Thoughts I shared today with friends gathered to worship at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley.
Our gospel reading today (Mark 9:2-10) shows us Jesus transfigured, talking with the prophets Elijah and Moses, that is, a prophet of Spirit and a prophet of Law. Today, many Christians, especially the Roman Catholics currently running for public office, present their faith as Law and little else. I hardly hear in them the voice of Moses the meek and humble lawgiver; much less do I hear Elijah, who communes with Spirit as a still, small voice. So for now, let us forget today’s tornado of words and share the quiet of Elijah at the mouth of his cave, as we prepare to celebrate this second Sunday of Lent.
Sunday readings go through three-year cycles, as we all know, and 2012 is the year of Mark. Since all three of what are called the “synoptic gospels” contain stories about Jesus’ being tempted in the desert and his transfiguration on a mountain in Galilee, these stories give us the gospel readings for the first two Sundays in Lent.
But these stories are told differently in the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. With regard to the transfiguration, none of these evangelists was present at the original event, and even if they got the story from one or more of those present — Peter, James, and John — the memories of the three apostles must have evolved over time. So the story of the transfiguration of Jesus cannot be experienced by us directly, but only through those who handed down these memoirs of the apostles. Of course, we can experience directly our own transfiguration, and that is why we listen to the gospel.
When we listen, we hear not only the stories Mark hands down to us but also his global sense of what the gospel, the good news of Jesus, ultimately means. Mark’s meaning is conveyed especially through two recurring themes: that of Jesus as Son of God and that of his messianic secret. We often hear Jesus order people not to tell anyone about what he did: whether about his healing miracles or, in today’s reading, his transfiguration: “Jesus ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
The purpose of this secret was not to make the event of Jesus mysterious, an arcane revelation for a select few, a spiritual elite. This kind of elitism was very attractive to people of Jesus’ time, as it is today, but instead, Jesus came to bring the good news to everyone, even the most simple, ordinary people, and not just to spiritual sophisticates or to the learned scribes.
Mark’s meaning focuses on the revelation of Jesus as Son of God, as he says in the first verse of his gospel. All the stories tell us about a human being who mediates God to us, because he, the Son, is one of us and is like us in all things. He is not a god; he is the Son of God. His relationship to the Abba, the absolutely loving Father, is not a special privilege but a gift that is his by birth and ours by grace.
There are three revelations of the divine birth of Jesus in Mark. The first is a revelation to Jesus himself: as Jesus comes up out of the waters after his baptism in the River Jordan, he hears a voice that says, “You are my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The second is a revelation to the disciples of Jesus: on the mountain of transfiguration, a voice speaks to Peter, James, and John: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” The third revelation is given to a Roman soldier who stands by the cross of Jesus and says to himself, when Jesus has died, “This man was truly God’s Son.”
So, according to Mark, the Father speaks directly to Jesus, awakening his human mind and soul to the consciousness of being God’s Son; then a voice from the cloud of God’s hidden presence awakens the disciples to the divine voice that speaks through Jesus the beloved Son; finally the mind and soul of a pagan soldier realizes in himself who Jesus is, and the way is opened to him and to all human beings to realize divine birth by participation and grace.
The gospel according to Mark does not have a proper ending. The ending that is given in most of our Bibles was actually written by another disciple years after Mark. Many scholars think that it was supposed to be as Mark intended: the written gospel ends with the death on the cross and the empty tomb. The real conclusion is in the presence of Jesus as we come together to receive his bread and wine, which are truly his Body and Blood. And then we become him, we realize that we are truly God’s daughters and sons, and we go forth into the world with good news and a revelation that speaks to the heart and soul of every human being. This is our gift and our task, and may God help us to fulfill it.