Mark 9:12

“Elijah does indeed come first,” answered Jesus, “and re-establish everything; and does not scripture speak, with regard to the Son of Man, of his undergoing much suffering and being utterly despised?

before a restart
comes a restore
now we can deconstruct
code’s orderliness
into quanta

straight lines
give way to Euclid
an apple’s gravity
bends trees and seasons
in their time

even in their simplest
thoughtful experiment
blood is sweated
tears are wept
suffering for beauty

a cat in a box
seen in a mind’s eye
does and doesn’t shed
abundantly mysterious
practically perfect

To begin from the continuation of an affirmation of suffering and rejections—when looking at the way Elijah is presented in the scriptures Jesus would have known, there is no warrant for Elijah to be an Isaiahan Suffering Servant.

Neither the remembrance of the Elijah cycle (1 Kings 17:1 – 2 Kings 2:11) nor the assertion in Malachi 4:5–6 about his return suggest there is going to be any suffering by Elijah. LaVerdiere-245 says it concisely, “Elijah’s return was supposed to prepare the way for the Lord’s glorious coming, not for his death.”

The early tradition that equates Baptizer John with Elijah is more to the point here than previous writings about Elijah. In this way John comes first to restore (repent-and-trust good news) and sets the tone of Jesus’ first message.

This repent-and-trust model is one that Jesus returns with from his retreat to the wilderness. This process is used to signal a turning or restoration or metamorphosis.

Still this does not lie easy with Jesus as he used compassion as a Way to repentance and adds a picture of suffering as a result of compassion angering an indifferent world. Though it sounds as if the suffering brings restoration, it is a consequence of healing the gaps of life.

This is not an easy text in Mark as there are several ways to punctuate it. This is not dissimilar to the stanzas throughout this book where punctuation decisions need to be made by the reader. Marks’ difficult use of language and ideational constructs is more intentional than rustic. There is method in his madness that repetition assists.

For now we have an affirmation of restoration and an awareness that such does not come without a cost. Prepare to ante up.

Mark 9:11

“How is it,” they asked Jesus, “that our teachers of the Law say that Elijah has to come first?”

afraid of asking
my life and death question
I fall back
to inquire of others

why do they
when did that start
how do they
who do they think they are

once established
tradition is pervasive and tenacious
kudzu spreads
all is ordered through time

meaning is set
confirming signposts found
surprise dispatched
Elijah is everywhere

Thoughts move quickly in disciple’s brains. This may be why their teacher speaks of “monkey brain”.

The last we knew the Three agreed to not talk outside of their foursome and were wondering about resurrection. Almost immediately they jump back to a question about Elijah.

All manner of stories could arise out of this question. Among them is a return to Peter’s resistance to suffering and death. If Elijah hasn’t come, then maybe Jesus doesn’t have to continue his crazy talk.

We are always invited to remember prior connections. Back in verse 6:15 Herod and others speculated that Jesus might be Elijah. It is difficult to disconnect from cultural memes. Is this simply a circumlocution for a “Triumphant Messiah” that Jesus doesn’t agree to?

Another way of seeing how deeply rooted some religious ideas are is to look through the eyes of Myers109, “Despite having just been instructed by the voice from heaven to listen to Jesus, the three disciples are still preoccupied by the authority of the scribal class: Why do the scribes say…?”

Of course the Three are also trying to get absolute answers when a cognitive dissonance has set in. LaVerdiere-246 puts it this way. “The problem was quite simple. The disciples [along with religious leaders and the public] expected Elijah to come and prepare the Lord’s manifestation in glory, not his suffering and death.”

This same expectation of “manifestation in glory” continues to this day in Prosperity Gospel doctrine. In fact it presages a glory to come with the glory of wealth here on earth.

Mark 9:10

They seized on these words and discussed with one another what this ‘rising from the dead’ meant.

the earthy one says shhh
in due time today’s choices
will be revealed
until that brighter day
our darkness holds a tight reign
on improbabilities

what is a brighter day
what soil and seed multiply
what rises from mothering
such questions bring forth
more questions until
a question authority is stumped

of such there is no end
our experiences hide and reveal
fear and hope in their turn
turning speculation to fate
limiting horizons
favoring fantasies

rising from the dead
asks us to bury
each and every boundary
until a small blue dot blesses
our death-wish divisions
with dearly beloved

It is difficult to live in ambiguity, but this is exactly what Mark leads us to. There are questions from the Pharisees, scribes, disciples, Pilate, and even Jesus himself about his being—“Who do people say I am?”, “What might it mean to rise from the dead?”

