Mark 9: 2–10
Today’s gospel brings us a story about the illumination of Jesus on a mountaintop in the presence of his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John. Tradition tells us that this mountaintop was Mount Tabor. However, the name of the mountain is not given in any account of the Transfiguration and so we are invited to ponder the symbolic significance of this major event in the ministry of Jesus.
The illumination of Jesus has traditionally been interpreted as a light from heaven to show divine approval of his mission after he has just announced to his disciples that “the Son of Man must suffer greatly” (Mark 8: 31). This creates a problem, however, because only three of the disciples are present and future developments do not show that they were reassured. It is far more likely that the light is coming from within Jesus as his face glows in a full awareness of the surprising nature of the mission that his heavenly Father has assigned to him.
Jesus certainly must have wondered about a mission that would result in his becoming a political Messiah, bringing violence and war, as his disciples and the crowds expected. Now he sees clearly that his mission of salvation is through loving and ultimately dying for others. His illumination, therefore, would be an ecstatic moment of discovery. And that is why Moses and Elijah join him there, for they too have experienced God’s revelation on a mountaintop!
In this moment of mystical experience, Jesus also hears a voice from heaven, which repeats the words heard at baptism but then adds, “Listen to him” (Mark 9: 7). This suggests that he is now prepared to share the ultimate wisdom of God, namely, that loving and sacrificing are the only way to conquer sin and death … and thus to enter into resurrection glory.
There is something very comforting about the fact that Jesus experienced a kind of mystical illumination that was followed by his direct movement to Jerusalem and the climax of his mission as our Savior. For this reminds us that we too need to reexamine the basic orientation of our lives and to ask whether we are willing to adopt the wisdom of Jesus which counsels us to put aside the dominant quest for satisfaction and security in this life and to accept a new way of living that is marked by a desire to be of service to others.
When we realize that the words “Listen to him” are directed to each one of us, we must take very seriously the implications of such a command from God. This surely must mean that we too are expected to “visit” this mountain of the Transfiguration, where we can be “illuminated” by the sure knowledge that, when all is said and done, the most important thing that we can do in this life is to “die,” as Jesus did, because we love and care for others.
We may think that this means nothing but self-denial, but the fact is that those who seek the happiness of others more than their own satisfaction turn out to be the happiest people of all. This doesn’t mean becoming a doormat or catering to obsessive dependants, but it does mean that we are sensitive to others and truly committed to their welfare. This daily “dying” leads to ultimate resurrection life. It is also an excellent way to keep the spirit of Lent.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.