Sunday, February 26, 2006

Suffering Transfigured

As they were coming down the mountain, [Jesus] ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the [Human One] had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. Amen. Mark 9:9-10

Have you ever wondered what this rising from the dead could mean? Peter, James, and John did. The mystery of death and resurrection is at the very heart of Christian faith. But it isn’t easy to get our heads around it.

Perhaps that is the problem. It isn’t something we can get our heads around. It isn’t an idea to be grasped intellectually. It is an experience to be lived.

This seems to me to be the point of the story of the transfiguration in Mark’s Gospel. It is a peculiar story that comes at an odd place in Mark’s narrative and is retold at an odd time in the cycle of the liturgical year.

The Transfiguration is essentially a Resurrection appearance story. But why would Mark place such a story before the account of the crucifixion? Why does the Church retell this story just before Lent, the season that precedes Easter?

It is sort of a tease – dangling in our face this vision of humanity transformed just as we enter that part of the story where we must squarely face the reality of human suffering and death. But it is also a hopeful reminder – “This is my Son, the Beloved” – recalling Jesus’ identity, our true identity as objects of God’s undying love even in the face of suffering and death.

Mark is trying to underscore an important truth that Jesus exemplified for us in the pattern of his life, death, and resurrection. The truth is that resurrection can’t be experienced apart from the crucible of our encounter with suffering.

The meaning, beauty, and dignity of human life cannot be realized unless we actually live it. And to live as a human being requires us to acknowledge real pain and suffering. We are tempted to avoid it, deny it, or suppress it, while marginalizing those who come to represent suffering for us.

That is the temptation that Peter, James, and John encounter on the mountaintop with Jesus. They see Jesus transfigured, revealing the glory of the divine welling up from the depths of his humanity. And it is terrifying.

It was terrifying, I think, because it revealed the distance between humanity as it can be and humanity as it is too often lived. Peter, James, and John saw the chasm between the dignity of every human being and the life that most human beings must endure. It was too much for them.

So they try to retreat into the protective shelter of religiosity. Peter proposes to build a shrine and stay up on the mountain. It is all too easy to use the form of religion as a barrier between us and our suffering: not to mention its use to shield us from the suffering of others.

Isn’t that what so many false prophets of Christianity propose these days? “Believe in Jesus and you will have long life, prosperity, and a submissive wife.” “Say this prayer, send us a check for $50, and you will be healed.” “And, oh, by the way, if it doesn’t work out – it’s your fault.”

Christian faith is not a prophylactic to prevent suffering. It is an encounter with the Risen Lord that exposes the reality of suffering and places under judgment our complicity in our own suffering and that of others. Yet this judgment is not rendered in order to condemn us, but to set us free to become fully human.

Jesus does not allow Peter, James and John the luxury of false religion. They must learn what it means to be God’s beloved children, to experience the reality of their true identity, by trudging back down the mountain and heading with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the Cross.

True religion is discovered in the living of life on life’s terms, in our learning how to respond to suffering with compassion for ourselves and for others. This is why Jesus sternly tells the disciples not to speak of what they saw on the mountain. Human beings can only experience resurrection for themselves as they learn to come to grips with suffering and death.

Peter, James, and John will have to undergo the dying and rising with Jesus that each of us also must share. They will have to refuse the false piety of a religion of success, and instead walk the way of the Cross. The path to becoming fully human must pass through suffering.

The purpose of worship, contemplative prayer, and participation in the sacraments of the Church is not to escape from this truth. Their purpose is to draw us more deeply into engagement with life rather than avoiding it. These practices cultivate an awareness of life as it is, and give us the courage to live with this awareness by reminding us that we are all God’s beloved children.

Suffering, like life itself, cannot be explained. It just is. Jesus calls us to engage life as it is, to draw upon the depths of God’s love to become agents of healing and reconciliation. We experience transfiguration by having the courage to embrace the deep pattern of death and resurrection, to offer our own lives in service to that sacrificial love that gives life. That is how we realize our dignity and meaning as human beings.

God loves us into discovering our identity in this pattern of dying and rising, dying to our denial of life and rising into acknowledgement of its suffering and its joy. God wishes us to embrace life and its joys, but we cannot do so if we refuse to acknowledge and heal the suffering that comes along with it.

Christopher Evans recently called my attention to a poem that captures much of what I am trying to communicate about the mystery of death and resurrection, but with a good deal more soul and style. So let me conclude this morning with a reading from the prophet Maya Angelou:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.


[1] Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise,” And Still I Rise (New York: Random House, Inc., 1978), 209.

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