With framing questions such as these in the background, Aichele33 recognizes the reader’s position, whether contemporaneous with Mark’s writing or generations and centuries later, when he reflects:

But the gospel of Mark, like the character Jesus in its story, gives the reader “no answer.” Its enigmatic style and paradoxical narrative provide no readerly satisfactions. Mark is a great tease, suggesting possibilities which it then fails to fulfill; as a story it is profoundly incomplete. It is not surprising, then, that readers, beginning with Matthew and Luke, go beyond Mark, re-framing Mark and rewriting it to satisfy their own desires.

Sabin-1176 moves this unsatisfactory-ness from the nature of narrative to a related category of the human condition. She notes that the command from the previous verse “seems to be superfluous; the disciples have already returned to their uncomprehending state.” Sabin continues, “They appear to have already forgotten the vision, and not linking the idea of resurrection with their most recent experience, they are “seeking together what it is to be risen from the dead”.

Both comments reveal how much we desire to get our story in. We will reframe and seek reductive “meaning” to comfort ourselves.

Mark 9:9

As they were going down the mountainside, Jesus cautioned them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

to report a ridiculous or sublime
is a deeply serious folly
its approximation slips away
into misrepresentation and creed
giving away truth for certainty

a word to the wise
cautions against over-selling
what is not for sale
until earthy soil
is actually harvested

Any attempt to report a mystical experience is going to be frustrated in the short-term and corrupted over time as the meaning of words shift. There needs to be some grounding in experience to keep such reporting alive enough to navigate both the limitation of a hearer without enough experience to appreciate the attempted retelling and the restrictions of generational change.

It is helpful to have Myers109 remind us of a Mosaic setting after a mountain-top experience. “As this group returns down the mountain we may recall what Moses saw upon his descent from Sinai (see Exodus 32). What happens here, however, is not Israel dancing around a golden calf but the disciples’ deepening bafflement.”

It is not uncommon for people on a pilgrimage to return with heightened expectation of a changed life only to find everyday care have also grown and quickly pull one away from resolutions that have not been deeply resolved enough to be ingrained.

This triggers remembrance of Elijah also returning from his mountain-top experience with a still, small voice only to find himself back in the same struggle he left (1 Kings 18:11ff.). Even in silence there is directionality. What has changed for Elijah is that his next actions before his chariot ride will have circles of import far after his leaving. Freed from only having fear as prelude to death, there is now purpose to life until death.

N.T. Wright116 locates this cryptic comment about rising from the dead, “In Jewish thought of the time, ‘the resurrection’ would happen to all the righteous at the end of time, not to one person ahead of all the others. What could Jesus mean by implying that ‘the son of man’ would rise from the dead, while they would be still living the sort of normal life in which people would tell one another what they had seen months or years before?” We are still puzzling this out, along with where Galilee is today, where we will meet a risen Jesus.

Mark 9:8

And suddenly, on looking around, they saw that there was now no one with them but Jesus alone.

as suddenly as mystery arrives
it is swept away into today
to reevaluate our surety
to see tomorrow ever closer

we hear an only piano play
smell garlic butter sauce
look around to find
yet another mystery you

here is wrapped together
our common heritage
holding a common good
to dawn’s earliest light

in a single glance
we sense our depth
settling further in
steadfast resolute

thanks be for a clarifying view
reshaping our travel
from transfiguration mountain
or desolation row

There are very few comments about this particular verse given by commentators. A part of that is trying to determine if this is the last verse of Transfiguration experience or if it is a first verse of a return to ordinary life with all its dullness and problems of living apart from what has been demonstrated as a Way of Wilderness Good News.

The series of surprises in a recognition of Moses and Elijah, blinding garments, mountain top dark storm clouds, and a Voice have ended. When this epiphany suddenly comes to a close there is not much left to do but shake one’s head to try and clear it in an attempt to avoid, “And they woke from their dream.”

What is to be made of this series of moments? Can any of it be understood? What does it mean going forward?

