The following is a reflection on Mark 9:2-9, the transfiguration.
Recently I took a class (for continuing education) at General Seminary in NYC with the esteemed Esther de Waal. She was absolutely fabulous, in her own wonderfully eccentric way. In our first class she said that when people enter places that completely overwhelm them—such as a grand cathedral or a monumental museum—they tend to gravitate toward the various plaques and placards which dot the walls. The placards which describe this stained glass window, or that work of art.
She said that people gravitate towards those things as anchors, so that they don’t emotionally and spiritually sink into the mire.
They can’t handle the sheer weight of a soaring vault or work-after-work of Matisse, and so they find the little squares with plain writing on them as a defense mechanism to get them through the experience.
The problem is, of course, that if you spend most of your time with the little square plaques you miss out on the opportunity to truly experience something—something that, if you let it, might end up changing you in some way.
This lesson is used in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary for the last week in the Season of Epiphany. Of course, Epiphany begins on January 6th with the Magi arriving at the Christ-child after a long journey. Matthew tells us that once they were there, they were overwhelmed with joy.
I think that’s a great phrase which sums up what the Christian life looks like when it comes nearer and nearer to Christ. We are all meant to be overwhelmed with joy.
Overwhelmed at the manger. Overwhelmed at the cross (though perhaps not with joy, per se). Certainly overwhelmed at the empty tomb.
The three disciples, Peter, James, and John, are taken up the mountaintop in Mark 9, and they are indeed overwhelmed! But, not in the same way that the Magi were.
The Magi were overwhelmed in the sense that they were filled with wonder. They were awe-struck.
Peter, James, and John are overwhelmed in the sense that they are terrified.
They are so terrified/overwhelmed that they don’t know quite what to do. They don’t know what to say. Peter wants to build some tabernacles—because…that’s a…good idea…?
The transfiguration is certainly a Christological event—it says something about Jesus. Jesus is at center of it all, and even the pillars of the Hebrew Bible are there to demonstrate that.
But, it’s also a scene which says a lot about the disciples, and thereby discipleship itself. They were taken up the mountaintop, and they had their socks knocked off. AND, they were totally and completely spiritually unprepared for such an experience.
They were the tourists being ushered into Notre Dame de Paris, and forsaking the ribbed vaulting and rose window for the cardboard rectangles they couldn’t read anyway.
There’s something that separates the Magi from the inner-circle of the disciples here. And, it’s something we need to latch onto. It’s something that we need to spiritually work towards.
So that when Jesus takes us somewhere to completely blow our mind with the grandeur and grace of Almighty God, we’re ready. We’re prepared. And, we’re overwhelmed—not with fear— but with joy and wonder in all God’s works.