By Ched Myers, for Transfiguration Sunday (6. Epiphany)
Note: This is an ongoing occasional series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B.
Without wildness, civilization could not survive. The converse does not hold.
Evan Eisenberg, The Ecology of Eden
The Feast of the Transfiguration probably dates back to the late Roman period. A major feast in the Eastern Church, it was not widely practiced until the 9th century by the Western Church. August 6th was designated as Feast of the Transfiguration for the whole church in 1456. The Roman Catholic Church today also commemorates the Transfiguration on the second Sunday in Lent, but the Revised Common Lectionary puts the story at the last Sunday of Epiphany, just before Lent. This is done in order to recognize the Transfiguration’s close relationship in the synoptic gospel narratives to Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem and the Cross.
Most churchly commentators and preachers focus on the theology of the Transfiguration. Here I want to examine its mythic geography, which invites us to employ this story in the urgent task of proclaiming eco-justice in a world on the verge of environmental collapse.
The gospel Transfiguration account (Mk 9:2-10) is clearly shaped by the two great “approaches” by Moses to YHWH on Sinai narrated in the Book of Exodus. In the first, Israel camps at the foot of the mountain, where YHWH calls to Moses to prepare the people for an encounter (Ex 19:3). Israel has “seen” what YHWH did to liberate them from imperial Egypt (v. 4); now they must “hear” YHWH’s voice (v. 5f).
YHWH eventually “comes down” from the mountain to give Israel instructions on how to live outside of empire (v. 11), encapsulated in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20). This inaugural epiphany sets a dramatic tone for future encounters: thunder and lightning, smoke and fire, a great cloud (Ex 19:16-19). (Left, “Moses on Sinai,” Jean Leon Gerome.)
These effects are reiterated in the second approach, in which Moses ascends the mountain to receive the Decalogue on stone tablets Note the parallels with Mark’s Transfiguration account:
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 God called to Moses out of the cloud. 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, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Just as Moses mediated the Covenant on Sinai, so now Jesus is communicating the will of God to the people: “Listen to him!” (Mk 9:7). (Right: icon from St. Catherine’s Monastery, in Egypt’s Sinai.)
Evan Eisenberg, in a brilliant chapter in The Ecology of Eden, writes: “The fact that Canaan…contains the lowest dry land on the planet (the shore of the Dead Sea) as well as deserts, coastal plains, and steppe only makes its great mountains the more imposing.” He goes on to explore the role the sacred mountain played in Ancient Near Eastern mythology as a sort of ecological axis mundi:
The World Mountain is mythic shorthand for an ecological fact. There are certain places on earth that play 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. Such places provide many of the services that keep the ecosystems around them (and the biosphere as a whole more or less healthy for humans and other life forms. They help control flooding and soil erosion. They provide fresh infusions of pollinating birds and insects… They regulate the mix of oxygen, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other ingredients in the air and keep its temperature within bounds. They are spigots for the circulation of wildness through places made hard and almost impermeable by long human use. All such places are more or less wild; many are forested… and from them great rivers flow.
The “holiness” of the mountains of Lebanon, which represented such an “ecological spigot” for the land of Canaan, was grounded, therefore, in a primal consciousness that these wild highlands represented the cradle of all life.
Spiritual leaders ascended mountains not only to commune with the Divine, but to journey to the origins of all natural fertility, in order to bring blessing on their people. So it is to the cosmic mountain that the biblical prophets go—to receive instruction on how the people should live (Moses) and assurance of divine accompaniment (Elijah, who walks “40 days” to take refuge in a cave on “the Mount of God at Horeb,” aka Sinai, I Kg 19:8f; see Dt 5:2). Moses and Elijah thus represent not only biblical archetypes of the Law and the Prophets; they were also feral visionaries who communed with the radically undomesticated God on sacred peaks far from empire and its discontents. Jesus follows in their footsteps.