These are questions best received in the quiet of retreat space. You may want to jot a beginning response below—

Mark 9:7

Then a cloud came down and enveloped them; and from the cloud there came a voice – “This is my dearly loved son; listen to him.”

seeing the unexpected
forces the past upon us
stupefying our meaning center
into previous connections

moving from unexpected details
to no reference point
heightens every sudden sound
strains eyes to see anything

when we cloud-listen
it is old news and new possibility
wrapping world and self
in a protective cocoon

this this and this are G*D partnered
each each and every intimately intertwined
so we listen to ants and molehills
in turn a cherished talking-stick is held

I am deeply loved
you are deeply loved
all announces to each
each affirms an assurance amen

What we report comes from our expectations as much as from the details of the event itself. In this case it is important to wonder about what was remembered by people who were in awe and/or fearful.

Not only was there surprise when Jesus’ clothing is reported as glistening, there is surprise when a cloud blocks the sun. Disorientation upon disorientation.

Mark’s regular use of repetition and commitment to Jesus makes it easy to focus in on a reprise of the baptismal scene in chapter 1—“This is my Son, my Beloved”.

Is it at this point that Moses and Elijah are removed from the story or are they still present? If present, we might expect, “These are my Sons (to keep it in a patriarchal setting), my Beloveds”.

This helps us remember that G*D has made a covenant, a partnership, with a people, a community, not an individual. Even when it is put in the first person, a singular voice speaks as a communal voice. As Sabin-1126 puts it, “…the words “You are my Son,” addressed by the divine voice to Jesus; not as expressing a new and unique relationship between God and an individual but as signaling an ancient relationship in which Jesus stands for all God’s people.”

Rejoice! Covenants, Prophets, and Wisdom are your partners.

Mark 9:6

For he did not know what to say, because they were much afraid.

antecedents can be fun
in a transfiguration scene
we struggle to identify
who is terrified

it might be Peter James John
witnesses of blinding light
stumbling to make a response
dumbly proposing shrines

it might be Elijah Moses Jesus
witnessing to a larger light
caught in glory’s glow
lost whenever enshrined

with a forced response
our fear of tomorrow is revealed
with an on-going witness
consistency with yesterday freezes

there is more than enough terror
to frighten everyone
into reductionist responses
diminishing trust refusing change

When this verse is translated into Navajo the clauses must be transposed, “since they were exceedingly afraid, he did not know what to say”. (Bratcher276)

It is helpful to have both structures available for some better hear the action when they understand the motivation and others need an impetus to grasp an import. This could even be part of several other diagnostics to assist us in assessing our temperamental inclination.

When we are dealing with Peter’s state, it may be better to have had the translation say the disciples were in “a state of awe” rather than were “terrified”. Then we might hear echoes of terror in the midst of a storm at sea transformed into the awe of, “who is this who stills wind and wave?” We can be equally flummoxed in a time of awe or terror. Our ability to miss the point is easily engaged.

This also accords with Peter’s announcement that “it is good we’re here”.

As readers we will be tempted to understand ourselves as wiser than Peter—“If I were there, I’d have simply praised G*D for the opportunity to see this unity of Law and Prophet and Wisdom.” This still stops short of asking, “What does it mean for me to live with these three Qualities residing within me?” Having this partnership brought together in our presence brings a different relationship to ourselves and those around. This is another instance in which “glory all around!” is more of a hindrance than asset.

Mark 9:5

“Rabbi,” said Peter, interposing, “it is good to be here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter still an undergrad
applied his book learning
claiming his set theory
is just what is needed
in this dramatic moment

on a barren mountain plain
where every potential comes to dance
Peter would litter rocky shrines
turning a vocation to competition
between RGB hue sliders

this attempted solidification of the past
each with its gift shop of golden oldies
will miss a point of ongoing good news
exemplifying a trust of greater to come
through steadfastly changing hearts

Peter’s pop quiz
a wilderness test
pointedly failed
a forced response
freezing today

Peter’s response lives up to ἀποκρίθεις (apokritheis) which can

designate the action of a person who breaks into a conversation or who introduces something new into the discourse—this is its use here, for Peter had not been asked any questions.” (Bratcher275)

Just when we think we are all together—Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Disciples—Peter, speaking for his compatriots, bursts forth with a non sequitur.

How common this is. When surprised—babble on in the tradition of Babel, confusing the situation. In today’s political life, nonsense and non sequitur. the technique of being assertive without having anything helpful to say, poisons the whole scene with trembling and fear.

