The prophet Elijah appears in both the Old Testament (2 Kings 2:1-12) and the gospel readings for the feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 9:2-9).
As a man of God, who first appears in 1 Kings, Elijah faces down adversity, does wondrous things and demonstrate great kindness. Yet the first reading for the feast of Transfiguration focuses on the transfer of Elijah’s power to Elisha and his chariot of fire rather than on any of these other events.
The first reading begins, when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” Scholars disagree about the meaning of Elijah’s instruction to stay here. Some think it was a test, others believe it was a kindly suggestion rather than a command. Whatever it was, Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. Elijah did not reprimand him for following.
Elijah and Elisha repeat this conversation, at the next two stops along the way substituting the successive locations, Jericho then at the Jordan, for Bethel. Again, Elijah did not criticize or correct Elisha for following him.
On two occasions, one in Bethel and one in in Jericho The company of prophets …came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” The meaning of Elisha’s instruction to keep silent could have been that he did not want to be reminded of it. It could also be that it was supposed to be a secret and Elisha did not want them talking so that it could be overheard. It could have been that Elisha did not want them to speculate what would happen. Or it could have been some other reason.
When they had crossed (the Jordan) Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elijah knew that he was to betaken, yet his attention was on what he could give to Elisha.
Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, … if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you….” As they continued … a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! … When he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
Elijah is transported to a heavenly place by an otherworldly transport, and Elisha assumes the role as prophet. Elijah’s disappearance into heaven created a hope in some circles that he would return. It was also a reward for his faithfulness to God. It marked him as special in biblical accounts, if only because God took him away so dramatically. It also marked the transfer of his prophetic responsibilities to Elisha.
Several elements of this story of Elijah and Elisha resonate with the gospel of the transfiguration of Jesus in the presence of Peter, James and John. (Actually, some parallels come from the verses just before the gospel begins, in Mark 8.) Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. Likewise, Elijah knowingly journeyed to meet his end as well. It was an end that the group of prophets talked about with Elisha: today the Lord will take your master away from you… Both Jesus and Elijah understood that they were approaching a point of transformation.
Another link between the passages from 2 King and Mark 8 is that, Jesus went … 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…” For some reason some people thought that Jesus was the great prophet Elijah, returned from his heavenly rhelm. They regarded Jesus with the same sense of awe.
As the gospel of Sunday’s feast opens, 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. Something marvelous and unexplainable happened when Elijah was taken up in the chariot of fire and another marvelous and unexplainable thing happened when Jesus was transfigured. Elijah’s and Jesus’ close followers witnessed both events.
And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then a cloud overshadowed them… This demonstrated that Jesus was not Elijah, as some had thought, but it did put Jesus in the same revered class as Elijah and Moses.
Elements of the Exodus story and Moses going up the mountain to meet with God also appear in the gospel, notably the voice from the cloud. Exodus 19:9 tells us, the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” In Exodus 40:34, the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. God’s presence in a cloud was full of meaning for the Jewish people.
In the gospel, God also spoke from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” It is as though God is answering the question that Jesus had posed to his disciples in Mark 8 about who the people and his own disciples thought he was. This is the answer. He is God’s beloved son, a variation on the phrase that was heard at Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:11 You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Finally, in the account from 2 Kings, Elisha instructed the prophets to keep silent about the master being taken away. In the gospel we read, 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. In neither situation are reasons given for the instruction to keep silent or to tell no one.
The experience of Peter, James and John was a prelude not only to the passion and death of Jesus but also to Jesus’ transfer of power to them. The transfiguration came with God’s instruction to listen to his beloved son. It was God’s validation of the life and work of Jesus. It also came from a long tradition of God’s love and care for his people and a transfer of a mantle of authority.
The Transfiguration is also a liturgically significant event that ends the season of Epiphany. It is a full revelation of the person Jesus and his relationship to God. The child born on Christmas looked, in many ways like any other child. The season of Epiphany progressively revealed his true identity to the world. The event of this day caps this time of revelation.
- Mark wrote to a largely gentile audience, yet it was important for him to link two main characters from the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, to Jesus. How do we regard them? As Old Testament saints? As prophets with a good but incomplete understanding of God’s ways? As people with some special relation to God but who were surpassed by Jesus? As something else?
- Why do you tell people to keep something confidential until later? Why would Jesus tell his disciples to keep silent about the meeting with Elijah and Moses until after his resurrection?
- Put yourself in the place of Peter, James and John on the mountain as they see Jesus with Elijah and Moses. What do they think? “This is impossible”? or, “We knew Jesus was powerful and good but this is beyond our wildest imagination”? or, “This explains everything”?