THE THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT
“This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mk. 9:7)
Remember the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
If you do, it dates you because it came out in the late 70’s. And yet it’s one of those movies you don’t easily forget.
If you do remember, it starred Richard Dreyfus as an average American man who becomes strangely attracted to an isolated area in the wilderness of Wyoming where he’s convinced something spectacular is about to happen. And in the last 30 minutes of this movie something truly stupendous does: a giant space ship begins to hover over this region.
In the true sense of the word, it is an “awesome” experience. Totally other. The people are almost struck dumb by it.
As I remember it anyway, it is originally experienced as terrifying. What is it? Who’s in it? What will happen to us? Are they people from another planet coming to conquer and destroy us?
Then the space ship opens and these very unique figures emerge. But what is most remarkable is that these beings that come out of the space ship are filled with light. They emanate benevolence and kindness.
The brilliant light that shines from it is so inviting, in fact, that the character played by Dreyfus risks everything – his marriage, his family, his job – and runs into the space ship. In doing so, he abandons everything he’s certain of for what he knows nothing about.
He’s “transfigured” by it.
This is what comes to my mind when I read this very mystical passage from Mark’s gospel about what is called “the transfiguration” of Jesus.
We know right from the beginning of this story that Luke is up to something extremely unusual. I say this because until this time in his gospel, Jesus is presented in a very human fashion – remarkable, amazing, but human.
But then, almost out of nowhere, we are told: “Jesus took Peter, John and James and went up the mountain to pray.” This is followed by Jesus’ face becoming “dazzling white such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.”
Going “up the mountain” and having a “dazzling white face” makes it clear that we have left the merely ordinary and entered into an experience that is transcendent. We have entered the realm of “the Holy.”
We are then introduced to two of the most eminent of all Old Testament heroes: Moses and Elijah. Up until this moment, Jesus’ disciples understood him and treated him like he was the equal of these great prophets of old.
But then a cloud comes over them all and a voice from the cloud says: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
What they are being clearly told is that Jesus is more than a prophet, more than a wonder worker, more than another holy person – more than even Moses and Elijah.
Jesus, we are told by this “voice,” is unique in all of human history. He transcends all those who have gone before. He is God’s Son.
This experience is followed by the disciples being told that, even though this is a profoundly other-worldly moment, they are not to set up tents to worship him. They’re told not to try to establish a monument in this place that can easily be wowed over and then dismissed. Or to put it another way, they’re not to make it into another holy place to visit so that people can take pictures to show on Facebook. Something much more important is at stake.
It’s at this point in the story that things begin to turn dark: “a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.”
They are entering into the Holy. The cloud recalls the one that engulfed Moses on the mountain. It represents the presence of God.
Then out of the cloud comes the only directive that the voice from heaven gives. Notice that it is not “worship him.“ It is not “adore him.” It is not even “praise him.” Instead, it is a much more intimate and relationship-oriented command:
“Listen to him.”
This is what Jesus consistently says to his disciples: “Hear me.“ “Follow me.” St. Paul in the second reading we heard today put it this way: be “imitators” of him.
What Jesus wants from his disciples is not to freeze this moment in time. Instead he urges them – and us – to make it come consistently alive by the way we allow it to transform our hearts, to bring about a Spirit transplant.
Like the movie Close Encounters, what we also gladly and gratefully experience is that the Holy, the voice from the heavens, the Father who fully embraces His Son in utter love and unspeakable intimacy is benign, is filled with goodness.
The universe is safe.
Yes, there will be terrible sorrows and considerable pain that we will all have to endure. Yes, there will be clouds of darkness that we all have to enter. But we now can trust that in the end all will be well.
We even get to use the same intimate, personal, supremely daring word in addressing God that no one before Jesus ever risked saying: Abba, dear Father.
But, as the ads say, there’s more.
The Voice from the heavens isn’t just telling us Jesus is His Son. The Voice is in effect telling us that we are all beloved beyond measure, that we are all God’s sons and daughters.
In response to this kind of intimate relationship, what the Voice asks is that we imitate Jesus’ approach to the Father by following his way of being in relationship – the way of peace instead of domination, the way of compassion rather than judgment, the way of generosity instead of greed.
Remember how the character Dreyfus played in the movie became so passionately desirous of the benevolence and kindness he witnessed that he forsook all and went running to the light?
That’s the kind of response the Father is calling us to when he says in today’s gospel: “listen to him.”
Listen. And then follow.
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.