Stanley S. Harakas is a former professor of theology at Holy Cross Creek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. His most recent book is a collection of biblical reflections, Of Life and Salvation (Light & Life Publishing).
This article appeared in the Christian Century, Feb. 5-12, 1997, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
We must learn to see adversity as a sign pointing us toward the fullness of communion.
Lent leads to a set of powerful and paradoxical realities manifested in Holy Week and the paschal event: death and life, defeat and victory, crucifixion and resurrection. Chapters eight and nine of Mark set the tone for the Lenten journey and mirror its conclusion by inextricably binding together two dimensions of salvation: suffering in abandonment by God and fellow humans, and the fulfilling communion with God and fellow worshipers.
In the first passage Jesus tells his disciples what will happen to him: "The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again."
This is not what the disciples wanted to hear. Mark says that Peter, their spokesman. "took him, and rebuked him." We can imagine the strong, muscle-hardened Peter grabbing Jesus by the shoulders. "What are you talking about! You are a king; you’re the Master. You make miracles happen! You have power! Say it isn’t so!"
Jesus sees this as an important teaching moment. The disciples had to understand the absolute defeat of the cross or they would never understand the absolute victory of the empty tomb. "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus challenges Peter. "For you are not on the side of God, but of men."
The first part of this reading asserts the absolute requirement of the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. There are many theological interpretations of the atonement, but Christian sources consistently affirm the centrality of the death of Jesus on the cross. His suffering will redeem all of humanity.
That is what makes the second reading from Mark so striking. In this description of the transfiguration, the holy transcendence and victorious divinity of the Christ are exalted and proclaimed.
In the Orthodox Church, the set of matin hymns known as the Transfiguration Katabasiai take as their subject matter a series of Old Testament victories manifesting divine power. The first ode celebrates the release of the Israelites from Babylon:
The choirs of Israel passed dry-shod across the Red Sea and the watery deep; and beholding the riders and captains of the enemy swallowed by the waters, they cried out for joy: Let us sing unto our God, for he has been glorified.
The attitude of the disciples at the transfiguration differs radically from their reaction to the foretelling of the crucifixion. Now Peter is positive and affirming. "Master, it is well that we are here." He proposes the erection of three booths as shrines for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. The Transfiguration Katabasiai includes this Magnificat:
Magnify, 0 my soul, the Lord who was transfigured on Tabor. The disciples, struck with fear and illuminated with the sudden stream of light; looked at one another and fell face downwards upon the ground, worshipping thee the Master of all.
In Mark we are confronted by both suffering and exaltation, defeat and victory, weakness and power, death and life in its fullness. Peter articulates the all-too-human responses On the one hand he refuses to accept the suffering, defeat and death; on the other, he readily expresses the desire to stay where the exaltation, victory and manifestation of full life are revealed. There is no endorsement of the request to set up permanent shrines. Instead the disciples come back down the mountain to ordinary, common life and are charged to "tell no one."
Each event informs the other as a Lenten message. Lent is the time when we struggle to accept an unpalatable truth: growth toward victorious living comes through trial and sacrifice. There is no resurrection without the cross.
If we are to live Lent as intended, we must learn to see and experience, in every adversity and every form of suffering, a redemptive, sign pointing to growth toward godliness and the fullness of communion with the Source of Life. In turn, every experience of the divine power in worship and empirical event sends us back to the weakness and defeat and suffering of a world still awaiting its participation in .the victory of the transfigured and resurrected Lord.
The first truth accepts the redemptive power of suffering in our own lives; the second truth commands a loving response to alleviate the suffering of others. As we are told in Hebrews, Jesus made "salvation perfect through suffering" (Heb. 2:10).
Luke’s account of the same logion (9:22) is followed not by the story of the transfiguration, but by a personal challenge -- perhaps the ultimate Lenten challenge:
And he said to all, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it."