By Rev. J.C. Austin
I recently found out that one of my friends has never seen any of the Star Wars movies. Not a single one. Now, in the great scheme of things, that’s not a big deal. But it was interesting that, until that moment, it never occurred to me that would or even could be the case. After all, as you may have heard me say before, Star Wars was the defining cultural experience of my childhood. And aside from seeing the movies in theaters multiple times when they came out, my favorite toys as a child were 1) Star Wars action figures; and 2) LEGO, which I often built into Star Wars spaceships long before they started selling special Star Wars LEGO kits.
When my brother and I played pretend, it was often acting out Star Wars scenes or movies. So it was an odd realization that my friend would have no idea what I was talking about if I went on about any of this. How could this be? I thought I knew this person!! We’re still friends, but…that’s a lot for me to take in.
The thing is, of course, that there are always things that you don’t know about other people, and even I would have to admit that many of them are far more important things than familiarity with Star Wars. We talk a lot about how social media is particularly misleading or incomplete that way, that most people only reveal exactly what they want people to see and know about themselves, and it’s dangerous when we forget that, because despite knowing that, it’s so easy to start believing the façade that others present and to confuse it with the reality we are experiencing in our own lives. But far beyond that, even in long, close friendships, marriages, and other relationships, there is always some distance between how much we think we know about someone and how much we actually do.
In the book, Praying for Sheetrock, which tells the story of the slow social transformation of an isolated rural county on the coast of Georgia after the civil rights movement, the author recalls sitting on the small porch of one frail older couple’s simple farmhouse, sipping iced tea and listening to their stories. They had lived there all their married life together: raised a family, gone through seasons of joy and disappointment, contentment and frustration, hardship and hope. The husband mentioned that they’d been married for sixty-seven years.
“Wow,” the writer responded, “sixty-seven years? You must know each other pretty well after sixty-seven years!” But the husband sat back slowly and thought for a moment. “No,” he finally said; “you never really know another person; there’s always something more going on that you can’t see.” Then he looked at his wife, smiled a little, and looked back at the writer. “But after sixty-seven years, I’d say we’re pretty well acquainted.”
The disciples obviously haven’t had sixty-seven years with Jesus, but the quantity of time is not always the most significant thing in terms of getting to know someone. There probably has not been a great deal of time that has elapsed since Jesus called his first disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, but those disciples have seen some things, and are at least feeling acquainted with who he is and what he can do.
They have seen him teach Scripture in synagogues as “one with authority,” which was unheard of in a time in which the scribes all interpreted Scripture on the basis of great rabbis’ opinions rather than their own. They have seen him cure fevers and paralysis and blindness and withering diseases; they have seen him drive demons out of possessed people with simply a word of command; they have seen him feed thousands of people by multiplying a few loaves of bread and some fish until everyone had enough to be fully satisfied. They are reasonably well-acquainted with Jesus at this point: what he is preaching, what he is accomplishing, how people are responding to him. But they don’t truly know him, who and what he really is, and they definitely don’t know what will happen to him.
At this point, if the Gospel of Mark was a three-act screenplay, we’d be coming up on the end of the second act; this is chapter 9, and Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in chapter 11, which clearly begins the third and final act. In a classic three-act story structure, the first act establishes the main characters, their world, and the basic conflict and goal of the plot. The second act is for what is often called “rising action,” a heightened period of conflict for the main character as they continue on the journey of the plot towards the climactic action of the third act, a period that culminates in what is called the midpoint, an event that raises the stakes of the story to a “point of no return” towards the climax of the story.
So in The Wizard of Oz, for example, the first act is Dorothy going the Oz, learning about the Wizard, and setting out on the Yellow Brick Road. In the second act of rising action, she meets the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion on the road, and begins having to overcome obstacles like angry trees and the poppy field. The midpoint in The Wizard of Oz, then, is when Dorothy meets the Wizard and thinks that is the end of her story, but instead of helping her go home, he says she has to steal the Wicked Witch’s broomstick and bring it to him first, setting up the final confrontation.
So if we use this sort of structure as a metaphor for the story of Mark’s Gospel, the Transfiguration story is the midpoint. Which actually helps explain why this otherwise kind of odd story is very important to the Christian gospel, important enough to get its own special holiday on the Christian calendar right next to bigger holidays like Christmas, and Easter, and Pentecost that commemorate more obvious “plot points” in the gospel story. But here, it’s both obvious that something big is happening, and unclear at first why it’s a big deal.
The disciples are standing there on top of the mountain with Jesus when suddenly Mark tells us that “he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” However well-acquainted the disciples were with Jesus at this point, they clearly were not expecting this to happen.
