I’m not sure if you recall the prayer which we use in our Anglican liturgy in the week following the 7th Sunday of Easter, but it says:
O God, you withdraw from our sight so you may be known by our love: help us to enter the cloud where you are hidden, and to surrender all our certainty to the darkness of faith in Jesus Christ. Amen. (A Prayer Book for Australia 1995:519)
I know this is a prayer which raises questions for some, but I wondered if the reflection on Mark’s story of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9) might lead us into this cloud where we find ourselves in the company of Peter, James and John. Mark gives us two powerful images in this story. The first is about Jesus:
And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white such as no one on earth could bleach them. (Mark 9:2-3)
And the second:
Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)
These images of dazzling light and clouded darkness clearly describe God breaking and tearing into the consciousness of Jesus’ disciples, confounding, terrifying, bewildering and silencing them.
The disciples saw Elijah and Moses with Jesus and the connections are not surprising. When Elijah is taken up into heaven it was in a whirlwind, in a chariot of fire and horses of fire, whose brightness was blinding and awe-inspiring. We are told when Moses “came down from the mountaintop, with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (Exodus 34:29)
Our encounters with God leave us shaken and changed forever. Yet on the mountaintops, Elijah discovered God was not in the great wind splitting rocks, nor in the earthquake shaking the mountain, nor in the consuming fire that followed, but “after the fire a sound of sheer silence” and then God spoke to him. (1 Kings19:12)
A sound of sheer silence is often when and how God speaks into us.
As a cloud overshadows Jesus and the disciples, the silence and the darkness of the cloud, muffles any sound, sight and awareness of all Jesus’ companions, and God speaks.
The cloud is a powerful metaphor and image to which all people of faith can probably relate. We long for visual stimulation, noise and distractions from our lives. We seek diversions and constant reassurance, always negotiating with God for something different.
Yet living the life of faith is more like travelling in a cloud. The cloud reminds us in our lives of faith, there is significantly less clarity than we might like to admit or believe.
If the mystics like the anonymous author of The Cloud of the Unknowing, or St John of the Cross are right, we should expect the experience of being overshadowed by a cloud to be the normal experience for a life of faith. The life of faith is a life of becoming increasingly at home with God’s hiddenness and mystery, as we let go our egos and surrender to God.
Six days previously as Mark reminds us, Jesus had been talking to his disciples about who those coming to listen and watch him might think he was; and then he asks the disciples:
“But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)
Their answers include Elijah, John the Baptist, or one of the prophets, but Peter answers: “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29)
In that precise moment, Jesus tells them about his coming death and resurrection. The silence and shock of those listening must have been shattering. Joy at hearing confirmation of Jesus’ identity is suddenly and completely reversed with his description of his own suffering, death and resurrection which is soon to come. ‘A sound of sheer silence’.
Our silence at unexpected news, whether good news or bad news, is profound.
It’s not surprising then, Jesus’ transfiguration continues this same message, awesome revelation and stumbling words, followed by stunned silence. The command from God is not to see or speak, but to listen. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” (9:7) Surely this is a reminder to Peter of the words spoken by Jesus six days earlier, when Peter tried to deny and reject the need for Jesus’ suffering and death.
Elijah and Moses, representatives of the Law and the Prophets on the mountaintop anticipate the great revelation of God in the darkness and silence of Golgotha. The powerful visual imagery of Jesus’ dazzling white clothes, Moses and Elijah seen with Jesus, the overshadowing cloud, and then the command from God, not to see but to listen.
God’s command to listen points back to what they have already heard and what Jesus will tell them again: the prediction of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. The difficult teaching on the need for suffering and taking up the cross bears down on his disciples. Was this mountaintop experience simply a dream? Is it all too much to hear? Silence is truly welcomed.
The transfiguration continues to remind us suffering and glory are both essential aspects of Jesus’ identity and mission.
Jesus is both the Son of God, a powerful healer and full of dazzling glory, and the Son of Man, who is betrayed by his disciples and crucified by the desire of humankind whom he loved, to death.
Yet the disciples like us, continue to think they can have the glory they can see without the message they must hear. But the two cannot be separated.
As we think about our own lives of faith, it does mean taking the longer path, often a hard and painful one, a journey we travel in the hope of encountering God’s glory and sharing in it. But we live in a world which believes in the snatch and grab culture. We want immediate satisfaction and our desires to be met without counting the cost. We live in selfish, consuming times.
As we journey with Christ to the cross, along the way there are times when we would give anything for a shorter route, to be able to take the bus around the weariness of grief, or the radiation treatments, or the couples counselling, or the mental illness, or the death sentence, or the 12-step meetings or the unemployment line. We just wish there were a way to skip ahead, to show up at the ending in an easier way. Yet it doesn’t happen like this and not because of lack of faith or because God is absent.
When Jesus appeared in his glory on the mountaintop, he stood with Moses and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets. Tradition says they did not die, God raised them up to heaven before they ever experienced death. Yet Jesus, greater than these, the very Son of God, took the longer path, the one which sent him through a garden of agony, and only then, to the cross.
The disciples, stand with you and I, lingering on the mountaintop, hoping for an easier way. We forget even though we glimpse God’s glory on the mountaintop, God’s glory is revealed in the long and painful journey. This is the mystery of God’s glory. God chooses to be made known not only on the mountaintops but also in the valley of the shadow of death.
What did Paul say?
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor. 4:8-12)
The Lord be with you.