A Homily for 3.1.15
for MARK 9:2-10
revised from a Homily
first posted 3.4.12
Today is the second Sunday of Lent, and the Lectionary offers us the rather astonishing account of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. One might well ask how this text, as beloved and powerful as it is, has anything to do with the Lenten season?
Clearly, the inclusion of this text is meant to offer us the calling to go apart with Jesus in quietness and solitude, as he was in quietness and solitude with the inner-circle of the disciples on the mount of transfiguration.
Of course, we see that the quietness is not long-lasting. It never is. In the midst of this sublime moment of drama St. Mark describes Jesus conversing with Elijah and Moses (!) and finally he has the divine voice saying:
"This is my beloved Son. Listen to him."
This voice is summoned both as a response to Peter's interruption of the divine moment with his desire to build three tabernacles -- one to Jesus and Elijah and Moses, and a reminder of the purposes of GOD in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary stresses to us that,
"Mark's readers recognize the content of the divine voice from the revelation to Jesus at his baptism. Now God commands the disciples to obey the word of the Son. This revelation makes it clear that Jesus is greater than Moses and Elijah, yet he will enter into his glory through suffering and death." (vol.viii, pg. 631)
What might be a better way to say this is to say that Jesus in his ministry calling and passion event -- suffering, death, resurrection and ascension -- fulfills of the purposes of the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah). Or, as Jesus explains himself:
"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets;” says Jesus, “I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (Mt. 5:17)
What the disciples failed to grasp at the time is something Mark's original readers now know with clarity, that far from tossing away the Hebrew law and history, Jesus is the final fulfillment of that law and history. Said differently, if we do not trace our Christian origins back to Abraham, we are in a sorry position to argue for the veracity of our faith. Or said still differently, and quoting St. Paul in Romans 10: "Christ is the end of the law," the telos, the fulfillment, the goal realized.
We must also take note that this is the moment when the movement of Jesus’ veers toward conflict. That is, this mountain-top experience is the beginning of the shift toward suffering, and as such must be seen within the context of Jesus overall mission. For example think about the events occurring just before the transfiguration:
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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." (Mark 8:31b-38)
So, this is the moment when Jesus' mission turns in intention toward Jerusalem and dispute, desolation, dereliction and death. But, you must see that, as he prepares his disciples for his coming agony and affliction -- explaining to them what he must suffer -- he must also prepare himself for this same ordeal as well.
Operating on the truth that the humanity of Jesus is the central aspect in view before us (Phil.2:5-11), and that he is truly human and our truly human representative, Jesus must now steel himself in the face of he knows not what. Sure, in general he knows that the rejection and death await, but what does this mean, specifically? What will this suffering entail? How brutal will it actually be? And what will be the true taste of the cup of judgement and evil and death?
I haven't really given this much thought before, but as you read Mark's Jesus there seems to be this underlying sadness presented; he truly seems a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” And, because of Mark's portrayal of the disciples as dullards, Jesus also seems here such the deeply misunderstood one.
Peter, in the text just cited takes the side of the nation against the Jesus-way, and later James and John will do the same by wanting positions of power even in the face of the Master's call to service. In some ways the gospels are ugly reminders of the human condition and why things are as they are. They were a selfish lot, and so are we, notwithstanding two-thousand years of the King’s reign.
Still, there is hope.
Suddenly, when we are led to the point of despair -- is there no one to stand with the Master, Jesus finds personal ministry and encouragement. Think about it. He takes his inner circle up the mountain and there is met by Elijah and Moses! The text, in typical Marcan brevity reads:
"they were conversing with Jesus..."
What? Really? OK, but just what does this mean? and what was said?
As we said, Peter, after his fashion, interrupts the entire proceedings and tosses in his two cents, saying words that are both unnecessary and wrong. And, then, GOD speaks, in what must have been the most edifying of all moments for Jesus,
"This is my beloved Son. Listen to him."
I can't help but thinking that this pronouncement of support, recognition and advocacy was as much for Jesus’ benefit as it was for Peter and the gang. Coupled with the conference with Elijah and Moses, Jesus must have found in these events an optimism and invigoration for his coming Jerusalem trauma.
Said differently, often it doesn't take but a word or a small gesture of encouragement to allow us to lean forward against the strong wind of opposition or trouble. Jesus here, by virtue of the omnipotent voice and the heavenly visitations, would have all the consolation he would need for his upcoming ordeal.
Of course, this moment is for the inner-circle of disciples as well (and as such it is for us, too, our lenten moment if you will). These men would need to find courage when their leader is stricken with humiliation and death. They would need to remember this moment when the cross of Jesus paves the way to despair and a to return to their nets -- their old way of life. For truly, how can one follow a dead Messiah? How could suffering and the Messiah be brought together so that its purpose made sense?
This is the import of Jesus' description of the heavenly conversation as he descends the mountain with the disciples:
"As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant."
This means what the disciples saw on the mountain clearly has a future significance and a future purpose. After Jesus' resurrection they would be called upon to share this moment of revelation they had witnessed. That is, this moment of revelation for the disciples would finally fit with what they would come to understand about Jesus, but only after his death and subsequent rising to new life. In other words, after the resurrection what the disciples saw on the mountain would make sense even to them, and it was then that what they had witnessed could be shared.
This is true because after the resurrection they could clearly see the Jesus-way of being Messiah -- his choosing the way of the suffering servant -- and how his death and new life would be the basis for the fulfillment of the covenantal promises made so long ago. And here I am speaking about the calling of Israel and the subsequent inclusion of the Gentiles to be GOD’s agents of setting the world right, under the power of the Holy Spirit.
So, while in our Lenten journey we might go up the quiet mountain in solitude with the Master, we must also in our Lenten journey come down the mountain and fulfill the calling to follow the Christ, listening to his words and practicing his way in the world.