Transfigured Presence

Mark’s Gospel chapter 9 verses 2-13

Continuing our excavation of Mark’s Gospel in search of that “intensely personal, hopeful and human voice” of Jesus (see my last blog entry), we come to chapter 9 verses 1 – 8: the story known as the Transfiguration of Jesus. Powerful spiritual experiences are often scary which is why we prefer to tame them, domesticate them, if we can. According to Mark’s account, Peter wants to deal with his disorientation and fear by trying to fit what’s happening into a familiar Jewish religious celebration of his day: the Festival of Booths.

“Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” he says. Mark has the insight to record, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” The voice from the cloud says, in effect, stop prattling on and listen. We might say, suspend judgement about this experience; just stay with it and with the scary feelings it evokes in you; don’t rush to interpret it; certainly do not rationalize it to try and make it safe.

Unfortunately this is exactly what the early church started to do as we can see from the next section of the gospel. Here, in verses 9 – 13 we have Mark, writing for and from within one of those earliest Christian communities, trying to fit the Jesus experience into the religious thinking of that time. The result is a passage that is incomprehensible to modern readers unless they are biblical scholars. Do these verses about Elijah add anything to our understanding or are they another, different, form of prattling on? Well ‘prattling’ is a bit harsh but I suggest these verses are a good example of the way in which the conversations going on in the first Christian communities could drown out that elusive voice of Jesus. The miracle is that, if we listen carefully, if we tune out verses like these, we can still hear that voice, or at least echoes of it.

Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher/poet, in his 1923 classic ‘I And Thou’, reminds us that our temptation, especially during profound religious experience, is:

“to possess God; [we] desire a continuity in space and time of possession of God. [We] are not content with the inexpressible confirmation of meaning, but want to see this confirmation stretched out as something that can be continually taken up and handled….”

“To possess God”. We do like to make sense of things and that nearly always involves some form of possession. Reflecting on our experience, religious or otherwise, making sense of things, is a valuable human gift without which we could hardly survive. The New Testament writers’ reflection on their experience of Jesus preserved for us something of his message. But in doing so they were in danger of obscuring its innermost truth: Now is the only moment we have for encounter with transfiguring Presence. We cannot package it up and take it with us into the future. It can only be renewed in each succeeding Now as if we had never experienced it before.

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