Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. Then they asked him, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" He said to them, "Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him."
Mark’s source for his gospel was Peter’s experience, and indeed there’s a hint of that in today’s reading. Mark writes, “He didn’t know what to say.” That has an autobiographical ring to it.
Do we know what to say? How are we to understand this or any account of the Transfiguration? As an historical event? As a symbolic story? Or as a spiritual experience?
Even in the face of less mysterious things our mental categories are limiting and provisional. How hard it is sometimes to describe some event in one’s own life. “Did it really happen, or did I only imagine it, or was it something I remember dimly from childhood, or saw on television, or heard my parents talk about…?” In real life, fact and symbol and inner experience all come together. How could anyone know what category to put the Transfiguration in?
The easiest thing to say about today’s reading is that it comes directly in Mark’s gospel, without a break, after yesterday’s and the previous day’s. Those readings were questions about the identity of Jesus. Today’s reading then is the answer. He is “the Father’s Son, the Beloved.” We can say that as easily as we say our own name, but what does it mean? We could answer from the catechism, but again what do the words mean? We are in the presence of the profoundest mystery, and our words sound painfully inadequate. Like Peter, we don’t know what to say. There is a “don’t know” that means “don’t care”, but that was not Peter’s. We can be clear and eloquent about shallow matters, but we are faced with ultimate things we have to fall silent. If we could rest in that “don’t know” we would be Christian contemplatives.
Thomas Merton wrote, “In silence the world which our words have attempted to classify, to control and even to despise (because they could not contain it) comes close to us, for silence teaches us to know reality by respecting it where words have defiled it.”
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