Have you ever had an experience where in the middle of it, while you were enjoying it, you thought to yourself, Wow, if only this could last forever! What was happening then? Were you out in the middle of some adventure, climbing a mountain, or watching a glorious sunset? Were you laying on the beach, enjoying the beautiful weather as you escaped a Wisconsin February? Were you sitting around with family and friends, in a moment of intimacy and joy? Were you eating the meal of a lifetime, savoring combinations of tastes and exquisite preparation? Were you at a concert or visiting a cathedral or art museum?
Think of such a moment in your life. Try to remember what you were thinking and feeling. Explore, just for a minute if you can, the difference between your state of mind now, and what you can remember of your state of mind then. What’s the difference? How do you feel now as you reflect back on that experience?
Such experiences are very often fleeting. They leave us wanting to prolong them. We want more. Very often, having had such an experience once in our lives, we seek to recreate them and the loss or absence of such experiences can be quite painful and debilitating. That’s true whether we’re speaking of exciting death-defying adventures, or religious ecstasies.
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is always read on this Sunday, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent. It serves as a transition between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent and in its details looks ahead to the crucifixion and resurrection as well. It’s a transitional moment for us, but it also comes at a significant point in Mark’s gospel, almost exactly half-way through. It marks a shift in subject and tone. Up to this point, Jesus has been largely occupied with a ministry of healing in Galilee, as we’ve seen and heard in the last several Sunday gospel readings. From now on, he will turn toward Jerusalem. And while he will continue to work signs and wonders, he will also be telling his disciples what will happen when they arrive in Jerusalem, and instruct them about what it means to be his disciples.
The transfiguration is a story that appears in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke as well as Mark, and each of them tells it in such a way as to underscore their particular perspective on the meaning of Jesus and the meaning of this event.
One of the most interesting aspects of Mark’s gospel is something that scholars have long called “the messianic secret.” On almost every occasion that Jesus heals someone, beginning with the very first time he casts out the unclean spirit from the man in the synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus tells the person who is healed, as well as those looking on, not to tell anyone about this. In Mark, he gives the same command when Peter confesses him to be the Messiah. In other words, Mark tries to make the point that Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Son of God, is not obvious and not something to be shared publicly.
That’s one reason the story of the Transfiguration is so interesting in Mark. Here is one occasion where Jesus’ identity is made obvious, made apparent to the disciples. They see him in all his majesty and divinity and not only that, they see him in the company of other prophetic and heavenly figures, Moses and Elijah. But in a very Marcan way, they also seem to misinterpret the meaning of the events. When Peter suggests that they build booths for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, he’s doing more than trying to prolong the event. The booths are a reference to the Jewish feast of Sukkoth, or tabernacles, when Jews of Jesus’ day, and today, build temporary dwellings to remind them of their time in the wilderness and the gift of Torah. In first-century Judaism, it had also become a time when Jews looked forward to the coming of a new age, “the Day of the Lord” when God would usher in a reign of justice and peace. So Peter sees part of the significance of the event. It is indeed a sign of the coming of a new age, the Reign of God, but it will not quite look like anything Peter imagined.
This is a story that reveals Jesus’ glory. It also reveals who Jesus is, in a very particular and significant way. In the middle of it all, a cloud comes down and enshrouds them, and a voice from heaven says, “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him.” We readers of Mark’s gospel have heard that voice before, even if none of the disciples have. Mark tells us that after Jesus was baptized, as he was coming out of the waters, Jesus heard a voice from heaven telling him, “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” What was first revealed in Mark’s gospel only to Jesus, is now revealed to his closest companions as well.
With that gesture, Mark directs us back from this event, the Transfiguration, to the beginning of his gospel, to Jesus’ baptism. But he is also pointing forward to the end of the gospel, to the crucifixion. For at the moment of Jesus’ death, we hear these same words for the third time, and only the third time, in Mark’s gospel. And only this time are they spoken by a human being. Mark tells us quite clearly that when Jesus died, the centurion who was facing, seeing that he had died in this way, said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” With these connections across the gospel, Mark is telling us that the glory that is revealed in Christ’s transfiguration is the glory of the one who died on the cross.
There is something else that the voice says from the cloud, “Listen to him!” To this point, the disciples have struggled to make sense of who Jesus was and what he tells them. Even Peter, who confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, turned around almost immediately and protested when Jesus told them that he would be crucified. The voice from heaven is telling them to do more than pay attention. They are being told to be open to the confusing things that Jesus is teaching, to be open to the very different set of expectations and way of looking at the world that Jesus is proclaiming.
The ethereal, transcendent moment ended. Elijah and Moses vanished. Jesus’ face and clothes returned to their normal, ordinary appearance, and he and the three disciples went back down the mountain. As they came down the mountain, in verses we didn’t hear this morning, Jesus again “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen.” We don’t know the lingering effects of this otherworldly experience might have had on Peter, James, and John. From what happens later in the gospel, their behavior seems unchanged from before. They are no better clued into Jesus than they were before the Transfiguration. Like Jesus himself, they returned to normal.
And isn’t that often the case with spectacular experiences in our own lives? We have a moment of great emotional and spiritual joy or depth, we experience something quite unlike anything we’ve experienced before, we might even think it is life changing. But too often when we come down from the mountain, the world around us, and we ourselves return all too quickly to normality and the memories of those wonderful experiences begin to fade.
As we look ahead to Ash Wednesday and Lent, as we turn our backs on the Mount of the Transfiguration and turn toward Jerusalem and the cross, the voice from heaven’s command to “Listen to him” should continue to ring out to us. Jesus taught us, in his words, his actions, and in his manner of death, what it means to follow him. Whatever experiences have shaped our religious lives, our lives of faith; whatever moments of clarity and certainty, whatever glories we have witnessed, we are also commanded to listen to him. He challenges us to walk with him, to follow him as he proclaims the good news, heals the sick and broken-hearted, loves his enemies and those who would kill him. He teaches us to do the same.
As we go from this place into the world and return to our daily lives, may the experience of Transfiguration change us as well, that we might show forth Christ’s love in the world, and invite others to experience his glory. Amen.