Transfiguration of the Lord — February 14, 2021

Mark 9:2-9

In the Presbyterian liturgical year, Transfiguration Sunday marks the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

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However, it is well worth noting that our Roman Catholic friends celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6, which results in a haunting juxtaposition for August 6 also happens to be Hiroshima Remembrance Day — a day commemorating a very different kind of “transfiguration.” Seventy-five years ago, on that fateful day, the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, took off from a military base on Tinian Island and dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. I was stunned to learn of this connection, and so the last time I found myself preaching on Transfiguration Sunday, I placed Mark’s story of Jesus’ transfiguration side by side with remembrance of Hiroshima, inviting reflection on the nonviolence of Jesus and the bombing of Hiroshima. Reactions to the sermon surprised me. It seems that decades after our nation’s fateful decision to drop the first atomic bomb, some people remain divided as to whether or not it was the right thing to do. For some, emotions still run high!

As Transfiguration Sunday comes back into view, I still find myself wondering what it might mean to reflect on this biblical story in conjunction with remembrance of a very different kind of “transfiguration” that changed the course of history. In one narrative, we remember a bomb that decimated an entire city and its population with a horrifically sun-bright explosion; in the ancient narrative, Jesus appears on a mountaintop in dazzling, sun-bright whiteness before three perplexed disciples. What are we to make of this astonishing juxtaposition?

I also find myself puzzling over the fact that observance of Jesus’ transfiguration has moved around in the Christian calendar. Roman Catholics still observe the feast day on August 6, but the transfiguration story is also included in their liturgical calendar on the second Sunday of Lent. Eastern Orthodox traditions observe it on August 19. For as long as I can remember, Presbyterians have observed it on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. This movement of the story around the Christian calendar reflects, perhaps, the reality of our own meandering journeys, for which it can serve as a compass — a key point of orientation for discipleship, both backwards and forwards, as we prepare for a long journey through Lent toward Good Friday and Easter.

This year, I bring these questions to the Gospel of Mark’s version of the story in search of clues. Mark tells us that Jesus took three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, up a high mountain and was transfigured before them, appearing in the auspicious company of Moses and Elijah — great liberators in the Old Testament story who summon memories of the law and the prophets. Jesus’ clothes are described as dazzling white, “such as no cloth maker in the world could whiten them” (as Eugene Boring translates the scene in his commentary on Mark), another symbolic reference, but one that looks forward, anticipating the glory of resurrection. In Mark’s story, the transfiguration scene follows on the heels of a watershed moment: Jesus’ first prediction of his death and resurrection (8:31). Thus, with this glance backward and forward, Mark links the way of Jesus – his life, death and resurrection – with the story of God’s activity in days gone by, manifest in the gift of the law and the ministries of Israel’s prophets.

Given the juxtaposition of the transfiguration story with Jesus’ first passion prediction, the way of Jesus is clearly beginning to take the shape of a cross. In fact, in the immediately preceding verses, Jesus has attempted to spell this out for his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). And to add an exclamation point to these announcements, the very voice of God breaks into the narrative (for only the second time in Mark’s story; 1:11) on the Mount of Transfiguration, speaking from a cloud: “This is my Son, my Beloved, listen to him!” In context, listening to Jesus means reckoning with cross-bearing not only as the way of Jesus, but also as the way of discipleship.

It is important that we be clear about what cross-bearing means. It is not a reference to accepting suffering in our lives (as some interpretations presume), but rather it entails naming the crosses bearing down upon our lives and upon those around us and resisting those savage forces.  As I understand it, Jesus’ teaching on taking up the cross is agitational — calling us to name and resist the many crosses in our landscapes that defy God’s will for us all. In our current landscape, those crosses surely include racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and imperial abuses of power, to name but a few — crosses that bear down upon us and others around us. When Jesus calls us to take up our cross, he is calling us to face into the tension and agitation of naming and resisting them, fully aware that consequences may come our way as a result.

In sum, in the transfiguration story, we discern that the way of God in Jesus is the way of the cross. The story functions as an epiphany — as the revelation of the nonviolent God in a very violent world. The story also anticipates the transformation of disciples into the image of God in Christ as we listen to Jesus. That transformation is not instantaneous in that moment. For us, as for the first disciples, it takes place over time as we lean into God’s future by agitating, resisting and naming the crosses we discern in our world, as we bear witness to God’s power to bring life out of death.

I appreciate the fact that Presbyterians meditate on the transfiguration story just before entering the season of Lent, for it gives us perspective for the 40-day journey ahead of us to the cross and resurrection. The story reminds us that Lent is about listening carefully to Jesus and being formed in the way of Jesus — the way of the cross, which reveals that violence is counter to the ways of God in this world. This makes it an appropriate occasion on which to commemorate also the events of August 6, 1945, which bore witness to a very different kind of power. Then head up the mountain to see Jesus transfigured before us in the company of other perplexed disciples who are in process of being formed into the image of a nonviolent God. 

This week:

  1. Does it surprise you to learn that August 6 is Hiroshima Remembrance Day and also, in the Roman Catholic calendar, the Feast of the Transfiguration? What do you make of this connection? What reflection does it prompt?
  2. If you were to preach a sermon or teach a Sunday school class on Transfiguration Sunday that considered these events in tandem, what do you think you would like to convey?
  3. What do you make of both the backward-looking and forward-looking dimensions of the transfiguration story? What do you make of the appearance of Moses and Elijah in Jesus’ company? What do you make of this scene’s anticipation of Jesus’ cross and resurrection? What do you make of the voice of God breaking into the narrative?
  4. In what ways would you say Jesus represents the way of God for you?
  5. What does cross-bearing mean for you?
  6. In what ways does the transfiguration story prepare you for a journey through Lent?

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