Aug. 6 was the 70th anniversary of the inauguration of the nuclear age, when the U.S. dropped an atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, instantly killing more than 100,000 people. We remain today under the shadow of nuclear annihilation; this is thus a solemn day to commemorate Disfiguration.
Aug. 6 was also, however, the day that the church celebrated the Feast of Transfiguration. On this day, we recall Jesus ascending a high mountain at a crucial turning point in his ministry, to commune with the spirits of Moses and Elijah (Mark 9:2-10). Ancient tradition identifies the site with Mt. Tabor, a freestanding, almost hemispherical peak about five miles southeast of Nazareth (see Psalms 88:13; Jer. 46:18), where an important Old Testament battle took place (Judges 4:6-7:19). In the gospel narrative, Jesus is about to commence a march to Jerusalem that will culminate with a nonviolent confrontation with the Powers; so he climbs the mountain in order to draw strength from his ancestors.
Moses and Elijah represent, of course, the biblical archetypes of Law and Prophecy. But they were also visionaries who communed with God on mountaintops (Ex. 19:16-20; I Kings 19:8), encountering the radically undomesticated God in remote wildlands. Evan Eisenberg, in his brilliant The Ecology of Eden, discusses how the mountain represented the cosmic “world-pole” to the ancient people of the Levant. They recognized peaks as the origins of all natural fertility that brought blessing on their people; the “Mountain is mythic shorthand for an ecological fact . . . playing a central role in the flow of energy and the cycling of water and nutrients, as well as in the maintenance of genetic diversity and its spread by means of gene flow.” The “holiness” of such places was grounded, therefore, in a primal consciousness that these wild highlands represented cradles of life.
So it is to the mountain that prophets go — to receive instruction on how the people should live (Moses) and assurance of divine accompaniment (Elijah). And Jesus follows in their footsteps:
Ex. 24:15-18: “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain.”
Mark 9:2-4,7: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, 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 one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. . . . Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice. . . .
On the mountaintop Jesus is “transfigured” in the presence of his ancestors, gaining strength for the difficult journey ahead. Like Elijah on the mountain, he is being called back to the Metropolis to face the Powers.
“And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun . . . ” (Matt. 17:2). Matthew’s account alludes to Moses’ third mountain encounter, in which the prophet comes down with his face “shining, because he had been talking with God” (Ex. 34:30, 34; the Hebrew root krn, which is the basis of the verb “to shine,” also means “horn” — which is why medieval artists often depicted Moses with horns). This, too, is part of the meaning of Transfiguration. The wilderness experience of transcendence fuels the struggle for true justice in the world.
The question today is how the spirituality of Transfiguration can empower us to resist the forces of Disfiguration, which continue to gallop across our landscape like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from mountaintop removal mining to the deaths of young African Americans at the hands of police, and from the ongoing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to climate catastrophe.
On the Day of Remembering we are instructed to “listen” (Mark 9:7), and to choose Transfiguration over Disfiguration.
Ched Myers is an Anabaptist biblical scholar and popular educator, author, organizer and advocate who has for 30 years been challenging and supporting Christians to engage in peace and justice work and radical discipleship. He lives with his wife Elaine in Oak View, Calif. and blogs at chedmyers.org, where this post originally appeared.