As most of you know, last week I was on a silent retreat at the monastery of the Society for St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA. For four days, I worshiped, prayed, and ate with the brothers and other retreatants, most of whose names I never learned because of the silence that was observed most of the time. It takes me a while to adapt to that setting but the routine of the daily office that begins with Morning Prayer at 6:00 am and ends with Compline at 8:30 pm helps me adjust to a different pace and rhythm of life, and to refocus my energy and attention on God.
On Thursday evening, as I sat in the Romanesque style chapel waiting for the beginning of Evening Prayer, the beauty of the space, the thoughts of the monks chanting, and the incense that was billowing up into the rafters made me realize what a unique place it was, and how fortunate I was to be able to spend almost a week of my time there. I thought to myself, “It is good that I am here.” For a moment, I wondered what it might be like to worship there everyday, either as a monk or as one of those few laypeople who come to almost every service. Beautiful spaces, beautiful worship that engages all of the senses can help us experience the divine and deepen our relationship with God. Such worship restores, transforms, and revives us.
In our liturgical calendar, today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany. In the church’s observance, this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a season of repentance and fasting in preparation for Holy Week, when we remember and re-live the last days of Jesus’ life, his arrest, execution and resurrection.
It is the church’s practice on this last Sunday after the Epiphany to read each year one of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration. It is an appropriate story to focus our attention on this Sunday, because it both serves as a culmination of the season of the Epiphany—a miraculous example of God being made manifest in human form, in Jesus Christ. It also looks back to earlier gospel stories, and earlier Sundays in this season, as elements echo the story of Jesus’ baptism. And it also addresses directly the fraught connection between worship and the rest of our lives.
The story’s setting is very important. It comes after Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah, and just after the first of three predictions that Jesus makes about his journey to Jerusalem, his arrest and crucifixion. Connected with each of those predictions is also a teaching of Jesus about what it means to be a disciple. And the story ends with a mention of what is to come, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the cross, but also the events that follow the crucifixion, the empty tomb, the resurrection, and appearances of the risen Christ to his disciples.
Our attention naturally goes to the spectacular events depicted here. We want to know what happened, what Jesus looked like. Mark tells us that Jesus was transfigured, that his clothes became dazzling white, whiter than any bleach could make them. We’re told too that Moses and Elijah appear on the scene; these heavenly figures, model prophets, may have been meant to show the continuity of Jesus’ teaching with the earlier biblical tradition but they were the focus of much religious speculation as well in this time period. There were hopes that Elijah might return—after all, as we read earlier, he didn’t die but traveled to heaven in a chariot of fire.
Our attention focuses on the spectacular and on questions of what happened, or did it happen, and we might overlook other important aspects of the story. There’s that voice from heaven again, just as earlier at Jesus’ baptism. But there are at least two significant differences. On this occasion, the voice addresses the disciples, not Jesus. “It says, This is my son, the Beloved” not as earlier, “You are my son, my beloved.” And there’s an addition, “Listen to him!”
Three times in Mark’s gospel we hear the declaration that Jesus is the Son of God. At his baptism, the voice from heaven speaks directly to Jesus; here, the voice from heaven addresses the disciples; at the moment of his death, the Roman centurion will make the same statement, drawing his conclusion from the way in which Jesus died. There are other voices throughout the gospel that give Jesus lofty titles. Often it is the voice of an unclean spirit or demon, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” the man with the unclean spirit cried out in the synagogue in the story we heard last week.
Just before today’s gospel reading, Peter made his great confession, “You are the Messiah!” In Mark’s account, that’s all Peter says. And here, we see Peter address Jesus as “Rabbi.” It’s important for the overall narrative arc of Mark’s gospel that this identification of Jesus as the Son of God remains hidden from Jesus’ closest followers, even if we the reader have this knowledge. Mark wants to challenge our assumptions about what it means to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God and the key to his understanding of the term only becomes clear in that last declaration by the centurion. We see the Son of God most clearly as he dies on the cross. It isn’t the miracles or power that makes Jesus God’s Son, he reveals himself and God as he dies on the cross, a victim of Roman imperial might.
All that will become more obvious in Mark’s gospel after this story, after they come down from the mountain and begin the journey to Jerusalem. That’s why the second significant difference in the words from heaven are so important: “Listen to him!” In the coming verses, Jesus will begin to explain to his disciples what it means to follow him, and will also explain to them what will happen when they get to Jerusalem.
The voice speaks to us as well as to Jesus’ disciples: “Listen to him!” A story like the Transfiguration baffles us in so many ways. It’s other worldliness, its spectacular special effects and the presence of ethereal, heavenly figures, all that makes us want to do one of two things. Either, we interpret it as evidence of Jesus’ divinity, and see him largely as a miracle worker, a super hero, someone who walks through first-century Palestine with the kind of powers that we might see in a Hollywood movie, and the only response is to kneel in reverence and awe, and expect Jesus (or God) to work in our lives like that.
Or, on the other hand, we disregard the story entirely as a figment of the imagination of first-century gospel writers and Christians, and maintain our commitment to a Jesus who was remarkable not for what he did, the miracles, or who he was, the Son of God, but because of his ethical teachings and examples, a sage like the Buddha, or some other moral exemplar.
But this story, that voice from heaven, resists our attempts to separate out Jesus’ divinity from his teachings. “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” If we confess Jesus to be the Messiah, the Christ, we confess him to be the Son of God, that has consequences. It’s a confession of our allegiance, of course, over against all the other claims on our allegiance.
But if he is the Son of God, then we must listen to him. In the coming chapters, we will learn hard things about what it means to be his disciple—that following him means following him to his end, to accompany him through his arrest and trial, and finally to his execution. That proved to be too much for the disciples that he brought with him up the mountain. Peter, James, and John, abandoned him along the way, fell asleep while he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane; Peter denied him.
The other key and difficult piece of Jesus’ teaching about discipleship was that the same fate awaited those who followed him, “Take up your cross,” he told them, and us. It’s a call that has been required of thousands of Christians over the centuries and in our day and even if it is misinterpreted and bowdlerized in contemporary America as too many Christians cry persecution as soon as someone challenges their privilege in what remains a largely Christian culture, it is a reminder to us that following Jesus means a great deal more than coming to church on Sunday every once in a while when we’ve got nothing else to do.
Lent begins this week. It’s an opportunity for us to take our religious lives, our faith more seriously for a few weeks, to explore spiritual practices like daily prayer or devotion, to commit to learning more deeply about Jesus, to delve into scripture. We have provided a number of ways that you might do this, with several Lenten devotionals on the tables in the back, the book and bible study on Jesus’ last week that we will be engaging on Tuesday nights beginning February 20. We will also offer several adult forums that introduce forms and practices of prayer and spiritual growth that some of you may find of use.
I hope that you will use this season of Lent to grow more deeply in your lives of faith, to deepen your relationship with Jesus, to Listen to him! If we do those things, our worship experience will be deepened and enriched as we deepen our commitment to Jesus and walk with him on his journey.