT reading is the legend of Moses entering the cloud at the top of Mt Sinai (accompanied at least part of the way both up and down by his successor, Joshua/Yeshua/Jesus) so that he can receive—direct from God—the original version of the Ten Commandments. This is matched with the passage in 2 Peter where the pseudonymous author engages in the literary fiction of claiming to have been one of those present with Jesus when the Transfiguration happened.
  • YEAR B: This OT reading celebrates the legacy of Elijah, one of the two OT characters who appear with Jesus on the mountain, while the NT passage alludes to the legend of Moses having to veil his face for a period of time after each meeting with God:
When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him. [Exodus 34:33-35 NRSV]
  • YEAR C: In the third year of the cycle, we return directly to the legends of Mt Sinai—a mountain sacred to the memory of both Moses and Elijah. However, Elijah gets no attention here as the focus falls on Moses and the story of his transfigured countenance (mentioned in the NT reading of Year B) is given prominence in both the OT reading and the Epistle.




The Transfiguration

In many parishes the final Sunday before Lent draws on the traditions of the Transfiguration to provide a climax to the liturgical season of Epiphany. Other parishes will pick up these themes on the Second Sunday of Lent.


Elijah in ancient Jewish tradition

Like Moses, Elijah was to exercise a hold over the Jewish imagination longer after his death—or, in his case, his ascension into heaven.

The core traditions about Elijah are found in 1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 2 and seem to date from the middle of the 9C BCE. They include the following famous stories:

  • Elijah and the drought (1Kings 17)
  • Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1Kings 18)
  • Elijah at the Mountain of God (1Kings 19)
  • Elijah curses the dynasty of Ahab (1Kings 21)
  • Elijah and Ahaziah (2Kings 1)
  • Elijah is taken into Heaven (2Kings 2)

The only other references to Elijah in the Hebrew Bible are:

  • 1Chr. 8:27; 2Chr. 21:12; Ezra 10:21,26;
  • Mal. 4:5

Of these it is Malachi that captures the important eschatological dimensions of the ongoing Elijah traditions:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.

Like Enoch, who was said to have been taken up into the heaven by God without experiencing death (Genesis 5:21-24), Elijah came to occupy a place in Jewish and Christian speculation about the future. In one Christian apocalypse, Elijah and Enoch return to slay the Antichrist despite having been (temporarily slain by him as required by Rev 11:8):

After these things, Elijah and Enoch will come down. They will lay down the flesh of the world, and they will receive their spiritual flesh. They will pursue the son of lawlessness and kill him since he is not able to speak. On that day he will dissolve in their presence like a serpent which has no breath in it. They will say to him, "Your time has passed by for you. Now therefore you and those who believe in you will perish." They will be cast into the bottom of the abyss and it will be closed for them. ApElijah 5:32-35 [OTP1,752f]

The expectation of some kind of Elijah redivivus figure has left its mark on the NT Gospels:

He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." (Mark 6:10-16, NRSV)
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27-30, NRSV)
As 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. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. Then they asked him, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" He said to them, "Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him." (Mark 9:9-13, NRSV)
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "Listen, he is calling for Elijah." And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down." Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. (Mark 15:33-37, NRSV)

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities. When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.'

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!" (Matt. 11:1-15, NRSV)
But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (Luke 1:13-17, NRSV)
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said,

"I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
'Make straight the way of the Lord,'"
as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. (John 1:19-28, NRSV)




Jesus - Moses - Elijah

The central section of Mark's Gospel describes Jesus acting in ways that his readers would have found highly reminiscent of the biblical characters, Moses and Elijah. In addition, Mark seems to have gone to some trouble to make the point that Jesus more than a "second Moses" and "greater than Elijah."

The Gospel of Mark may be outlined as follows:

  • Proclamation and controversy in Galilee (chs 1-3)
  • The kingdon of God revealed in parables for those able to see it (4:1-34)
  • A prophet like Moses and Elijah (4:35-8:21)
  • Someone greater than Moses and Elijah (8:22-10:52)
  • Passion narrative (11:1-16:8)

The episode of the transfiguration seems either to have been created by Mark or relocated from an original setting as a resurrection appearance. Either way it makes a powerful contribution to Mark's representation of Jesus as someone like-but-greater-than both Moses and Elijah.

The association of these two figures alongside Jesus in the transfiguration affirms his equality with them, perhaps even his superiority to them, and their joint participation in the eternal plans of God. The divine affirmation of Jesus as the beloved son, the one to whom alone the disciples are to listen, asserts the dignity of Jesus as exceeding both Moses and Elijah.

This is not simply an affirmation that Jesus fulfills and surpasses the Torah and the Prophets; although it doubtless includes that idea.

