“Transfiguration” by Alexandr Ivanov, 1824. Public Domain.
Gospel Lesson Mark 9:2-9
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 anymore, 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.
The Transfiguration story in Mark tells the story of Jesus' ascent of a mountain in the company of his three closest disciples. We know that Peter, James, and John are close to Jesus because they are the only disciples Jesus gives nicknames. Jesus calls Simon "Peter," originally meaning "rock or pebble." Jesus nicknames the brothers James and John "Boanerges," meaning "Sons of Thunder." Scholars assume that they were likely loud or rowdy guys, and in some cultures, today, the name "Boanerges" is still used as a nickname of loud and charismatic preachers.
At the top of the mountain, Jesus' physical appearance is changed, metamorphosing into incandescent light, a light that blazes from his face and clothing. Two of the greatest (long-dead) prophets of Israel's past appear beside him, conversing with him. The disciples, meanwhile, are over-awed at the spectacle and respond with incomprehension and bewilderment. Even the Sons of Thunder are silent. Peter, perhaps not knowing what to do with such a situation, proposes to erect three tents or shrines to house Jesus and these impossible visitors.
Fortunately, a cloud intervenes, overshadowing the heavenly figures, and a voice speaks from the cloud, declaring Jesus to be the beloved Son. The voice in the cloud also states that it would do the disciples of Jesus well to listen to him. Then the miraculous signs recede, and Jesus is left alone to descend the mountain with his bemused disciples.
Today's story is a bizarre story even for the Bible. Maybe we assume that it's bizarre because it was written by a different culture nearly two millennia ago, but the reality is, the first readers of this story would have thought it was weird too. Things do not start glowing, let alone people. Clouds do not talk, and long-dead prophets do not come back from the dead.
It's a weird story, and it even has a bizarre name: "The Transfiguration." A formal definition states that Transfiguration is "a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state."
We could make the argument that transfigurations happen around us (consider how caterpillars turn into butterflies or how little dirty bulbs produce wonderful lilies). Still, we don't use the word to describe these processes. And while this is an annual story in the life of the church, a story told from one of the gospels each year the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, it remains a neglected story, at least in the West. Biblical scholar Dorothy Lee notes:
For the most part, post-Enlightenment biblical scholars have shown little interest in the Transfiguration, minimizing its theological status. If anything, biblical studies has tended to 'experience the story as alien' and to 'rationalize this strangeness' (2004, 1,2).
Likely we've neglected this story because it is such a strange one, and we wonder how it might make any difference in our lives if we tell it again. We live in a time that is uncomfortable with transcendence and mystery, in a time that is not very comfortable merely being in the state of wonder. Perhaps it is because our world feels less certain these days, more anxiety-producing, more frightening even without a global pandemic taking place. And we might choose to turn to religion to find firm foundations, guiding principles, and a moral code to organize life around.
I sometimes feel this way. I can get behind Jesus' teachings, even if they are sometimes challenging. Jesus was a wise teacher who used various methods to bring insight, love, and justice into the world. He seemed to regularly bring to light the case of the marginalized, the underdog, and the pitied. And he worked to subvert abusive political, cultural, and domestic power to make positive change happen.
I can also get behind his death. Jesus was killed by Rome as a political rebel sometime in the first century. In his death, I see humanity's tendencies to perpetrate violence on those that challenge power and advocate for loving, accountable, and inclusive communities.
Even in the resurrection story, I hear a call for hope that violence and death cannot stop love and justice. But here we have the Transfiguration. It still feels like an outlier.
I wonder if we might approach this story from the point of being in awe. When were you last in awe? When did you experience something so incredible and so good that you were either stunned to silence like our Sons of Thunder or just began blabbering like Peter in our story? Close your eyes and try to relive it. What were your surroundings like? What time of year was it? Who was there? If something was said, what was it? Perhaps it was an experience in nature or with someone or some folks very close to you. Maybe it was good news, something that provided a reminder that there is still so much good in the world. Consider those feelings and those experiences and think about how much time you spent trying to figure out the meaning of those events, why you were in awe, why you found relief, why you were uplifted.
I remember going to the Grand Canyon a few years ago. I don't think I've ever said "wow" more in my life. And when my mind returns to that visit, I still have a hard time thinking about it without saying "wow" because I still lack the words for it.
I wonder if God provides these glimpses of grace as a way of encouragement or challenging us to think bigger. Vincent Van Gogh once said, "For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream." And perhaps, in our story, more than anything else, these three disciples needed to see that Jesus was more than a wandering itinerant preacher and healer. Maybe they needed to see that their world needed more than someone who could cleanse the occasional leper or feed a few thousand people, as excellent and necessary as these things were. Perhaps for people of faith, the Transfiguration reminds us that we need more than just a good moral religion or a place that offers support and comfort in times of trouble. We need something that provides a far grander vision with a more significant impact on this world. The Transfiguration asks us to look at the sight of stars and dream.
Our faith is more than comfort in times of distress, a moral compass, and a hope of healing. Our faith is more than a prophetic word, a faithful charity, and a steward of all that is sacred. Our faith is more than a call to justice, a way to fight for the oppressed, and an invitation to love. We cannot limit where our faith speaks and heals, and transforms. This caution for us comes from Peter. And we've had this caution now two weeks in a row. Last week, Jesus began healing folks in Capernaum, Peter's hometown. When Jesus goes away, Peter hunts him down in the hopes of bringing him back to town where he can serve as the local physician. But Jesus resists that notion and tells Peter that he must travel around to do this work in other places. Likewise, on the Mountain, Peter offers to build shrines for Jesus and the resurrected prophets of old. A shrine, a place set apart as holy, a place one can visit from time to time, a place not part of everyday life. Again, Jesus (or the cloud in this case, or the silence) resists this notion.
The work of God in this world wants to resist our need to categorize it or contain it. It defies our need to locate it on a map and leave it there. Our story should cause us to wonder what shrines we have erected throughout the centuries to bottle faith, to set its boundaries. Because a faith that is bigger than our imaginations, present in all places and in all times, working in ways we've yet to consider is a little scary, even demanding.
Our incredible story gives us pause on the eve of the Season of Lent. It asks us to consider breaking down our expectations and customs that we follow this season if they impede God's work in the world, in our lives. And it calls us to imagine what God is doing in this world in new ways, awe-inspiring ways, ways that leave us speechless or babbling.
May we resist our desire to bottle faith and instead allow ourselves to imagine what's possible with a God that never ceases to bring the awe. Amen.