Transfiguration Sunday (Year B)
TEXT: Mark 9:2-9
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. (Mark 9:9)
I love YouTube! That’s where I found a documentary on the Greenbrier Bunker, which is a once-top-secret underground shelter, designed to house members of Congress and their staffs during and after nuclear attack. Located 700 feet below the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the 112,544-square-foot bunker (codenamed “Project Greek Island”) was an emergency relocation centre designed to house the United States Congress in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.
The bunker—which was really more like an underground city—was completed in 1962, and could house 800 people. For the next 30 years, owners of the Greenbrier resort maintained an agreement with the American government that, in the event of an international crisis, the entire property would be conveyed to government use, specifically as the emergency location for the legislative branch.
The bunker was only decommissioned in 1992, after a Washington Post article disclosed its existence. It was presumably replaced by another facility—perhaps at Red Rock Mountain in Pennsylvania or Mount Weather in Virginia (although the mere fact we know about these two installations makes me … well, suspicious).
At any rate, if you visit the Greenbrier resort today, you can go on a guided tour of the underground facility, and I imagine it would be an interesting way to spend a few hours.
The bunker is an amazing place. According to the documentary, it contained a dormitory, kitchen, hospital, and a broadcast centre for members of Congress. The television studio had changeable seasonal backdrops to appear as if members of Congress were broadcasting from Washington, D.C., instead of from underneath rural West Virginia, behind 30-ton blast doors.
During one segment of the program, a tour guide points out the military-style bunks that the members of Congress would have had to sleep on, and speaks about what a hardship it would have been for these men and women to live in such Spartan conditions. Perhaps that touch of irony was intentional. What a hardship to have to sleep in a subterranean dormitory … but still a far better fate than that of everyone else, stranded above ground!
All of this was done in the name of “continuity of government.” Yet, one has to wonder what would have remained for them to govern! Government leaders, it seems, would spare no cost to preserve a political system—even if almost all of its citizens were sacrificed.
This being Transfiguration Sunday, I find myself considering a very great contrast. On the one hand, there are these politicians who would wait out Armageddon in their blast-proof chambers. And on the other hand, we have Christ the King.
In our gospel lesson this morning, we find Jesus not underground, but on a mountain top—having, perhaps, the original “summit meeting” with Moses and Elijah. And at the conclusion of it all, Jesus speaks to his disciples not of triumph or even survival—but of his own impending death. Jesus would build neither shrines on the mountaintop nor bunkers underneath it. Rather than ensure his own safety while his followers perished, this King would willingly give himself over to death so that his people could be saved. How different are the ways of God from the ways of this world!
We don’t know what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talked about on top of Mount Tabor. But we surely know Moses and Elijah. Moses stands for the Law, and for a judicial approach to enforcing righteousness and protecting society from those who would break the Law. As for Elijah, you may remember that he was the one who had a contest with the prophets of Baal to see whose god was the strongest. And when his God won, Elijah slaughtered the losers!
Moses stands for a religious system wherein true discipleship is grounded in disciplined obedience to a legal code, and by keeping the community pure by punishing or expelling transgressors. Elijah stands for a religious system that upholds the honour of God by sacrificing God’s rivals. And war after war has been fought by those who believed that they would glorify God as warrior patriots, proving God’s supremacy by destroying his enemies.
Who knows what advice Jesus might have received from these two. But, ultimately, the decision about what to do next belonged to Jesus. And what did he decide? Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem—not to kill and destroy the enemies of God who had seized control of state and religion, but to stand firmly for truth and love and mercy—even at the cost of his own life.
There on the mountain top—at this moment of apparent, glorious triumph—Jesus is already pointing toward, and drawing his disciples’ attention to, his impending arrest, trial, and execution. Later—in John’s Gospel—he would say, “… when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.” And the gospel writer comments: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (John 12:32-33).
Here is a very different kind of glory—starkly unlike the glory on the mountain top, but no less brilliant. Not only at his resurrection, but also on his cross, will Jesus’ kingly glory become apparent. Far from his death demonstrating the failure of his Messianic Kingship, Jesus is already thinking of his cross as his throne, as the seat of his royal ministry. For it is from that throne—the cross—that he will draw all people to himself. It is as a sacrificial substitute on behalf of his people—on behalf of us—that King Jesus establishes his reign forever.
Many empires have been raised on the sacrifices of brave soldiers, and many nations have been preserved by the valour of their sons; but this cross is the one place where the King makes himself the sacrificial offering for the good of his commonwealth, so that no more will need to be offered except the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
On the verge of the Lenten season, we are given both a glimpse of Christ’s heavenly glory (in his Transfiguration) and a foreshadowing of the price he will pay. And at the end of the Lenten season—on Good Friday—we shall begin to see his glory revealed in suffering. Our Saviour is not first a victim and then a victor; rather, he conquers death and sin precisely by offering himself. That is precisely how he becomes our King. In the very event that is to all human appearances the least likely to result in anything except failure and defeat (that is, in the death of Jesus) we are introduced to a different kind of glory, a different kind of King, and a different kind of kingdom.
In Jesus, we see the glory of God, whose concern is not to ensure “continuity of government” or to preserve a religious system, but rather to save and preserve his people. And I think that this is what we ought to be reflecting upon as we make our Lenten journey, which begins on Ash Wednesday:
- What does it mean to live as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom?
- What does it mean to follow this unexpected, unusual Messiah, who tells us that, if we would be his disciples, we must take up our crosses and follow him?
Or, to put it more starkly: if we would drink of Jesus’ cup, are we prepared to taste suffering as well as ecstasy?
And what will that look like, for us? What sacrifices are we being called to make in order to preserve not a religious system, but a people? Not to prop up a denomination, but in order to save the children of God? Will we venture outside the blast doors? Or will we huddle inside our bunker, hoping that the walls are strong enough? Hoping that we’re buried deep enough inside our whitewashed tomb?
If you know the gospel story, you know that—time and again—Jesus lamented the fact that the religious system of his day had forgotten the purpose for which God had created it. The system had become more important than the people of God; the rules and traditions which were meant to enhance and sustain human life had become burdens which denigrated and depreciated that life. Through his own death, Jesus sought to fulfill the requirements of that old system and usher in something new, resurrected from the ashes of what had gone before.
During Lent, we are reminded that we are being called to continue the work that Jesus began. We are called “the Body of Christ”—and if we would embrace that name, we must be willing to walk the path that Jesus walked. It is a path which demands much of us. It demands that we care as much about others as we do about ourselves. It demands that we stand up for justice. And it also calls us to turn the other cheek. It calls us to love even our enemies. It calls us out of comfort and into hardship. It leads us to the mountain top, and back down again. It leads us by streams of quiet water, and it forces us into the tempest. It leads us into death—and then it leads us even beyond that!
To be sure, it is a difficult path, fraught with peril—but make no mistake about this: it is the path of glory, and it leads us, ultimately, to that place where all things are made new, and every tear is wiped away, and the brilliance of our God shines brighter than the sun. There is no better destination, and it offers us something much better than “continuity of government.” As we walk this path, we have continuity of an infinitely better kind; for we travel in the company of all the saints who have gone before us, and with the guidance of God’s own Spirit, who preserves us and saves us.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Thanks be to God.