2 Kings 2:1-12 Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes an
Psalm 50:1-6 The mighty one, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him. He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people: “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge. Selah
2 Corinthians 4:3-6 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Mark 9:2-9 Six 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, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then 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.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As 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.
A middle-aged woman has a heart attack and is taken to the hospital. While on the operating table she has a near-death experience. During that experience she sees God and asks if this is it. God says No, and explains that she has another 30-40 years to live.
Upon her recovery she decides to just stay in the hospital and have a face lift, liposuction, breast augmentation, and a tummy tuck. She even has someone come in and change her hair colour. She figures that since she’s got another 30 or 40 years she might as well make the most of it.
She walks out the hospital after the last operation and is killed by an ambulance speeding up to the hospital.
So she arrives in front of God again and asks, “I thought you said I had another 30-40 years?” God replies, “Sorry, I didn’t recognize you!”
Just ignore the terrible theology of that story, because the point I want to make is that in today’s Gospel Jesus undergoes a transformation and suddenly his disciples DO recognize who he really is. Today’s scriptures raise themes of being confronted by another realm, another level of being, yet tending to be quite oblivious, even blind to it. Today’s Gospel of the Transfiguration has Jesus taking some of the disciples with him up a mountain, disciples who, in the previous chapter, are portrayed as being quite clueless about his true purpose. It suggests that because they did not have an adequate sense of who Jesus was, they were unable to really commit to following him. On the mountaintop, they see something which virtually blows their minds, and they too are transformed.
One of my favourite sayings is: “Prayer without action is hypocrisy; action without prayer is presumption.” Once again we see the pattern of spirituality Mark reveals to us: of the necessity of stepping back from all the activity and demands of everyday life, not to escape, but to reconnect with something vital within ourselves, because it is so easy to lose our focus in the frenzied pace of everyday life. Mark’s Gospel strikes me as a dynamic tension, a push and pull, between the active and the contemplative, a constant interplay between outer engagement and inner awareness; it is the dynamic between ministry and the spiritual life.
Mark’s Gospel suggests that the ministry of Jesus reached a certain high point, a critical moment, when the disciples began to get a real sense of who he was. Symbolically, this high point/revelation takes place on a mountain, which echoes Jewish spiritual history. The parallels between this moment, and Moses connecting with God on Sinai, are striking, and no doubt intentional. The Transfiguration is the ultimate “mountain-top experience,” and it provides confirmation of Messianic hopes.
Moses and Elijah are certainly intended to be representative or symbolic figures, Moses representing Jewish Law and covenant, Elijah representing the authority of the prophetic and the spiritual. These two were expected to return as signs of the dawning of God’s kingdom. Their presence is meant to testify to the true greatness of Jesus in the scheme of things: as the culmination of God’s purposes for the chosen people, and a sign that the old is passing away and a new age is beginning.
What does this have to do with us? Marcus Borg’s book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time describes Jesus as someone we think we know but often don’t. I think he’s right — that many in our time have only a token understanding of who Jesus is, they haven’t even scratched the surface, partly because there is so much cultural (and religious) baggage around him. But if Jesus IS, as the New Testament proclaims he is, the revelation of God in human form, the vehicle for our redemption and a reliable way into eternal life, then it might be good to pay attention. If their witness is in any way truthful, then surely Jesus deserves a closer look – a re-introduction, as it were.
The Gospel points to the necessity and possibility of connecting with the authentic Christ – not just the conventional, static, stained glass window, Sunday School version. Borg describes the Christian life as a “journey of transformation.” We owe it to ourselves as Christians, and we owe it to God, as we would owe it to anyone with whom we are in relationship, to seek a deeper and more intimate encounter and a deeper awareness of what that person is truly about. That is the kind of opportunity created for the disciples on the mountain – a moment to step aside and take another look.
