The Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Lent is a passage from Mark 9:2-10. First Jesus ascends the mountain with his closest disciples, Peter, James and John. Then Jesus is glorified, or “transfigured,” and seen alongside two great men of the Old Testament: Moses and Elijah.
Ascending the Mountain
In this passage, Jesus leads his closest disciples up a mountain. This imagery parallels that of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:1, where seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain. Any times that Jesus ascends the mountain, we can assume something important is about to happen. And usually, whatever happens on the mountain will underscore the Messianic claim that Jesus makes about himself.
In the Old Testament, to ascend the mountain was to encounter God. Consider Isaiah 2:3 – Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. In Isaiah, come let us go up the mountain of the Lord is expressed in the plural. An even earlier account of an ascent up the mountain is the story of Moses and the seventy elders of Israel. They ascend Mount Sinai in Exodus 24:9-10, and Moses literally encounters God. Consonant with these Old Testament accounts, Jesus and his closest disciples ascend the mountain in Mark 9. The irony of the Transfiguration account is that, unlike in the Old Testament, God (in the person of Jesus) walks with the disciples up the mountain, rather than coming down from heaven to meet them.
Moses and Elijah
Why does this story feature Moses and Elijah, and what do they have to do with Jesus? Moses and Elijah are pivotal figures in the Old Testament who point to the liberation of the Israelites from bondage. Moses is the prophet who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Elijah is the prophet who would return to announce the coming of the Messiah – the King of the Jews. In the Old Testament, the return of Elijah is spoken of in the writings of the minor prophet Malachi 4:5. Because Elijah is known to first century Jews as the prophet that would announce the coming of the Lord, Elijah is mentioned perhaps thirty times in the four Gospels.
Not coincidentally, Moses and Elijah are also two Old Testament figures who are believed to be taken up into heaven after their death. Jude’s epistle (1:9) tells us that the Archangel Michael fought Satan to recover the body of Moses. The book of 2 Kings 2:11 tells us that Elijah was swept up into heaven on a chariot of fire.
Some scholars argue that, in Mark’s Gospel, the Transfiguration is a spiritual high-point in the earthly ministry of Jesus. It is complimented by a low-point: the Agony in the Garden. In both cases, Peter, James and John accompany Jesus. As a spiritual high-point, the Transfiguration anticipates the post-Easter glorification of Jesus. According to Mark, his clothes became dazzling white during the Transfiguration. Oddly enough, Jesus is never described as being clothed in white in any post-Resurrection scene in the Gospels. Nevertheless, the Gospels, the Book of Acts, and the Book of Revelation consistently describe the angels or the elect as robed in white.
To further underscore the point that the Transfiguration anticipates the glorification of the body of Jesus, Mark tells us that the Lord stands next to two Old Testament prophets who are believed to have been taken into heaven after their death. Moses and Elijah are also associated with the Messiah in that Moses led the Jews out of captivity, and Elijah is the prophet who will announce the coming of the Lord.
He Set His Tent Among Us
In the first chapter of John’s Gospel (Jn 1:14), the Sacred Author tells us that the Word made Flesh set his dwelling among us. And here in Mark’s Gospel, Peter the Apostle awkwardly suggests that tents be prepared for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. The grammatic structure in John and Mark is similiar. In John’s Gospel, Jesus literally pitches his tent among us: καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν. This is an allusion to several Old Testament traditions. First, the House of King David is also known as the Tent of David (Amos 9:11; Acts 15:16). Secondly, King Solomon dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem on the Feast of Booths (1 Kings 8:1-2). Third, the Shekinah or Spirit of God dwelt in a tent, which was where Moses spoke to YHWH when he needed to consult with the Lord (Exodus 40:34-36).
In Mark’s Gospel, Peter proposes to establish three tents for the prophets. But nothing comes of his proposal, for obvious reasons. Jesus, with the Incarnation, has already set his tent among the disciples. On the other hand, Moses and Elijah have already been taken up into heaven. It is not for Peter to prepare a place for them on earth, when they have already completed their earthly journey and now belong to the Kingdom of God.
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses,
and they were conversing with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;
from the cloud came a voice,
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone
but Jesus alone with them.
As they were coming down from the mountain,
he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what rising from the dead meant.