General Douglas MacArthur once told of a difficult situation he faced as a cadet at West Point. “The first section,” he wrote, “was studying the time-space relationships later formulated by Einstein as his Theory of Relativity. The text was complex and, being unable to comprehend it, I committed it to memory. When I was called upon, I solemnly reeled off word for word what the book said.
“Our instructor looked at me somewhat quizzically and asked, ‘Do you understand this theory.’ It was a bad moment for me, but I did not hesitate in replying, ‘No, sir.’ You could have heard a pin drop. I braced myself and waited. And then the slow words of the professor: “Neither do I, Mr. MacArthur. Section dismissed.”
An assumption that has been made by those who read the Gospels is that those who followed Jesus and became his disciples were absolutely clear about who he was and what he was up to but even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveals this is not at all true. Most of the contemporaries of Jesus had no idea who he was. The disciples were no exceptions. Like young cadet MacArthur, they were dealing with information about which they had no clue. Maybe that explains why all the drama in the Gospel today. Jesus was about to make a shift in his ministry from healing and miracles to the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem and his arrest and death on the cross. Jesus had previously sent his disciples out in mission and as they returned from these assignments they seem to have less and less understanding until Jesus even speaks very clearly to them about his disappointment at their hardness of heart.
It was important that his disciples get a grip on what all this meant. So he leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain that will offer them privacy and a symbolic proximity to God—mountains were perceived as places of Divine revelation.
All of a sudden he is in conversation with Elijah, considered the most important among the prophets, and Moses who gave the Hebrews God’s Commandments. These two figures point to Jesus as the one who fulfills the law and the prophets. There is a brilliant glare of light and his clothes blaze like the sun on fresh white snow. Mark tells us that they were speechless, terrified, and finally bumbling Peter blurts out something about making tents for them.
Then God pulls out all the stops. A voice came out from a large cloud that surrounded them: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” And as quickly as they appeared, Elijah and Moses were gone and it was just Jesus walking them down the mountain. Did they finally get it then? Did they know who he was and what he was up to? Probably not, but God sure got their attention!
The opening prayer this morning asks that we be “strengthened to bear our cross.” Talk about one’s cross has for me always come with a negative connotation. Maybe it has to do with my early religious experience and the idea promoted by well- meaning priests who told us we had all had a cross to bear in life. The problem was the way they perceived that cross. You were in an abusive marriage—that was your cross to bear. You were subject to bouts of deep depression—your cross. Your daddy was a nasty alcoholic—again, your cross. Your newborn was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart malfunction—yes, that is your cross. The idea that God would saddle us with such hardships just to make a point about the cross and make our lives more grueling always bothered me. Years ago I was telling this to Mother Louise Kalemkerian and her reaction gave me an “epiphany.” “The cross is something you have to pick up,” she said, “not something you been given that makes your life difficult and even miserable.
Jesus picked up his cross—by choice. The cross for us is a conscious decision to act, to do something.” Now that’s a different story and a very different understanding of what the cross is for me. The experience of Epiphany and God’s revelation to us does not stop on this last Sunday of the season. Rather these several Sundays that included the feast of the Baptism of Jesus—an event in which he was first “outed” as God’s Son and the encore of that disclosure on the mountain when he was transfigured—are meant to get us ready for all the epiphanies we may have during the weeks of Lent that follow and throughout our entire life.
Like young cadet MacArthur, we may not fully understand who Jesus is or what God is up to in our lives right now. It may take several epiphanies—maybe a few trip to a mountaintop just as it did for the disciples. It may take a lifetime.
In the meantime, what if we all were to reframe for ourselves this concept of bearing the cross. What if, instead of seeing all the hardships and suffering in our life as “crosses we are meant to bear” we took a real good inventory and made some decisions about what we want to pick up—something we want to do or some action we want to take to help bring a small modicum of the Kingdom of God into our neighborhood? Maybe we’re doing it already. Maybe it’s our work in the world or the way we have decided to respect and care for other human beings. Maybe it’s our faithful commitment to God’s work through this faith community. Like the disciples who were taken up to the mount by Jesus, we know our mission in this life is not up in the sky but here on earth. In the words of an old saying in Pentecostal churches, “It ain’t how high folks jump that make ‘em Christians. It’s what they do when they hits the ground.”