Tuesday, May 5, 2015

021-The Transfiguration

Jesus is himself the new Tabernacle of divine glory.
His word and deed transcend all past revelation.[1]

Stock Photo - LVIV, UKRAINE - JUNE 06, 2012: The internal painting of the church of St. Anne, dedicated to church holidays. This image - an illustration of the Transfiguration. The author - Ivan Protsiv.That the Transfiguration event occurred is not the question—it is found in the three Synoptic gospel accounts. The question is: what is its meaning? From the reactions of the three disciples who witnessed it, Peter, James and John, they had no idea what it meant. Or if they did, they thought the kingdom had come in its full glory and Jesus’ work was over. They could build tents (or booths) and simply enjoy the glorious existence.

But that’s not what happened. The glory goes away and they must descend the mountain.

It appears that much later, as the apostles and the first Christians processed the event in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they found and gave meaning that they could relate to from the Old Testament accounts. In relating this story, Mark borrows language and imagery from Moses: from the six days of preparation preceding his ascent up Sinai; the glory, the cloud, and the voice on Sinai; Moses’ prophecy of another prophet appearing like him and “to listen to him” (Deut. 18:15).

Isaiah 52:13-15 functions as a prelude before the Suffering Servant account of Isaiah 53:1-12. In a similar manner, Mark’s second half of the gospel account includes the Transfiguration account, the assurance of Jesus’ glory, before moving fully into the Passion narratives.

The two great prophets the Jewish people were expecting as heralds of the new kingdom were Moses and Elijah. In the Transfiguration they explicitly make their appearance, but they are only seen by a select few. Everyone else does not get to see Moses and Elijah… Or do they? Jesus’ explanation of the event as they descend the mountain reveals that John the Baptist takes on the functions of Elijah, and Jesus is the new Moses. This is the new Sinai, the new Moses, and the new revelation.

And what is the new revelation? The voice commands its hearers to “listen to him.”

The exhortation has bearing upon all of Jesus' words, but has particular relevance to the new instruction Jesus had been giving to his followers concerning the necessity of his sufferings and of their participation in his humiliation. There can be no doubt that Mark intended his congregation in Rome to take this word to heart.[2]

The way to the kingdom must travel through suffering and humiliation. The disciples could not accept it, and Peter tried to rebuke Jesus, because this revelation, to their minds meant a failure of Jesus’ mission. They could also not fathom the idea that there would be time between Jesus’ resurrection and the glory that they had just seen.

What perplexed them was what this rising from the dead of the Son of Man could mean… The disciples' real question is, What have death and resurrection to do with the Son of Man? They possessed no categories by which they could distinguish between Jesus' statements concerning his resurrection and those concerning his parousia, and the relationship between these two distinct events remained obscure… The place of Jesus' passion and death, together with his resurrection, was the unexpected and incomprehensible middle term between the present and the magnificent future assured by the transfiguration. What bothered the disciples specifically, then, was the phrase "from among the dead," together with the implication that time would yet remain before the consummation for the proclamation of what they had seen.[3]

For nearly two-thousand years now, followers of Jesus have been troubled by these same questions. Why does Christianity (the kind that tries to imitate Jesus’ life and value people as he did) frequently appear weak and disrespected? Where is the power and glory of the risen Christ? Why must there be this lengthy middle period between the resurrection and the parousia? Why must we go through this period? Why must we, at times, suffer hardships and loss?

We would much rather have the miracle-working Jesus: the one who heals diseases, raises the dead, calms the storm, drives out demons, and feeds the multitudes. We’re not really that eager for the Jesus who walks into rejection, humiliation, suffering, and death. And we certainly don’t jump at the chance to follow him into that.

Jesus doesn’t provide answers to these questions: both ours and the disciples’. What Jesus offers is a mystery: both the suffering Jesus and the glorious Jesus are one and the same. This mystery is assurance that whatever we are called to face, Jesus has already walked through it, that he walks through it with us, and that what appears as failure is in fact the path to final glory.

When the Son of Man is raised from the dead, questions will arise that the story of the transfiguration will help answer. As if in response, the young man at the tomb in Mark 16:1-8 speaks for the whole community that declares, “Jesus has been raised. You will not find him in the tomb. If you want to see him, go to Galilee, even as he told you.”

Mark’s readers have no way to “go to Galilee” except to return to the beginning of the story, which begins in Galilee, and then follow Jesus through his journey. This trek takes readers through his baptism into a world where Jesus lives and behaves already as a resurrected one amid all the ills and threats that only those who already have death behind them need not fear. Jesus touches the unclean, but instead of becoming unclean, everything around him becomes clean (e.g., 5:1-43). He walks on water, and just as in Luke’s and John’s postresurrection appearance stories, disciples can look right at Jesus and not recognize him (6:47-56). Where is the risen Jesus? He remains unrecognized and at large, loose with his healing powers in a world overrun with threats against life and wholeness.[4]

[1] NICNT: Mark, 9:8.

[2] NICNT: Mark, 9:7.

[3] NICNT: Mark, 9:10.

[4] Feasting: Mark, location 9137.

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