February 18, 2009

Light for the Journey

by Debra Dean Murphy
Mark 9:2-9 (Transfiguration Sunday)

The Gospel Lesson for Transfiguration Sunday suffers from something that lectionary texts often do: It begins in the middle of a longer narrative, the whole of which helps to situate and make sense of the lifted-out passage under consideration. The Mark reading begins with: "Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves." We then go on to get engrossed in the familiar story of how the appearance of Jesus changes; how Moses and Elijah suddenly show up; how Peter characteristically misreads the scene.

But what happened six days earlier? Could it have any bearing on the journey to the mountaintop and on what transpired there?

Most immediately Jesus had called "the crowd with his disciples" and had told them that if they wanted to become his followers they would have to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. Those who wanted to save their life would lose it, he said, and those who were willing to lose their life for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel, would save it. What will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? he asked. Those who are ashamed of Jesus and of his words, of them Jesus will also be ashamed.

Hard sayings. Tough words: Denial. Cross. Loss. Shame. Death.

But here on the top of the mountain six days later we have what appears to be the antidote to, the opposite of such gloom. Jesus is changed into a figure of dazzling white brightness and two of Israel's superstars are on the scene! This looks like triumph, not defeat; splendor and success, not failure and loss.

So what could denial and death have to do with the glory of this mountaintop moment?

Everything, if we can take in the whole panoramic view, paying close attention to what Jesus said to the crowd and to the disciples those few days before going up the mountain. The glory of God, it turns out, is revealed in the cross. The exalted Lord is never separate from the suffering Christ. This mountain is not far from Golgotha's hill.

When Jesus is transfigured, when his outward appearance is altered in that moment to reveal the glory of God, he prefigures more transformation to come: his own body, now radiant, will soon be battered, beaten, and bruised; it will undergo death; it will become a resurrected body. And out of that broken, dead, resurrected body comes another: the church.

So perhaps the transfiguration story is as much about the church as it is about Jesus; as much about discipleship as it is about those three star-struck disciples.

In just a few days we will soon have our own appearances altered, our faces slightly transfigured: we will receive the mark of ashes on our foreheads and will hear the words: Remember you are earth and to earth you shall return. In that moment we will begin the Lenten journey with Jesus; a journey that takes him to the destiny that awaits him in Jerusalem.

Transfiguration Sunday marks the end of a succession of Sundays that began with Epiphany. Epiphany, we recall, began with light: the light of a star leading the magi to the Christ child; the light of Christ enlightening all the world. This week, as we mark the conclusion of this string of Sundays, we'll end, as we began, with light: the light of Jesus' radiant countenance on the mountaintop, a light that guides our path as we take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow him.

It will be dark where we're going. We'll need the light.

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