Every year, on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, which is to say the last Sunday before Lent begins, we hear the story of the Transfiguration. Each successive year in the lectionary cycle presents its own version of the story, and, since this is Year B, we get to hear Mark’s plain, Joe-Friday, just-the-facts-ma’am version. I’ll write about that later this week, but today I’m smacked square across the face by another reading we have in Year B: 2 Kings 2:1-12.
As you know, the Transfiguration is the moment when Jesus’ clothes became a dazzling white and when Moses and Elijah appeared with him. Moses represents the Law, and Elijah represents the prophets, which is to say that this moment on the mountaintop is when Jesus’ identity is made manifest as the one to whom both Law and prophets point. In Years A and C, we read from Exodus—once about Moses going up the mountain to get the Ten Commandments and once about him coming down with a shining face. But only in Year B do we get to hear about Elijah, and that’s why I’m excited to write about him today.
When compared with Moses, I don’t really understand Elijah. Maybe that’s because I don’t know his story as deeply as I know the story of Moses. He was jealous for Israel’s God and fought against the prophets of Baal, who had corrupted God’s people and their worship. He worked miracles—even raising the dead—and was not afraid to wield a sword to get his point across. He held fast to his principles even when it seemed that he was the only God-fearing person in all of Israel. Under duress, he journeyed back to Mt. Horeb, where Moses had received the Ten Commandments. Hiding in a cave, he heard the presence of the Lord not in an earthquake or wind or fire but in the “sound of sheer silence.” Ultimately, as we read in this Sunday’s lesson, he was taken up into heaven not through a normal death but by “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen.”
All of that to say, Elijah is a really interesting prophet who did some amazing things, but I still feel like I don’t really appreciate him or his role in the Transfiguration story.
On Sunday, I want to hear Mark’s version of the Transfiguration with a deeper sense of why Elijah was there—not just because he represented the prophets but what it means that he was there. Yes, I get that it’s because the legend is that Moses and Elijah were among the rare few who were taken up into heaven when they died, but I want to understand why the Elijah story ends with his chariot-driven trip into God’s presence. I want to value the witness of Elijah as much as I already appreciate the story of Moses.
I’ll be spending some time this week reading Sunday’s reading from 2 Kings, and I’ll be looking at the other stories of Elijah that lead to his dramatic departure from this life. By the time we get to Sunday, I hope I hear the Transfiguration as something more than the story of Jesus’ appearance with Moses and that other guy.