Ancient Church tradition identifies the mount of Transfiguration with Mt. Tabor, a free-standing, almost hemispherical peak about five miles southeast of Nazareth that rises 1843 feet above the Mediterranean Sea (see Ps. 88:13; Jer 46:18). Tabor was the staging area for the Hebrew guerilla leaders Deborah and Barak and their vastly outnumbered forces to defeat a heavily armored, professional Canaanite army, which the biblical writer attributes to the intervention of Yahweh (Jud 4:6-14; 6:2-7:19). In the gospel story, however, Jesus is about to commence his march to Jerusalem to nonviolently face down the Powers, and so ascends the mount in order to draw strength from his ancestors.
Here Jesus is “transfigured” (Gk metemorphōthē, Mk 9:2) in the presence of his ancestors. There are two trajectories for reflection here. On one hand, the mountaintop experiences of both Moses and Jesus cause them to “glow”—symbolizing a profound connection to the Source.
In Exodus 34, Moses’ again ascends the mountain for 40 days, receives a second set of tablets reiterating the Covenant Code, and comes down with his face “aglow” (Ex 34:30, 34f). The Hebrew root krn means “horn,” but is also the basis of the verb “to shine” (which is why medieval artists often depicted Moses with horns). Indeed, Matthew’s Transfiguration account alludes to this: “And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light (Mt 17:2).
The great wilderness prophets, from John the Baptist to John Muir to Jim Corbett, have attested to the transformative power of unmediated nature. Most of us have some experience, however partial, of feeling cleansed and renewed by time spent hiking or camping in the wild. The unshackled biosphere offers a very different energy than that generated (and venerated) by urban life, and we are both attracted to it and—as creatures domesticated by civilization—afraid of it. Yet the Bible, the Desert Mothers and Fathers, and countless poets all attest to the wilderness as the primal space of spiritual renewal. (Left: Detail of mosaic from Daphne Monastery, Christ Transfigured on Mount Tabor.)
Another trajectory is found in the metaphor of brilliant white light, which alludes to Daniel’s apocalyptic visions (Dan 7:9; 10:6), in which the Divine Judge vindicates the oppressed. In light of this literary tradition of resistance to empire, it is worth mentioning another aspect of the ancient “World Mountain” suggested by Eisenberg. The urban civilizations of Mesopotamia attempted to reproduce (and thus domesticate) the holy, mysterious peaks “where the gods dwelled” in their sacred architecture:
At the heart of every Mesopotamian city was a sacred precinct, and at the heart of every sacred precinct was a ziggurat, a stepped pyramid of mud brick… [which] seem to have imitated mountains in a fairly literal way… It is a sign of the Mesopotamians’ pride that they drew the gods—and paradise itself—down from the mountains and into their own cities.
From this artificially engineered mountain the rulers communed with gods who were the patrons of empire, looking down upon the realm with managerial authoritarianism. Eisenberg rightly sees in the Tower of Babel story (Gen 11) a biblical parody of this social/structural architecture of domination.
Given the archetypal opposition of Mountain and Tower, it is no accident that our biblical heroes stand with the undomesticated, anti-imperial God on the shrouded wild crags, in order to stand against urban delusions of control and omnipotence. Moses is liberated from Pharaoh’s Egypt and embraced by YHWH on Sinai; Elijah flees the royal threats of Ahab and Jazebel to Horeb, taking refuge and gaining strength to continue YHWH’s freedom struggle. And Jesus goes to the misty Source to gather himself for the difficult journey to Jerusalem to face the Powers.
The prophetic wilderness experience of transcendence is not for purposes of escaping the world, but rather fuels the struggle for true justice in fallen civilization. It is to both these strands of ancient wisdom—the Mountain of God as spiritual fount and as geopolitical counterpoint to empire—that the disciples (and we readers) are instructed to “pay attention” (Mt 17:5c).
Transfiguration Sunday invites us to recover old wisdom: a biblical cosmology that affirms the sacred mountain as an axis mundi connecting us to the divine, and a radically alternative space to empire. If YHWH mysteriously inhabits such wild places, then our relentless technological destruction of them—notably the current practice of “mountain top removal” mining—is not simply imperial, but idolatrous. (Mountaintop removal pictured at right; see e.g. http://mountainjustice.org/facts/steps.php).
May Jesus’ Transfiguration empower us to resist the disfiguration of Creation!