* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mark 9: Being Transfigured

The transfiguration narrative found in Mark 9:1-13 is quoted or adapted by the authors of Matthew and Luke, and it is referred to by the author of 2 Peter. While this seems to be impressive evidence for the event, we have already seen that the authors of Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a source when composing their own Jesus narratives. Also, many biblical scholars believe that the Second Epistle of Peter was written several decades after Peter's death, making it a piece of  pseudepigrapha (meaning that the actual author of the work attributed it to a famous person of the past for purposes of symbolism or, less ethically, legitimacy). Since the author of 2 Peter also refers to other New Testament texts as scripture, it is quite likely that the author had access to the Gospel of Mark and/or other gospels. So, what we have is essentially a story recorded by the author of Mark and repeated by other authors.

This idea of a person shining with divine light or being otherwise transfigured is also not unique to Christianity. In the Hebrew scriptures, Moses shone with divine radiance after his meetings with Yahweh (which would certainly be a conscious connection within the context of a first century Jewish sect), and there are clear parallels in Hinduism and Buddhism, not to mention numerous tales in Greek mythology of gods turning mortals into other things and, on occasion, elevating them to divine status. There is something about the connection between our mortal reality and the divine ideal that has found its way into the stories of many cultures, so perhaps we too can find something useful in this imagery.

Some believers are content to look at this account, conclude that Jesus was divine, and smirk or shake their head with a bit of superiority at Peter's misguided suggestion to build shelters on the mountain for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. We miss something, though, if we interpret from the story that "normal" people are somehow unworthy or incapable of tapping into what we call the divine. We all want someone to say of us, "This is my beloved, with whom I am well-pleased." Some people have such a hard time hearing that from anyone in their lives that they can only hope to hear it after they die and arrive into an eternal, sacred, supernatural existence. Sometimes, we spend our time around people who don't support and encourage us. Sometimes, we fail to listen to the voices of acceptance and encouragement that actually speak into our lives. Sometimes, we make it challenging for people to acknowledge us because we fear the vulnerability of self-disclosure. Sometimes, we decide that the acknowledgment we receive doesn't count because it doesn't come from the "right" people.

Approval from people we respect and trust is important. If we base our identity on approval from other people, though, we abdicate power that is actually our own responsibility to wield. When we are children, we are understandably emotionally immature; we rely on the adults around us to understand that we are acceptable or to understand what we need to do to become acceptable. When we grow into adults, though, some of those lessons need to change if we are to become more emotionally mature. As more emotionally mature people, our understanding of ourselves as acceptable or worthy is not based on what other people think of us; it is based on what we think of ourselves. We must be able to say to ourselves, "You are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased," if we are to hear it effectively from other people in our lives.

This means a couple of things. If we don't see ourselves as acceptable, it's important for us to figure out why. Is there something we want to do differently in our lives? Something for which we need to take personal responsibility? Or have we bought into a lie -- a false belief about who we are that isn't actually based in reality? What do we think it means to be worthy or acceptable? What would it take for us to be well-pleased with ourselves? If we can address these questions honestly, then we can take some steps toward being who we want to be in the world. Other people can serve as valuable sources of feedback as we identify the many ways in which we are acceptable, as mirrors to point out positive things that we might miss about ourselves.

On the other hand, people can also be mirrors to show us how we miss some opportunities for growth, too. Once we reach a point of determining that we are acceptable, we sometimes get the impression that we have to stalwartly defend that position. We don't. We are acceptable not because we are flawless, but because all people are, at their core, acceptable. Our behavior may not always be acceptable, but that's different. Behavior is not identity. Once we understand that we are -- by virtue of our humanity -- acceptable and worthy, we can address the criticisms of other people with honesty and care. So, our willingness to pronounce ourselves as beloved paves the way for us to hear both acknowledgment and criticism in a meaningful way, because we are not allowing ourselves to be defined by what other people see, but we are allowing what other people see to speak into our own sense of identity.

The other thing that the voice from the cloud said was, "Listen." We must learn to listen to ourselves, not the self-critical thoughts or the predictions of doom and failure that often go on inside our heads, but our deepest, most noble selves -- the self that lives in a deeper part of us than our accumulated lies and fears about ourselves. The transfiguration story is about the communion of the earthly with the divine. For many Christians, Jesus represents that intersection. Even throughout the history of the Christian church, however, there have been theologians who have suggested that the divinity within Jesus (as he is represented in the gospels) is no different from the divinity within every person. The difference, as proposed by some of these thinkers, is that Jesus knew it and accepted it.

Whatever we believe about an authentic historical Jesus, the Jesus presented to us in this transfiguration story is a model of self-acceptance, a person who understood who he was at his core and embraced that identity. He was not surprised to hear a voice from the cloud call him beloved, because he knew this about himself already. We might imagine that it was still encouraging and moving for him to hear, but the impression we are given is that Jesus knew himself and didn't spend much time on lies or fears about himself, other people, and the world.

If we accept that we likewise have some inner quality of fearless truth, undeniable beauty, and inspiring creativity, we too can embrace that identity and bring our most noble selves forward in the world. We can pay a little less attention to the false beliefs and fears we have developed over time and pay a little more attention to our deep guiding principles, our values, our visions of what the world can be and who we can be in it. We can become different people from the versions of ourselves that are wrapped up in whether other people approve of us or not. We can engage in different behaviors than the versions of ourselves that place artificial limitations on who we can be and what we can accomplish. Although we may not glow or sparkle, we can be, in a word, transfigured.

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