Last Epiphany, Yr. B
St. Mark 9.2-9; 2 Peter 1.16-21
26 February 2006
St.Joseph of Arimathea
Sometimes it’s helpful to take a moment to remember where we are in the calendar of the Church. This morning, we come to the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the penitential season of Lent, leading to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. In the current revision of the Lectionary – the list of lessons and Psalms appointed to be read Sunday by Sunday through the year – today, the last Sunday in Epiphany – we always read on of the Gospel accounts of that strange and glorious event in the life of Jesus we call “The Transfiguration.” The Transfiguration also, as most of you will know, has its own feast day, August the 6th. And so this morning we read,
After six days, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus.
Now, what was the Transfiguration? It is hard to say – in fact, when Jesus and these three disciples returned to the rest of their group, and perhaps Andrew asked his brother Peter where they had been and what had happened, I suspect Peter’s answer, leaving aside Jesus’ “gag order,” would have been something along the lines of, “I don’t know; I really can’t tell you what happened up there.”
It’s hard to say what the Transfiguration was, but we can say something about its character: it was wonderful; it was glorious; it was terrifying. Whatever it was that was going on – Jesus shining like the sun in glistening, blindingly white robes; Jesus having a conversation with long-dead saints – it was so wonderful that Peter at least did not want to leave: Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah. Peter wanted to stay, but we see a prime example of how things can be incredibly wonderful and incredibly terrifying at the same time; Mark (who was Peter’s assistant in Rome, by the way), tells us that Peter did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid.
And whatever it was, it was so wonderful that Peter was still reflecting on it, still thinking about it some thirty later when he wrote the letter we now call Second Peter, a portion of which we have read this morning. Peter himself was crucified upside down in the persecution under Nero in the mid-sixties, and in this letter he says that his death is imminent:
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the father and the voice was born to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the Holy Mountain.
Peter writes in the midst of dark times; he and his church are suffering; many have, and many more will, suffer to the point of death for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And in the midst of this suffering and persecution, Peter reflects on the Transfiguration, and he is encouraged – so much so that he speaks of the great event and then says, You will do well to pay attention to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Peter the pastor speaks to us across the centuries and says, “if you find yourself in a dark place, if times are bad, if suffering is real and death appears imminent, try this: spend some time reflecting on Christ’s Transfiguration; it helps me to do so.”
So what is it about the Transfiguration that is so encouraging? Well, a great deal, apparently, or Peter would not have commended it to our contemplation. There is the significance of Moses and Elijah’s presence. There is the significance of the Father’s words from the heavens, This is my beloved Son, and his command, Listen to him. But perhaps we can begin with the obvious. You may have noticed that our Gospel lesson begins with the words, After six days…. Well, if you did notice that, I hope the first thing that crossed your mind was, “six days after what?” After all, it is clear that Mark is connecting the Transfiguration to an event that preceded it by six days – otherwise he wouldn’t bother with the time reference. So, what happened six days before the Transfiguration? Big doings. Peter, on behalf of the other apostles and for the first time, confesses that Jesus is the Christ: Thou art the Christ. Seems like that ought to have been a happy moment, a moment of triumph, but Jesus kills the mood. As soon as Peter makes the good confession, Jesus, Mark tells us,
Began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed.
And to make matters worse, he says the same will be true of his disciples:
If anyone would come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me. For whoever will save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
In coming to grips with the suffering and brutality and death that will accompany Christ’s mission into the world, God vouchsafes to Jesus and these three disciples an experience that will see them through, an experience that will not eliminate the sufferings they are called to, but will place them in a new perspective – a perspective that will transform their experience of suffering. St. Paul gets at much this same idea when he writes to the Romans,
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.(Rom 8.18-23 ESV)
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. This fleeting glimpse of the Transfigured Christ was for these disciples a vision of the ultimate victory of Christ, of the glory that is to be revealed, a glimpse that would remain with them as they lived and died in what must have looked to anyone else like abject, utter, humiliating defeat.
I have a friend who loves to read mystery/suspense novels she checks out from the library. But because they are so, you know, suspensful, she cheats a little bit. The tension in the novels makes her so nervous, that she will turn to the end of the book and read the final chapters – and then, once she knows how things will turn out, once she knows that the tension will be resolved and the good guys will win, that there is an answer to the problem, then she can go on read the book straight through.
In the Transfiguration of Christ, God gives to three simple fishermen, and to us, what they and we need to keep living – and when the time comes, dying – straight through. He has shown them just a glimpse, as much as, perhaps a little more than, they could handle. He has let them peak at the last chapters – Christ in glory in the company of the saints. Between now and that glory lies the Cross – our own individual cross for each and every one who would follow Jesus – but on the other side of that cross is the eternal glory of the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. A glory that is shed upon the faithful who have saved their lives by losing them in Christ. A glory that, if we will ponder it like, and with, St. Peter, will transform our experience of this life. A glory that will begin to seep down into this life – even, and especially, in the midst of pain and suffering (cf. 1 Pt 4.14).
Brothers and sisters, You will do well to pay attention to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. +++