Texts: Mark 9:2-9 (the Transfiguration) * “Fear” by Kahil Gibran
Dreams sometimes seem to contain important messages. The difficult part is interpreting them. For example, does the appearance of a grandparent in a dream point to one’s attachment to family traditions; to a desire to move beyond those traditions; or to something quite unrelated to family?
Today’s story from Mark reads like a dream. Just six days after Jesus tells his friends that he will be betrayed, arrested, and killed, he takes three of them up a mountain where he is transformed into a figure of dazzling brightness.
Mark then says that Moses – whose biblical stories are set 1300 years before the time of Jesus – and Elijah – whose biblical stories are set 900 years before the time of Jesus – magically appear and start talking with Jesus. But just how it is possible for them to communicate, Mark doesn’t say. An analogous situation for us would be if King Arthur, whom legend says ruled Britain about 1500 years ago, and who would have spoken Anglo-Saxon, and Chaucer, a famous English poet of about 700 years ago, and who spoke Old English, were to appear among us this morning. If they tried to talk, we would not be able to understand them nor they us, unless someone had a version of Google Translate on their phone that could translate between Anglo-Saxon, Old English, and 21st Century English.
Like many dreams, Mark’s tale ends almost as soon as it begins. Moses and Elijah disappear, Jesus no longer shines like the sun, and he and his three friends descend from the mountain with a warning from Jesus to tell no one.
Peter knows about Moses and Elijah since they are two of the most prominent figures in the Hebrew Bible. Moses brings the Law of Jehovah down from a mountain in the book of Exodus and Elijah is the most powerful of the prophets. But Mark doesn’t say how it is that Peter is able to identify the two figures when they appear; and, in the face of strange details like this, I view Mark’s story as a dream.
Dream or not, the usual interpretation of it doesn’t sit well with me. Most commentators say The Transfiguration shows a continuity between Jesus and the Law and Prophets. Even though Mark does not tell us what Moses and Elijah say, they imagine that they bless Jesus in a way similar to the voice that speaks out of the cloud – “This is my Beloved, my own; listen to this One.”
In contrast, I imagine Jesus rebuking Moses and Elijah for their nationalist violence. By leaving the mountain and continuing the journey to Jerusalem without them, Jesus underscores how his Way is about neither violence nor nationalism. Unlike his namesake Jehovah, who is the tribal god of both Moses and Elijah, Jesus does not murder anyone. Instead, his death and resurrection signify that a new life of divinity and sovereignty is available to individuals and communities who leave behind old traditions and who allow a universal love to flood into their hearts.
The need to leave behind tradition applies not just to violent stories about Jehovah in the Bible but to everyone since all nations have traditions that are prejudicial or violent and which can obscure the universal Love we crave.
For me, Jesus’ death symbolizes the death of illusions in kings like David and in tribal gods like Jehovah; but the story has relevance far beyond First Century Palestine since all of us worship false idols, whether these be sports teams, or empires, or other things dear to our egos.
The death of illusions in these idols is always painful, as the story of Good Friday illustrates. But with Grace, sometimes we rise from painful disillusionment closer to the heart of the Love we call God.
The Transfiguration is not the only part of Mark I view as a dream. For me, his entire Gospel is a dream-like parable, one he wrote to help his community cope with the destruction of Jerusalem and Jehovah’s Temple.
Of course, none of this matters unless it has relevance to us today; and so I try to use the freedom revealed in the stories of Jesus to confront traditions both in the church or out of it.
To use a trivial example, consider Daylight Saving Time. Two weeks from today, on Sunday March 14, we will experience a 23-hour day, which will move us into Daylight Saving Time, just as we will experience a 25-hour Sunday in November when we move back to Standard Time. Daylight Saving was introduced as an emergency measure to preserve coal in World War I; and it has persisted ever since. Now, more than 100 years later, perhaps we could accept the freedom to cease changing our clocks twice each year.
More serious examples could include thorny social issues like mass incarceration, habitat destruction, and immigration. Policies about these issues based on traditional attitudes might once have made sense; but in today’s era of crises and new opportunities, it may be time to try something new.
Mark wrote his Gospel in a moment of intense social dislocation, which is probably why it speaks so strongly to me. Like Mark’s Jewish community at the end of the First Century living outside of Jerusalem after the city’s destruction, we are a Christian community living with radical change and crisis in 21st Century Canada.
In such radical times, clinging to old traditions sometimes interferes with our ability to act with compassion, kindness, and solidarity. So I pray that in reflecting on the fearlessness of Jesus we might gain courage to change with changing times.
I appreciate how Kahil Gibran puts it in the poem that John read this morning: “The river needs to take the risk of entering the ocean because only then will fear disappear, because that’s where the river will know it’s not about disappearing into the ocean, but of becoming the ocean.”
The people for whom Mark wrote may have been afraid to leave old traditions behind; but the destruction of Jerusalem and Jehovah’s Temple forced them to try. Jesus may have turned his back on Moses and Elijah, but those in communities that honoured the stories about them and who also accepted the Grace revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus were able to flow like a river into an ocean of love.
This Lent as we imaginatively walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, may we accept the freedom to to leave behind some of our traditions; and with Grace, may this reveal a new heaven and earth in which the Tree of Life blooms and where a fountain of living water once again runs through the Holy City.
May it be so. Amen.