And what follows is even more surprising: “And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.” So: it turns out that they did not know that Jesus would be cloaked in supernatural glory, nor able to receive a miraculous appearance of both Moses and Elijah, the representatives of the Law and Prophets, and talk to them as an equal. And if all that isn’t enough, there’s a voice from heaven that the disciples can not only hear, but which is speaking directly to them (the heavenly voice that spoke during Jesus’ baptism seems to have only been heard by him), and it says: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” Now, those are all pretty big things not to know about somebody that you thought were acquainted with! But what, exactly, is the point?
Well, part of the point is that this really does set the events of the climactic conclusion of the gospel in motion. Jesus comes down off that mountain and basically makes his way from there in a continuous journey through the Judean countryside, over the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem, and up and through the city gates on Palm Sunday to teeming crowds waving palm branches in jubilation, right up onto the cross, into the tomb, and then out again in triumphant victory through the resurrection, leaving the empty tomb behind.
But even more important than that, I think, is that this helps the disciples and us know something essential about who Jesus is and what he is doing through those important and terrible events of his week in Jerusalem that we now remember in Holy Week before Easter. Jesus is not simply a wise and authoritative teacher, or a powerful and charismatic healer, or a spectacular wonder-worker; more even than the Messiah that Peter just declared him to be when Jesus asked him, “who do you say that I am?” right before the story of the Transfiguration.
Jesus is the Beloved Son of God, on par with Elijah and Moses in terms of religious authority. Not a metaphorical son of God; the point of the transfiguration itself, the heavenly light emanating from Jesus’ body and clothing, is that he himself is divine, and thus the power he wields in his healings and other miracles is nothing less than the very power of God.
So, in a way, you could call the Transfiguration a spoiler from God that’s built right into Jesus’ story. As you may know, a spoiler is information about a key plot point, and often an unexpected one, that you learn before you’ve actually seen the movie. It’s particularly a problem in this age of social media, when people go online to discuss the events of a movie or TV show that’s just come out and reveal something crucial that you wouldn’t otherwise know, and which therefore changes your whole experience of the story.
I’m actually a little envious of my friend who hasn’t seen the Star Wars movies, because the experience of one of the great plot twists in movie history in The Empire Strikes Back is going to be brand new (don’t worry, if you haven’t seen them, either, I’m not going to spoil it!). If you already know that the hero is going to escape what seems to be certain death, for example, it robs the story of the dramatic tension, because you know the answer to the key question of “Did she survive? Is good going to win out over evil?” before you ever get to that part of the story.
That’s why, online, if people are discussing such things, they will often put something at the front of their post saying “**Spoiler Alert!!**” for whatever they are discussing, and then put the actual spoiler further down in what they’re writing, so it doesn’t actually spoil the story for those who haven’t seen it.
But the thing about knowing a spoiler is that it also means you don’t need to despair when all seems lost, because you know, truly know, that the story doesn’t end there. That’s the point, above all other points, of the Transfiguration. It is the spoiler so we can know that Jesus is God’s Beloved Son, filled with divine authority and power and glory, and not even a cross nor a tomb can keep him from victory over all that would separate us from God, even death itself. And these disciples know that before the events of Holy Week, before they ever even head out for Jerusalem in the first place.
I think that’s particularly important for us to recognize and claim and hold tight right now, because it feels like we are somewhere towards the end of the second act in the story of this pandemic, as well. There is a path to resolution that is possible and visible, with the production of the vaccines and the distribution of them underway. But there are many obstacles and conflicts still to navigate in the midst of that, and so the path is far from clear.
And in some ways, the threat of the virus is increasing even as there are signs that this latest surge of infection is finally starting to decline, with new variants developing and a sense among many that, “I’ve stayed healthy so long, I don’t want to get it now when vaccination seems almost within reach.” And all the challenges and conflicts and tragedies that arise in our lives and our communities do not go away even in a pandemic.
Other illnesses and conditions appear unexpectedly and threateningly. Relationships of all kinds fray and crack and dissolve. Longstanding griefs continue to run their course, while new ones arise and take on their own power, especially when it is so difficult to do the normal things that we would do to comfort and care for one another in a time of grief. Sometimes the gloom and the shadows seem to have more power and substance than anything else.
Which is why I think God’s spoiler alert in Christ’s Transfiguration story is something that we should not only read, but claim and embrace as good news to all, and particularly to us. Because it reminds us that we are not simply acquainted with Jesus as a helpful teacher and friend; we know him as Lord and Savior, as the wielding the dazzling light of God’s grace and love which no shadow can stand against, as the one who defeated the gloom of even death itself through love and faithfulness and undying hope.
There has never been any question about where and how the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ is resolved, even when it’s not always clear how we will get there. But get there we shall, in the undying light of Christ’s love, in the end.