Image: Orthodox Icon, The Transfiguration of Christ, by iconographer Jivko Donkov, Sofia, Bulgaria.

‘Divine Voice, Body, Cloud’

Andrew Collis
Transfiguration, Year B
Psalm 50; Mark 9:2-9

Transfiguration is about seeing differently, seeing the Christ again/anew, and there are various ways to see the gospel for today.

Little details in the story cast light on different aspects of faith. Peter, James and John are awestruck, moved to prayer, compelled to spiritual utterance, silenced, and led again in the Spirit to share hopes for healing and liberation.

On a previous Transfiguration Sunday, I noted the significance of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah – Jesus engaging two important strands of Jewish tradition: law and prophecy (the third strand would be wisdom). I gave a homily based on reflections by Garry Deverell, saying:

If you want to pray after the way of Jesus, you must do as Jesus did. Instead of addressing God directly, as many “religious” folk do, because they imagine they know already what God would say, sit down and listen to what God has already spoken in the stories and traditions of the faith. Listen to the scriptures, to the liturgy, and to the sayings of the saints and doctors of the church. For God has spoken already, and you shall find the new word by listening to the old word. You shall discover how to question God by first allowing God to question you. You shall find the answers to your questions by communing with the answers others have found by praying as you are praying.

Another time, I shared an epiphany – a moment of seeing Jesus differently – in terms of the Eucharist as a vegetarian meal, saying:

The real presence of Christ in bread and wine queries/undermines the imperial and religious treatment of animals in temple slaughterhouses or industrial sheds.

Modern secular reason in the forms of economic rationality and instrumental utilitarianism has advanced a loss of respect and care toward the earth and its creatures. It comes as something of a shock to realise we are caught up in an economy that systematically mistreats/tortures/uses animals. 

Michael Northcott of the University of Edinburgh writes: “… in the Eucharist, animals are no longer sacrificed or eaten, since sacrificial slaughter has come to an end on the cross of Christ.”

Perhaps you’ve been shocked by Jesus, a friend to the poorest, the last and the least – Jesus the champion of the colonised, the marginalised. Ernesto Cardenal writes: “It had been said that the Messiah would be a second Moses and that Elijah would come back to earth to denounce injustices as a precursor of the Messiah … In the Bible, God appears fundamentally like the God of Exodus, which is like saying the God of freedom. [This] God accompanied the people … in the shape of a cloud …”

Perhaps you’ve been dazzled by Jesus, embodiment of Sophia – a feminine wisdom, a queer wisdom, a cross-cultural wisdom. 

Process theologian Catherine Keller sees: “Far from any supersession, the cloud powwow performs Jesus’s non-separability from the ancient spirit ancestors. He enfolds his collective in a solidarity with those that came long before them; the deep repetition prepares them to face the impossibilities of their future. Of betrayal, pain, loss, abandonment – but before that and after, still before us now, still barely possible, of the gathering of a planetary movement.”

Today I notice the warning Jesus gives to disciples with respect to speaking too soon of spiritual experiences.

The “messianic secret” is a key theme in Mark. Readers/hearers are counselled to ponder the meaning of words like “Messiah”, “Christ”, “resurrection” … lest an emphasis on nonviolent confrontation be lost … lest an emphasis on unconditional hospitality be lost … lest a true striving after wisdom be undermined.

In chapter eight, Jesus speaks to his disciples for the first time about a suffering Messiah – a weak and weeping Messiah, a rejected and executed Messiah. In chapter nine, then, “it is Jesus the friend of ‘sinners’ who is transfigured and talks with Moses and Elijah. It is this Jesus who forgives his enemies and does good to those who persecute him” (Bruce Prewer).

Our text is the second of three scenes in Mark’s gospel in which Jesus is declared to be God’s Own (the first occurring after his baptism [1:11], the third on the lips of the centurion immediately after his death [15:39]). 

Each follows a description of or allusion to Jesus entering the human situation. “It is as the One who has obediently made a costly entrance into the depths of the human condition that Jesus is revealed as Messiah and [Child] of God” (Brendan Byrne SJ).

It takes time to appreciate these three scenes as pillars of Mark’s gospel. The secret is revealed over time … in contemplative mode.

Disciples are discouraged from dwelling on a peak experience, however awe-inspiring.

My thoughts are led away from the mountain, away from peak experiences in my own life, and toward something like the glory of time and space with others.

There are good secrets here. Our God has entered deeply into the pain and suffering of the world in order to set it free (10:45). The psalmist says: “We stand or fall on whether we have a grateful heart.”

I remember a woman at theological college who resisted completing a pastoral theology assignment because she felt that writing about her late husband would dishonour their marriage. She felt protective, reverential love for the person with whom she had shared her life. Her grateful heart was unwilling to engage in easy talk about him.

I didn’t really get it at the time. Maybe I can better understand it now.

Days before my father’s funeral, my heart recalled a story, a sacrament of care and forgiveness by which I understood something more of wisdom, something more of unconditional hospitality, many years after the adolescent experience.

There is wisdom in knowing when to speak, when to keep a secret, when to wait, when to speak again.

Transfiguration is about seeing differently, seeing Jesus as the Christ anew/again – a new experience of the Trinity as divine Voice, Body, Cloud – and there are various ways to see the gospel for today.

Little details in the story cast light on different aspects of faith. Peter, James and John are awestruck, moved to prayer, compelled to spiritual utterance, silenced, and led again in the Spirit to share hopes for healing and liberation. Amen.