Are we open to seeing things in a new way? When we look at a story like this, it can be easy to say that it is highly symbolic (which it is), and then disregard whether there was anything in the original event that we might consider “real,” or true, or that might apply directly to our own spiritual journey. According to certain ways of looking at life, the Transfiguration seems incomprehensible, beyond belief. But listen to some things said by other people about their own moments of awakening:
“Suddenly every object in my field of vision took on a curious and intense kind of existence of its own … every object … appeared exceedingly beautiful … all things seemed to glow with a light that came from within them . . . I experienced a complete certainty that at that moment I saw things as they really were, and I was filled with grief at the realization of … human beings living continuously in the midst of all this without being aware of it.”
Another said, “Everything around me had come to life in some wondrous way and was lit from within with a moving, living radiance … everything was literally alive, the light was living, pulsating, and in some way I could not grasp, intelligent. The true substance of all I could see was this living light, beautiful beyond words.” “The sheer joy I experienced in all this is beyond description … nothing less than bliss. And this was reality. That is the whole point. The feelings and thoughts we usually have are not real by comparison with this new condition of being into which I had moved.”
“I saw all the usual things in a miraculous new light.”
Things glowing, seen in a new light, and a feeling of deeper meaning – it all sounds remarkably similar to what Mark describes as happening to the disciples. There is not a sense that they were seeing something unreal – an illusion, or that this was a mental breakdown – it was like they were seeing things as they truly are, for the first time. These aren’t descriptions by some ancient monk or guru – remote mountaintop ascetical experiences – not specialists who have been meditating in a cave for 20 years. They are descriptions by several very ordinary 20th Century people describing a mystical experience (as quoted in Death of a Hero, Birth of the Soul, by John C. Robinson, Ph.D).
Mystical and ecstatic vision is by no means restricted to the 1st Century, or to the pre-scientific era. According to a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, 43 percent of adult Americans said they had some type of mystical experience. British polls published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, indicated 56 percent of churchgoers claimed they had such an experience. People today are looking for an integration between logic and faith, science and speculation, certainty and spontaneity.
What we see in this account of the Transfiguration is true on a variety of levels. I have had similar moments – moments of awe and wonder – moments when the universe seemed to open up with possibility and purpose and meaning – moments when my own place in it seemed both impossibly small yet also important – moments when I was sure of the reality and presence of God. According to statistics, most people have had an experience like that and yet most people keep it to themselves, afraid to share it. We are experiencing things on a deeper level; we are just not encouraged to be conscious of it. Did Jesus magically change (and start glowing, etc.), or did the disciples suddenly become open to and aware of what he was really like all along? Such encounters, when we allow them to break through, are inspirational, and very motivational – that much is obvious in Peter’s excited reaction, and by the disciples’ sudden willingness to follow Jesus in his painful journey toward the Cross.
Another of the themes of Mark’s Gospel is the healing of blindness – symbolic of the need for healing of our spiritual perception. In today’s Gospel, it’s like he’s trying to say: Don’t just look in one direction or persist in one outlook. According to Mark, prior to the Transfiguration, the disciples didn’t really see Jesus at all. For the disciples, the act of going up the mountain suggests a shift in perspective, creating an opportunity for a new vision to emerge. What might you do in your life to create a similar opportunity to see things in a fresh light?
Seeing Jesus in a new light in turn leads us toward seeing each other and all of creation in a new light. The Gospel today urges us to open the eyes of our hearts to the light of the world, which is often right in front of us, but obscured by our limited perspective. It urges us to see what is really in people, to look deeper than the surface, not to take them for granted or to dismiss them, and to believe that somewhere in them the image of God is shining, however they may have obscured or disguised it.
Like the woman I described in the story with which I began, it is important to seize the moment, and not assume we have unlimited time and opportunity. The only time we can really count on is NOW, and all spiritual traditions urge us to use that time wisely. Today’s Gospel suggests there are critical moments, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, when it’s important to take your spirituality to a higher level, to risk engaging it more fully. Peter, James and John are described as being ready, and open to that moment. In Mark’s presentation of the Gospel, this is the moment which enabled/empowered the disciples to become agents of transformation, representatives of the Kingdom. I pray that each of you may be open to encountering your own transfiguration moment.