Scripture: MARK 9:2-9
A teenage soccer player scores the game-winning goal. Her father says, “Let’s not tell Mom until she gets home from work, cause then she’ll really be able to enjoy it.” A work team crashes and burns on an important project, and one of them says, “Let’s not tell the boss until we can find a solution.” A school-child helps one of his mothers prepare a Valentine’s Day card for his other mother. And the one he’s conspiring with says, “Let’s not give it to her until after dinner, when she’ll be relaxed and ready to receive it.”
We all know what it’s like to try to find just the right moment to convey something important. It may be when to share with a child the news of an impending divorce. It may be a politician trying to find just the right moment in the news cycle to announce a candidacy. It may be a supervisor discerning the best moment to tell an employee of a significant bonus or an unwanted pay cut. There’s a right time and there’s a wrong time. And there’s an art to finding the perfect moment, the time when the news will mean the most, or when it can really be heard, or when its true significance can really be taken in.
Sometime in the course of Jesus’ ministry, when the days are stretching longer and longer and the challenges are getting harder and harder, Jesus takes three of his closest disciples on a hike up a mountain. Having, myself, done a fair amount of mountain climbing in New England and in the Alps on my sabbatical a few years ago, I have some sense of the trudging it takes to reach a summit. There’s certainly a gift in those repetitive steps through the trees and along the rock faces. But it can also be something of a slog and leave the climbers exhausted.
Well imagine reaching the end of a long climb with your leader and teacher, the leader who has just finished telling you how difficult it’s going to be to be a follower of his, the teacher who has alerted you to the burdensome cross that will, of necessity, be yours to carry (Mark 8:34). You may resent the relentless expectations, or just be bone-tired. And as you sit there fortifying yourself with some apples and raisins and nuts, suddenly this Jesus totally changes shape and becomes something you’ve never seen before. He shines like the sun. It’s “wow” time!
And while you’re totally confused by this inexplicable event, what you know at your core is that, after this moment, life will never be quite the same again. Your life will be divided into “before” and “after” this transcendent occasion. This is like the day you met your spouse, or the day your child was born, or even the day you learned of your life-altering disease. This one-of-a-kind moment is the fulcrum on which your life now turns.
So when you’re coming down the mountain, what do you want to do? You want to tell everyone you know about what’s just happened to you. You want to share the news. You want to laugh and dance and whoop and holler and celebrate. You want to text, tweet it, post it: “OMG! You won’t believe what just happened to me . . ..”
As you get to the base of the mountain, though, what does your teacher tell you? “Don’t tell anyone about what’s just happened.” “No,” we think, “that can’t be. I have to tell people about it.” But your teacher orders you: “Don’t tell a soul what you saw.” And then this: “After the [Human One] rises from the dead, [then] you’re free to talk” (9:9, The Message). There’s a right time for this news, and there’s a wrong time. And this is definitely not the right time.
If you’re Peter, James, and John, the issue here is that nobody who wasn’t there can possibly understand what happened on that mountaintop. Your friends don’t have any real context. No matter how well you describe what happened, they won’t have the foggiest idea what it means. But the truth is that neither, really, do Peter and James and John understand what’s happened. And the reason is that Jesus’ life makes sense only backward from the cross, only, in other words, in the context of his death and resurrection.
It’s really tempting—and would-be followers throughout the ages have tried to do this—to try to have a Jesus without the cross, a Jesus who is full only of wonder and possibility and marvel. As the apostle Paul puts it, the cross is a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Corinthians 1:23). That instrument of death doesn’t make sense as faith’s core. It’s tasteless and unsophisticated and idiotic. That’s what the disciples think. No God worth their salt would put all their eggs in that silly death basket.
So, over the eons, followers of Jesus have found numerous ways to steer away from the cross as the linchpin of faith. They’ve pinned their hopes on other dimensions of Jesus. We’ll honor Jesus as the supreme healer, say some: Jesus is, above all, the one who undoes our maladies, the one who fixes the ways in which our bodies and minds have betrayed us. Or, say others, the key to Jesus is that he’s the chief prayer warrior, the one who shows us what it is to place our lives in God’s hands. Or Jesus’ true identity is as is the source of all wisdom, say still others: he tells marvelous stories, he utters pithy sayings, he preaches a riveting sermon on a mountain. Or Jesus is, above all, the prophet par excellence, say yet others: what most distinguishes Jesus is that he calls for the dismantling of unjust systems, he makes attention to the widow and the orphan an inescapable byword, he joins his mother in blessing efforts to scatter the proud and humble the mighty and exalt the lowly (cf. Luke 1:46-55). For various ones of us, Jesus is primarily healer or pray-er or sage or prophet. Those are palatable roles we can latch onto.
And the indisputable truth is that Jesus is all of those things and so much more. It’s just that none of those roles and tasks is his core. None of those characteristics is who he is most centrally. What Jesus tells the disciples after their mountaintop experience is that they cannot possibly know who Jesus really is until they have witnessed and taken in his suffering and crucifixion and ultimately the transforming resurrection.
It’s understandable why we light on these other qualities of Jesus. They’re happier. They’re more positive. They make us feel good. Who doesn’t want a healer and a pray-er and a teacher and someone who points us to what society could be? Focusing on death? I don’t think so. I’m not the slightest bit interested in signing up for that.
