A Lectionary Reflection on Mark 9:2-9 for Epiphany 7B
Among the concerns I have about our world, there are two that I find myself returning to rather frequently. The first is that our world moves too fast. It’s not that I am worried about the rate of change, although I know of others who are. For me it’s that our decisions about values and measurements, about what is important and what deserves our attention and energy, are made too quickly, with too little consideration and reflection, and within a time frame that is too immediate. My second concern flows from this, and is a simple one. I worry that we have lost the true meaning of the word “glory”.
Perhaps I’m just getting old but, as much as I am a fan of tennis champion Rafael Nadal, I can’t help but feel that he has a lot of tennis to play before a biography is really warranted – yet there it is on the shelves of my local bookshop. I find it hard to believe that after two or three CDs, the time has come for a twenty-something musician to produce a “greatest hits” album. And I find the way the word “legend” is thrown around in sports commentaries rather unfortunate. It seems to me that when “glory” can be achieved with little or no paying of dues, with little or no real sacrifice, and with little or no lasting influence or contribution to speak of, we have devalued “glory” to the point where it no longer has value.
True glory – the kind that takes your breath away, that changes how you see the world, that inspires you to strive for your very best self – takes time to nurture and to recognise. To really encounter glory we need to slow down, we need to expand our awareness into the time frame of eternity, we need to move beyond a surface viewing to the kind of deep seeing that reveals the essence of things, and we need to become still enough to allow glory to get us firmly in its grasp. Real glory does not shine most brightly in dominance or wealth or prettiness, no matter how much we use the word to describe those things. Rather, glory is surprising. It is the irrepressible life that shines in all things but that is seen most clearly in the places and people where we would least expect it. Authentic glory is the glow of what is thoroughly good, vulnerably true and genuinely beautiful, but to experience this glory requires the time and focus of a deeper look, of opening to what the old Celts called the “thin place”.
In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus took his three closest friends up a mountain where they saw God’s glory shining through Jesus as never before. But more than this, they were learning to understand and recognise what God’s glory really is. It was a lesson they didn’t easily learn, and, once they had, didn’t quickly forget.
Immediately before the transfiguration account, Mark describes two events that may seem unrelated, but that are closely connected in his narrative. The first is the healing of blind man (8:22-26). It’s strange story because it’s the only time Jesus takes more than one attempt to bring about the healing. With the first touch, the man sees, but has no clarity – the people look like trees walking around. With the second touch his sight is completely restored. However, when the following events are taken into account, Mark’s purpose in telling this story becomes clear. Immediately after this healing, Jesus asks the disciples who the people, and then they, say he is. Peter responds with his famous declaration of Jesus as Messiah, but then, when Jesus begins to describe his coming death, Peter reprimands Jesus and is himself rebuked (8:27-33). In a sense, Mark is saying, Peter is going through the same process as the blind man. Here he has received the first phase of having his eyes opened – he has recognised Jesus as the Messiah sent by God. But, he has not yet seen what this means. He has not yet recognised what kind of Messiah Jesus is. The clarity of sight that he will need to become a true follower of Jesus still eludes him. But now, on the mountain, Peter’s eyes, and those of James and John are finally and completely opened – although it will take some time before they are able to fully live from what they have seen and learned.
This moment of glory for the disciples has a very simple message to proclaim, but it is the one that Peter had not been ready to hear. In the transformation of Jesus’ appearance, and in the cloud that overshadowed them there are strong resonances with the experience of Moses when he received the law from God at Sinai. He, too, took three specified companions up the mountain with him (Exodus 24:1). God appeared to him in a cloud, too(Exodus 24:15). And his appearance was also transformed into radiance, so that he had to put a veil over his face (Exodus 34:29-35). To drive the point home, Moses himself appears with Jesus – who now is seen to fulfil Moses’ own Messianic prophecy that a prophet like him would come to God’s people – along with another person of eschatological significance, Elijah. Again, to make sure that we don’t miss the point, Mark relates the conversation as the disciples descended the mountain about the prophecies that Elijah would appear before the Messiah was to come (Mark 9:11-13). So, Peter had seen correctly. Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and, in case he now doubted it after the difficult, death-predicting conversation that followed his insight, he has now had an experience that would have removed all doubt.
But, he has also been enabled to see more, and to see more clearly. The voice of God now confirms that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah, and instructs the disciples to listen to him. It’s like God is grabbing Peter and the others by the scruff of the neck and saying, “Slow down. Don’t dismiss this out of hand. Listen more carefully and allow what you have heard to sink right into your soul.” I wonder whether Peter even needed the voice. I wonder if he had already made the connection between the obvious Messianic scene he was seeing, and Jesus prediction of his death. Perhaps that was why he babbled on about building shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Perhaps he was not yet ready to accept what he now knew to be true, and he was trying to avoid, or at least postpone, the now inevitable journey to Jerusalem and the awaiting cross. Yet, as he was soon to learn, to seek this avoidance is to deny the very glory that he has just witnessed – because the glory of God that is revealed in Jesus conquers not through military might or wealth or political influence, but through a love that would rather die than cease to embrace all. The glory of God’s Reign is defined absolutely and for all time through the cross, through Jesus laying his life down for the sake of Jubilee justice and peace. There will never be a time when God’s glory is shown in destruction, blood-shed or violence, because here, on this hidden mountain, God has revealed that glory and the cross are eternally and inseparably joined. And it was only when the disciples finally saw this, that their eyes were truly and completely opened.
This final week in the season after the Epiphany offers us two gifts. The first is to receive the glorious vision of Jesus that will sustain us through the coming discipline, self-examination and repentance of Lent. It is this vision that will remind us why we need to make the sacrifices which the season of Lent calls us to embrace and make part of our lives. The second gift of this Sunday, is to prepare our hearts for the glory that will shine, in ever-increasing brightness, through the Lenten and Holy Week journeys. We do not leave glory behind as we enter Lent. Rather, we immerse ourselves more fully in the true glory of God.
The challenge for us is whether we will slow down enough to allow this vision of glory to capture our hearts; whether we will risk believing that life really is found by losing it; whether we will learn to see God’s glory shining in the places of deepest suffering, greatest destruction and most diabolical inhumanity on our planet; whether we will lose ourselves in this glorious truth, take the time to climb to the mountains where we, too, can be transfigured into radiant reflections of God’s love and grace, and then descend to take God’s liberating saving power into the world. If we will answer the call, we will discover that life – God’s life – truly cannot be quenched, but spreads, inexorably and irrepressibly, through the world, like the glow of the rising sun.