“Six days later.” That is a strange way to begin a reading. If you are at all curious, you are probably asking, “six days after what?” The answer, of course, is found in the previous chapter. In Mark 8, six days before our reading begins, Jesus has one of his most significant conversations with his disciples. In that conversation Jesus asks his followers “Who do people say that I am?” After spending so much time preaching, teaching, doing miracles, engaging in arguments over how best to follow God, Jesus wants to know what people make of him. The response seems to indicate that people think Jesus is a prophet. Then Jesus asks his closest followers, “Who do you think I am?” Peter quickly responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus lets Peter know that he is correct. Jesus tells his followers not to speak openly about his identity as Messiah, as the redeemer of the people of God. The reason for this becomes clear in the verses that follow. Jesus begins to explain to his followers that from this point on he is headed to Jerusalem where he will be put to death by the religious authorities and that he will rise again three days later. This is not what Peter and the others expect to hear. To their minds, being the Messiah means that Jesus will go to Jerusalem, kick out the occupying Romans, remove any corrupt religious practices, and introduce a new golden age among the people of God.
Peter confronts Jesus over this and Jesus shuts him down. Peter may have correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, but it becomes abundantly clear that Peter still has a lot to learn about what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus concludes this episode by saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” Whatever else they might have thought, following Jesus is not like joining a presidential campaign where you find a candidate, advocate for policies, and gradually convince the electorate that this person alone can fix the country.
Instead, following Jesus is more like an invitation to attend your own funeral. You can see that such an invitation might have limited appeal. You can certainly see why Jesus’ claims might raise some questions for Peter and the others. As uncomfortable as it may be, we have to acknowledge that this language of dying is deeply woven into the fabric of Christianity. What should we make of this?
I suspect most of us believe that despite whatever personas we might construct for ourselves, we are not as we want to be, we are not quite at home in ourselves. We feel that even with our abundance, we are not always spiritually healthy, or as spiritually healthy as God wants us to be. This was as true for Jesus’ contemporaries as it is for us. Jesus’ response is to invite us to come follow. The closer we follow, the more we will die.
The closer we follow the more we will come to see those things that keep us from being our true selves, from being the people God wants us to be. We will confront those ways of living that keep us from being truly at home. We will come face to face with those relationships that keep us from the love of God and from the love of others.
As these things come to light, Jesus will ask us to put them down, the Spirit will work in us to reform them and to repair them and in this way we will die a little. Of course, this is not the whole story. As these pieces of us die, fall away, get repaired, we will also take on a new life. This is the death that leads to true life. This is a demanding way to live and God understands that we cannot be constantly dying. Our lives cannot be one constant demolition site.
The church’s liturgical year is a way of taking account of this. Today is one of those hinge Sundays in our liturgical year. We wrap up the season of Epiphany and look forward to Lent. It is fitting that this Sunday’s readings always include an account of the what we call Jesus’ transfiguration, when Jesus and three of his disciples separate themselves from the crowds and spend an evening on a mountain top praying. Jesus’ appearance is transformed or trans figured. Moses and Elijah appear and God speaks from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son. I am very pleased with him. You must listen to him.”
It is a scene filled with light. It is, therefore, fitting that this passage concludes the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is that season of appearances, showings, revealings, all designed to focus our attention on Jesus, on God’s invasion of our world beginning with the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. Epiphany is the season of light. In Epiphany God provides light and calls us to look and see, see where God is, see what God is doing, see where God is leading us, see and rejoice. Epiphany is not one of those seasons of death and demolition. In Epiphany we focus on light because the light is where we find God’s love is most intense, we walk this way because in that love we are more truly ourselves, we walk in the light because where ever God is leading us God is always drawing us home. Epiphany fortifies us for Lent.
Unfortunately, this has been the most Lenten season of Epiphany I’ve ever known. Most days, the light is often dim or very hard to locate. If Epiphany has been fortifying us for Lent, I am a little worried. Lent is one of those seasons of demolition and dying. We begin on Ash Wednesday with the reminder that we are dust and will return to dust. In various ways the readings for the Sundays in Lent invite us to forms of death and demolition.
Even if you have not been able to use Epiphany as a way of fortifying yourself for Lent, there is still time to reflect on Lent in ways that will make our dying and demolition life giving. Let me offer some quick things to think about as you get ready for Ash Wednesday. Self-denial with regard to food and drink is a traditional way of dying to certain temptations during Lent. If this practice helps to develop self-discipline or leads to some new life giving way of relating to food and drink, go for it. People often take on new habits of reading and praying. These can help you put to death distorted patterns in your relationship with God and others. Finally, it can sometimes be helpful to undermine or put to death certain habits by taking on a new habit that counters the old one. Last year I was struck by how deeply I depend on the help, support, and encouragement of others to make it through each week. I was not, however, always good about sharing my gratitude for that help. Last year during Lent I decided I would write a note of gratitude each day to someone. I did not want to be grateful in the abstract. I always tried to be very specific about something that I was grateful for when I wrote to someone. For me this was the most successful Lenten discipline I’ve taken on. Knowing I would need to write a note kept me aware of things for which I was grateful. I plan to do it again this year.
All of these examples of Lenten disciplines are ways of taking the light of Christ that shines in Epiphany, climaxing in the Transfiguration, and using it to help us see through the gathering darkness that is part of Lent. This Epiphany it has been hard to store up a good supply of light. Let us pray that God will give us grace to make it through this Lent.