We think we want to avoid that morbid and depressing part of Jesus, that part where he’s whipped and put on trial and hung on a cross. We may groan inwardly when Jesus tells those early followers and us that that’s the whole key to who he is. And yet, when we really take it in, I suspect we know that that’ is indeed what we most need. Thankfully, Jesus continues to bless followers with those other gifts. My physician is a marvelous healer. I’m sustained by countless pray-ers. I’ve been steeped in teachers who have reframed the world for me—people like Henri Nouwen and Rosemary Radford Ruether and Richard Rohr and Phyllis Trible. And the prophets, oh the prophets—Martin Luther King, Jr. and Amanda Gorman and William Barber and Jacqui Lewis—the people who have moved me and inspired me, the people who have shaped for so many of us a whole new way to see the world’s present and its future. These people take up the mantle of Jesus’ work in the world. We reject them, or soft-pedal them, at our own peril.
That said, though, none of that work is the core. For the conviction of Mark’s gospel is that, unless we have “endured the cross,” we cannot possibly know the deep and transforming “joy that is set before” us (Hebrews 12:2). Cross and joy go hand in hand. Death and resurrection are inseparable partners. And taken together, they hold the key to a fulfilled and peace-filled life. It’s only as we look straight at death, in other words—the death of Jesus and our own death—that we can possibly get at the richness of the life God has in store for us.
Sigmund Freud once said it’s impossible to imagine your own death. I have no doubt that’s true. If I seek to live under the illusion that I may be able to avoid death, though, I am living a deception that doesn’t allow me to live my life as fully as I might. Strange as it may sound, accepting death may be the greatest of all gifts.
Several years ago, I lay in the intensive care unit at Hillcrest Hospital, trying to turn the corner on a severe bleeding episode that ensued after a medical procedure I had had. I was hospitalized for eight days, and while I was there, Mary had a conversation with the head of the intensive care unit. As they talked, he waxed philosophical, and told Mary that that he had recently read an article by an English writer that said, “In Great Britain, we know we’re going to die. In America, they’re not quite sure.”
Until you know that I’m going to die, Jesus seems to say, and until you take in that you’re going to die, life can’t really be lived at its richest. There’s something about staring directly at the brevity and impermanence of our lives that gives unexcelled richness to these few fleeting moments we have on earth.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, about whom I’ve spoken before, is in his nineties now. And in his book i am through you so i, he talks about what it was like to grow up in Austria in the shadow of Nazi tyranny. In 1946, the year after the war has ended, Brother David and his then-girlfriend go to a production of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni in Salzburg. “The end of that opera,” he says, “brings [these] words to my mind: ‘To have death before one’s eyes at all times.’ The sentence keeps going around in my head.” And he begins to realize why. He has witnessed and experienced so much suffering during the Second World War. And he realizes why those words hit him so hard: “these past years, we young people had had death before our eyes, so close we could touch it. More of my friends were killed at the front lines than survived it. And at home, too, bombs had brought daily destruction and death. A single incautiously whispered word could mean one’s end . . .
“But despite all that, looking back, I must say that for my friends and me those terrible years of war were also years of true joy, a joy I wish never to lose. Hence the question, what gave us that joy? Suddenly, I can see the answer: We lived with such joy because we were forced to have death before our eyes constantly. Thus, we had to live in the moment—completely in the Now—and that was, in the past, the secret to our joy” (p. 46).
In the face of death, we’re invited to live entirely in the moment, in the Now, and to revel in the magical wonder of the life that has been handed to us, a gift we could not have anticipated and could not possibly have made happen on our own. This existence is simply pure gift. And one day it is going to end. And if we really take that in, this is not a moment to be wasted. Nor is 2:56 this afternoon, nor the moments we will spend chopping garlic later today, nor the moment we wake from sleep tomorrow. Knowing we’re going to die makes every moment incredibly precious. So, Jesus might say, don’t waste it in obliviousness.
The great writer Anne Lamott had a best friend named Pammy. Pammy was dying of cancer. One day the two of them went shopping, Pammy in a wheelchair, a wig covering her baldness. “We were at Macy’s,” says Lamott. “I was modeling a short dress for her that I thought my boyfriend would like. But then I asked whether it made me look big in the hips, and Pammy said, as clear and kind as a woman can be, ‘Annie? You really don’t have that kind of time’” (Traveling Mercies, p. 235). Your life is not to be frittered away in trivialities and superficial preoccupations, in other words. We don’t, any of us, have that kind of time.
It’s not just that these earthly moments are precious and not to be wasted, either. It’s more than that. When Jesus comes down the mountain and instructs the disciples not to tell anyone about what they’ve seen, he says they need to wait to tell this story “until after the Human One [has] risen from the dead” (9:9). As much as this life matters, in other words, it’s also not all there is. Jesus is saying that we come from God, and at the end, we go to God, that, to quote the apostle Paul, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (I Corinthians 15:54). Once we take that in, the mountaintop transfiguration comes clear: this is a sign of the grace of God that holds together life and death, and that makes of even death an occasion of gratitude and, dare we say it, celebration. For to God, and therefore to us, in death lies grace.
The poet Jane Kenyon frames death and grace with a contemporary and simple elegance in her poem “Let Evening Come”:
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
Once we take that in, once we really absorb it, we’re free then to tell the story of Jesus’ transfiguration—the transfiguration that tells us that, in the face of our inevitable death, every single moment is precious. The transfiguration that announces that, even when earthly life is ended, grace-filled love, the love that gives Valentine’s Day its true meaning, will still wrap us in its dear and tender arms, treasuring us as we are, and inviting us to live in, and to live out, that boundless love, now and always. So thanks be to God.