Rather, here we have an affirmation that the eschatological expectations often associated with one or other of these figures now find their focus in Jesus, the Anointed One. As a text written in the aftermath of the Jewish-Roman war of 66-73 CE, this is a defiant claim that God's future will now be mediated through Jesus and not through the Torah-observant communities of Judaism or the continuing apocalyptic fantasies of the rebels.


Commentary

In Mark's original narrative—from which Matthew and Luke each develop their versions of this story—the event which stands before the "six days later" is a comment by Jesus concerning the coming of the Son of Man in the glory of his Father with the holy angels, after which Jesus is represented as saying, "Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God has come with power." Since there is no reason to assume that the location of the transfiguration is due to anything other than Mark's editorial decisions, the proximity between the promise and its possible fulfillment in the transfiguration is worth noting. While we tend to think of winged creatures in white gowns when we read "holy angels" the original meaning is closer to "holy messengers" and could easily encompass Moses and Elijah.

The transfiguration itself is difficult to categorise. It seems to have some echoes of the baptism traditions with the heavenly voice affirming the beloved Son. Yet many scholars have wondered if this is not a displaced (and possibly garbled) Easter appearance story.

The other alternative—that it may be an authentic religious experience that Jesus underwent and which was witnessed by a handful of his most intimate followers—also needs to be kept in mind. This would not assist us in determing the historicity of the tradition, but it might serve to remind us that we are dealing with a story about a pivotal religious event in the experience of Jesus. Those who told this story believed that such spiritual moments happened in human experience, and modern readers may need to lay aside our western scepticism on such matters if we are to appreciate the meaning of the tradition.


Bruce Chilton (in Rabbi Jesus) has argued that Jesus was initiated into the Jewish mystical traditions while a disciple of John the Baptist. While that cannot be established beyond question, we should not exclude the possibility that Jesus' own sense of identity and mission was formed and nourished by profound religious experiences. Certainly others in the early Christian movement had such experiences, in which Jesus himself played a critical role. Whether or not the transfiguration happened exactly as narrated by Mark, this story reveals a great deal about the nature of the religious traditions at the heart of earliest Christianity.


The words of the Jewish Jesus scholar, David Flusser, concerning Jesus' baptism are worth noting here:

We can well imagine the holy excitement of that crowd who had listened to the words of the Baptist. Having confessed their sins and awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit to cleanse their souls from all the filth of sin, they plunged their bodies into the cleansing water of the river. Can it be that none of them would have had a special pneumatic-ecstatic experience in that hour when the Spirit of God touched them? (Jesus, p. 40)
... many scholars are right in thinking that in the original account, the heavenly voice announced to Jesus, "Behold, My servant, whom I uphold, My chosen, in whom My soul delights; I have put My Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations" (Isaiah 42:1). This form is probably the original, for the reason that the prophetic word fits the situation. (Jesus, p. 41)
The gift of the Holy Spirit assumed a significance for Jesus that was different than for others who were baptized by John. Heavenly voices were not an uncommon phenomenon among the Jews of those days, and frequently those voices were heard to utter verses from scripture. Endowment with the Holy Spirit, accompanied by an ecstatic experience, was apparently something that happened to others who were baptized in John's presence in the Jordan. (Jesus, p. 42)
If, however, the heavenly voice intoned the words of Isaiah, Jesus must have understood that he was being set apart as the servant of God, the Chosen One. For him, the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was part of John's baptism, held another special significance that was to become decisive for his future. None of the designations Son, Servant or Chosen One were exclusively messianic titles--the last two could also denote the special status of the prophetic office. By these titles, Jesus learned that he was now called, chosen, set apart. Nothing we have learned casts any doubt upon the historicity of Jesus' experience at his baptism in the Jordan. (Jesus, p. 42)

The presence of just the inner circle may be an authentic memory, or a bit of promotion to bolster their standing within the community. Given Mark's generally critical attitude to the apostolic circle, it is unlikely that he added their names to the tradition. That detail was most likely already in the story as he received it and Luke has simply preserved the information intact.

The location of the transfiguration up a high mountain is what the tradition would lead us to expect. High mountains were sacred places and thus ideal sites for theophanies. According to Jewish tradition, Moses spent 6 weeks (40 days) up the "mountain of God" in Sinai when getting a replacement copy of the Ten Commandments. Elijah retired to a mountain cave for his theophany. While no specific location is named in the gospels, later tradition chose to identify the "mount of the transfiguration" as Mt Tabor, the highest peak in the Galilee or even Mt Hermon in southern Lebanon:

The appearance of Moses and Elijah alongside Jesus is a powerful claim to spiritual continuity with the most sacred traditions of ancient Israel. Interestingly, Luke does not follow Mark when he lists Elijah first. This reverses their chronological sequence in the biblical narrative, and flies in the face of later views of the relative significance of Moses and Elijah. However, that may reflect the significance of Elijah as the expected prophet of the End times. In general terms, their presence alongside Jesus speaks to the claim that Jesus was fulfilling the Law and the Prophets.


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