We are not helped by translators who resort to fancy language such as “tabernacles”, “tents”, “(sacred) tents”, “shelters”, “shrines”, “sanctuaries”, “memorials”, “dwellings”, or “places”. The best image here refers to the Feast of “Booths”—a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem with end-of-time implications of an ingathering of Harvest (Exodus 34:22) or a Completion of an Exodus from slavery to one Pharaoh or another to a dependence upon G*D (Leviticus 23:42–43).

Peter’s image of Booths puts more focus on locating ourselves along a pilgrimage road from dependence to partnership than honoring any given moment. If it is Booths, we need one or six, not three.

Mark 9:4

And Elijah appeared to them, in company with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus.

spotlight brilliance
is a light engineer’s art
distance bulb aperture power
change mood and message

turn on “Elijah” in cave darkness
side-lighting a whisper of re-engagement
shine “Moses” in desert glare
revealing waiting reviving water rocks

in cloudy days listen for your cue
to add color to the main spots
signaling a story shift
in need of “Your Name” now

Swanson131 suggests, “Moses and Elijah can enter this scene because they never died.” He goes on to add Enoch to the list of those who hadn’t died (Genesis 5:24).

These three are in a special category different from, “Characters who had died were beyond human experience, out of reach until whatever came along in the way of a general resurrection.”

Swanson continues to connect Enoch in as the “origin of revelatory oracles” by comparing him to the Sibylline Oracles.” Finally comes a question: “And you might want to ask why Enoch is not in this scene. Or is Jesus Enoch?” (Swanson132) Ready; Discuss.

Swanson132 then raises a question of recognition. Unlike our overly visual culture, “ancient Jewish culture avoided representational painting and sculpting so there would not be a standard ‘Moses look,’ no visual code.” He goes on to talk about playing this scene:

Maybe Moses and Elijah would look ordinary. If so, the first reaction by the disciples would be to count their own party to make sure that these two other guys are not just some of the usual bunch. The next reaction will be one of surprise to find two extraneous tourists trespassing on the most stunning event of their time with Jesus up to this point. And the next reaction will take place when they find out the names of each of the random tourists. There were other people named Moses and other Elijahs, but somewhere in the sorting out, someone will have realized that the two intruders were not just named Moses and Elijah, they were THE Moses and THE Elijah.

Sabin-279, talks of a “trio of great figures matched by a trio of disciples.” She describes Moses and Elijah in their traditional representation of the Law and the Prophets, and says Mark “perceives Jesus to be a continuation of the wisdom of Israel”. The TANAKH is complete. The quest can now continue.

Mark 9:3

and his clothes became whiter than any launderer in the whole world could bleach them.

clothes more brilliant
than an emperor’s tailor’s vision
claim an ultimacy unmatched
except by attending full well
to an everyday Dickies uniform

in muted blues and greens
sky and earth do their work
mysterious bit by bit
backdrop every scene
supporting other brilliances

such division of labor
threatens every partnership
a flash-in-the-pan nova
eclipsing dark matter’s steadiness
graves need light and light graves

Commentators down the generations have noted white clothing both here on a mountain top and in a tomb (16:5). It is not only almost enough to lead one to dress in white, even after Labor Day, it can be a retrojection of a Resurrection into this half-way moment of Transfiguration.

Every culture has its way of expressing a persons location within it through dress or accessories. In Jesus’ day, royal purple would be one mark of importance. To wear clothes whiter than any fuller (bleacher) could get clothes, even should a Tetrarch command, is to continue bringing a different understanding of power present for all, no matter their status, who recognize their belovedness.

While white and black are not spectral colors, they do have a relationship with the colors: white includes all other colors; black is an absence of colors.

Swanson129 also looks at this passage liturgically. Transfiguration Sunday, just before Ash Wednesday, is a pivotal half-way point between Christmas and Easter. White turns to purple or blue. There is a needed juxtaposition between Transfiguration (white) and Good Friday (black).

Swanson reflects on an alien from Tralfamador in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five who is looking for where Christianity went wrong. He finds it in Pilate crucifying one considered to be a “nobody” whom Transfiguration/Easter declare to be a “somebody”. This alien argues that any Son of Adam (a regular nobody) is a beloved somebody and Transfiguration essentially says—There is no such thing as a “nobody”; those privileged and powerful in a culture are not to crucify, demean, dismiss, or disempower any such so labeled.