This Sunday’s Lectionary Passage: Mark 9: 2-9 (Transfiguration B)
2Six 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, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9As 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 the big scheme of things, we’ve gotten to this point pretty fast. Here it is—a child born into anonymous poverty and raised by no-name peasants turns out to be the Son of God. He grows up, becomes a teacher, a healer, and capable of hosting large groups of people with just a small amount of leftovers. He asks a handful of random people to become his followers, to help him in his mission. They leave everything they have, give up their possessions and their way of making a living, they sacrifice any shred of life security that they might have had, and begin to follow this great person around, probably often wondering what in the world they were doing or where they were really going on this incredible journey on which he was taking them. And then one day, Jesus leads them up to a mountain, away from the interruptions of the world.
And there on that mountain, the clothes that Jesus was wearing change, taking on a hue of dazzling, blinding, white, whiter than anything that they had ever seen before. And on the mountain appeared Elijah and Moses, representing the Law and the prophets, the forerunners of our faith, standing there with Jesus. It’s as if all that is and all that was came together in this one climactic moment. No longer is there any separation between what came before and what happens in this moment; no longer can the Old Testament and New Testament be looked upon without each other to tell the story.
Peter wanted to build three dwellings to house them. I used to think that he had somehow missed the point, that he was in some way trying to manipulate or control or make sense of this wild and uncontrollable mystery that is God. I probably thought that because that’s what I may tend to do. But, again, Peter was speaking out of his Jewish understanding. He was offering lodging—a booth, a tent, a tabernacle, a sanctuary—for the holy. For him, it was a way not of controlling the sacred but rather of honoring the awe and wonder that he sensed. And from the cloud that veils them comes a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” “Listen to him!” OK, be honest. What would have been your reaction? I’m thinking our first response would not have been overly profound: “Wow!” Our second response? “This is it; we are surely going to die.”
And then, just as suddenly as they appeared, Moses and Elijah drop out of sight and Jesus was standing there alone, completely unveiled. In Old Testament Hebrew understanding, the tabernacle shrouded in the cloud was the place where God was. Here, this changes. Jesus stays with them and the cloud dissipates. Jesus IS the tabernacle, the reality of God’s presence in the world. And all that was and all that is has become part of that, swept into this Holy Presence of God. And, more importantly, we are invited into it. No longer are we shielded from God’s Presence. We become part of it, a mirror for all to experience and encounter the living God.
And so the disciples start down the mountain. Jesus remains with them but they kept silent. The truth was that Jesus knew that this account would only make sense in light of what was to come. The disciples would know when to tell the story. They saw more than Jesus on the mountain. They also saw who and what he was. And long after Jesus is gone from this earth, they will continue to tell this strange story of what they saw. For now, he would just walk with them. God’s presence remains.
The Celtic tradition would call them “thin places”, places where that so-called “veil” that separates the earth and heaven, the ordinary and the sacred, the human and the Divine, becomes so thin, so translucent, that one gets a glimpse of the glory of God. It is those times and places in our lives where God’s Presence becomes almost palpable and where we cannot help but be transfigured into what God calls us to be. Perhaps it is those times when we don’t just think about God but rather create space enough for the sacred and the Divine to penetrate our lives and our flesh in the deepest part of our being. And, therein, lies our transfiguration. In essence, we were right. We die. We die to the way we are and we become someone different.
The Greek term for “transfiguration” is “metamorphosis”, deriving from the root meaning “transformation”. We know that word as it relates to science and nature. Most of us probably think of the lowly caterpillar who, given enough time, becomes a beautiful butterfly. Metamorphosis is, literally, to change into something else. There is no going back. The butterfly will never again reenter the cocoon.
Those thin places in our lives, those places where the holy spills into our being, where we finally know that we are not called to understand but to see, to see what God has put before us—those are the places and times that provide those mountain-top experiences. But we’re not just limited to one. They are there all the time. God’s Presence is always with us. We just have to learn to see in a new way. We have to learn to see that blinding, awe-inspiring, mysterious glory of God.
The Hebrews understood that no one could see God and live. You know, I think they were right. No one can see God and remain the same. We die to ourselves and emerge in the cloud. The truth is, when we are really honest with ourselves, we probably are a little like the disciples. We’d rather not really have “all” of God. We’d rather control the way God enters and affects our lives. We’d rather be a little more in control of any metamorphosis that happens in our lives, perhaps even hold on to that cocoon a little longer than we should. We’d rather be able to pick and choose the way that our lives change. We’d rather God’s Presence come blowing in at just the right moment as a cool, gentle, springtime breeze. In fact, we’re downright uncomfortable with this devouring fire, bright lights, almost tornado-like God that really is God. God is not something that we are supposed to understand, or figure out, or control. God is awe and wonder and mystery. God is God. And encountering God is the point of our story. It’s the pinnacle, the thin place, the climax.
This account of the Transfiguration of Jesus seems to me that it should be the climax of Jesus’ story—the quintessential mountain-top experience. After all, how can you top it—Old Testament heroes appearing, God speaking from the cloud, and Jesus all lit up so brightly that it is hard for us to look at him. But there’s a reason that we read this on the last Sunday before we begin our Lenten journey. In some ways, it IS perhaps the climax of Jesus’ earthly journey. Jesus tells the disciples to keep what happened to themselves, if only for now. And then the lights dim. Moses and Elijah are gone, and, if only for awhile, God stops talking.
Jesus walked with the disciples in the silence. The air became thicker and heavier as they approached the bottom. As they descended the mountain, they knew they were walking toward Jerusalem. As they walked down the mountain, the holy city lay before them and Galilee was forever behind them.
Next Wednesday, Lent begins. The Transfiguration, the climax, is only understood in light of what comes next. We are nearing the end of our Epiphany journey. We are nearing the end of that season of warm illumination. The light is now almost blinding to the ways of this world. We have been to the mountaintop and we have seen the glory of God. And we have been changed. There is no going back. The only way is through Jerusalem. We have to walk through what will come. Jesus has started the journey to the cross. We must do the same. If we stay here, we miss out. God has gone on to Jerusalem. It is a journey through a wilderness, a journey through something we do not understand. So we have to follow with new eyes.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. (Marcel Proust)
SOME HOUSEKEEPING: OK, believe it or not, Lent is upon us. The wilderness awaits. So, I’m going to try to commit to writing every day for Lent, beginning Ash Wednesday. Here’s your part. Read them every day. Let’s make it a journey that we take together. And pray for me. (Lent is A LOT of writing!) And, if you find one meaningful, “like” it or comment. (That moves it up the magic Google search engine!) So, I’ll meet you in the wilderness! S…
Grace and Peace,