I had seen it before, but it still fascinated me. Standing nearby in the St. Louis airport was a vibrant young woman in sweatshirt, jeans, and backpack, face aglow, hands dancing in sign language, as she projected whatever she was saying across forty yards of a crowded waiting room to a young man who was answering her with the same soundless animation. Clearly, there was communication going on here. The meaning was perfectly lucid to at least two persons in this room, but I hadn't a clue. What a big part of being human, I thought. We are rational animals, yes (and tool-making animals, political animals, and—some of us—“party animals”), but especially we are communicating animals. And while we share with the other species messages about mating, turf, and danger, we get into even deeper stuff than that. We yearn for messages that go beyond information to meaning.
The newsstand at the end of the concourse displayed some examples from people hoping to make money off this human appetite, especially the how-to books, with titles like The Art of the Deaf, Winning through Intimidation, How to Organize Your Chaos.
Getting in touch with that Jewish reality helps us enter this Sunday's Gospel, which is full of symbol and gesture as elusive to most contemporaries as that airport sign language conversation was to me. Indeed, that particular epiphany was more than even Peter, James, and John could fathom at the time. To the reader, if not to the inner three, clues to the meaning begin with Mark's reference to the interval of “six days,” recalling the six days Moses had spent in a cloud on Mount Sinai just before the heart of the Torah was revealed to him (Exod 24:16). Here, on another “high mountain,” Jesus is transfigured before their eyes, and those premiere exponents of the Law and the Prophets—Moses and Elijah—are seen to join him in conversation. Overcome with awe and fear, Peter volunteers to set up tents for the three of them. A misguided burst of hospitality? A desire to somehow “package” an astounding “talk-show”?
Whatever the motive, Mark feels compelled to excuse the outburst (“He hardly knew what to say”) and the suggestion is ignored. Out of an overshadowing cloud comes the divine voice, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Gospel). As if to visually illustrate the meaning of these words, the figures of Moses and Elijah disappear and the disciples “no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them” (Mk 9:8). In other words, all that they had sought to hear in the revelation through the Law and the Prophets is now fully accessible in the person of Jesus, there with them.
To ensure that we know what we are to listen for in Jesus, Mark has linked the Transfiguration firmly to what has just happened “six days” before—Jesus’ central teaching on discipleship: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mk 8:35).
If we were moved, some time ago, by the cry of a then famous and popular father (Bill Cosby) while he grieved over the loss in real life of his only son, who was cut down wantonly in a roadside shooting (“He was my hero!”), we can perhaps hear afresh this voice from the cloud. This voice calls not in grief but still in profound urgency, as if to say: “I have sent you Moses and the prophets and you have heard them poorly; now here's the fullness of my communication to you, Jesus, my Son. Hear him—not only his teaching but the whole story of his self-giving life, death, and resurrection. He is still with you. Follow him.”
The Transfiguration turns out to be lucid sign language to penetrate our deafness. It undercuts all the how-to messages of our culture and encourages us on our Lenten journey toward the Easter renewal of baptism, where we first began our following of Jesus.