Many art critics say the Transfiguration of Jesus by Rafael is the most beautiful painting ever made. I’m no expert on art, but I think the painting also says a lot about how this mystery in Mark’s Gospel is connected to the rest of his stories.
The bottom part of the painting is the dramatic story of the cure of a young boy brought to Jesus by his father as he comes down from the mountain. (Mark 9: 14-29) The boy’s had seizures since his birth. He’s evidently suffering convulsions even now. The crowd around the boy and his father and the disciples around Jesus are excitedly calling for something to be done. Jesus looks at the poor boy and he will cure him.
But before he does he reminds them about the importances of faith. In Mark’s Gospel, he asks the boy’s father if he believes. “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.” Jesus also tells his disciples they weren’t able to help because they don’t pray enough.
The story of his Transfiguration on the mountain prepares for the journey to Jerusalem. Rafael hints at what to expect there in the distant mountain to the right of his painting. Commentators call the story of the Transfiguration an apocalyptic vision, a momentary vision preparing Jesus and his disciples for what’s coming. Jesus with his arms outstretched is strengthened for when he will stretch out his arms on the cross. God, his Father, strengthens him with the promise of glory. We may forget that’s part of the mystery.
His disciples with their incomplete faith are strengthened by the promise of glory too. God strengthen us with brief revelations of his glory. Even now, Jesus reveals his glory to us so that we don’t lose hope. Even now, we can see intimations of God’s glory in our lives, brief encounters, transitory moments, transfigurations of a lesser kind, as Jesus leads us on.
Like the man with his son, suffering from seizures, Jesus tells us to believe. Like his disciples, wondering why they can’t do anything, why we can’t believe enough, Jesus tells us to pray.