An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B, Mark 9:2-10, February 4, 2012
WHEN WE ARE with people we admire, it is our wish that we could remain with them longer than is possible. A very close encounter with the Benedict XVI, President Barak Obama, or someone like Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Rudolf Bultmann is such an example. But we know that such an encounter is too brief. That is why we take pains that in events like that, pictures are taken to capture those moments. Pictures are useful not simply to recall the event, but also to allow us to relive the experience. Human nature is such that we wish to eternalize our present happy experiences.
Those of us who understand this will easily sympathize with Peter in the Gospel today. It may be recalled that in Mark, from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 1:14) until the episode in Caesarea Philippi where Jesus asked the disciples who he was (Mark 8:27-29), nobody seemed to know the mystery of Jesus. Even Peter who described him the Messiah (Mark 8:30) seemed ignorant of the title he gave him. He could not understand a crucified Messiah (Mark 8:31-32). But in today’s Gospel (Mark 9:2-10), Peter had a glimpse of the mystery that shrouded Jesus. He was overwhelmed with awe by what he saw—a transfigured Jesus--and he wanted to eternalize his experience. So he said, “Rabbi, how good it is for us to be here! Let us erect three booths on this site, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:5).
But there is more to this. When he saw Jesus, Peter recognized that his Master acquired a new kind of life which the Jewish people have been longing for. That life is symbolized by the white garment—“his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than the work of any bleacher could make them” (Mark 9:3)—which is a symbol of the life of resurrection (Rev 3:4; 7:9). Because that has dawned on Jesus, Peter seemed to think that the new age has dawned for all. For this reason, he offered to build three tents as a way of saying that he wanted Jesus to anticipate the future when God will dwell with men. This object of hope is echoed by Paul: “Indeed, we know that when the earthly tent in which we dwell is destroyed we have a dwelling provided for us by God, a dwelling in the heavens, not made by hands but to last forever. We groan while we are here, even as we yearn tgo have our heavenly habitation envelop us”(2 Cor 5:1-3; see also Rev 21:1-3).
But God did not allow Peter to eternalize his peak experience at the mountain: it was not yet the parousia, but simply its foretaste. Thus, speaking from the clouds, he said to the disciples, including Peter of course, that they have to listen to Jesus (Mark 9:7). And what words of Jesus they are to listen to? In Mark’s theology, it is this: “If a man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and follow me. Whoever would preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will preserve it. What profit does a man show who gains the whole world and destroys himself in the process? What can a man offer in exchange for his life? If anyone in this faithless and corrupt age is ashamed of me and my doctrine, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes with the holy angels in his glory… I assure you, among those standing here there are some who will not taste death until they see the reign of God established in his Father’s glory” (Mark 8:34-9:1). But in listening to Jesus, we have to do so like Abraham, who gave up human assurance (Gen 22:1-2) because we can rest assured in God (Rom 8:38-39).
What assurance? It is that if we wish that God dwell with us, if we wish to be dressed in white, then we have to follow Jesus in his suffering (Mark 8:34-35). The sharing and the eternalizing of Peter’s experience at the mountain is given to those who deny their very self, and take up their cross. Indeed, if we do, we will not even taste death, and we shall attain that experience even here on earth (Mark 9:11).
In view of this, and in the light of the transfiguration of Jesus, the sufferings and failures in our life with Jesus are thus given a new perspective. If we suffer and fail with him, we do not experience simply bad moments that we could have avoided all the better. No, they are rather part and parcel of Christian life, of discipleship. They are, so to speak, constitutive elements of the experience of God’s glory (1 Pet 4:14). In our sufferings and failures for and in Christ, God is already pitching his tent among us, and we are already wearing the white garment, even as Jesus himself was recognized as the Messiah as he hung on the cross (Mark 15:39).