A few years ago, I read a most interesting book called Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. The book is a work of fiction based on the life of Albert Einstein. The story takes place in 1905, with a young Einstein working in a Berne, Switzerland patent office. He is a young man with ambition and dreams, who spends his time mulling over the theory of relativity, how time flows and how is orders the universe. As he continues to think and work on the theory, Einstein has a series of dreams, each a manifestation of his thought – a how time might flow.
There are thirty dreams in all, each a different way of looking at the world. Some of the dreams are light-hearted, like one which imagines time moving faster at lower altitudes. So people, in their vain attempts to hold off death, build their homes in the mountains or on stilts so slow things down. Some of the dreams are a little scary, like the one where time repeats itself over and over. The vision of time is like an ant that crawls around the rim of a crystal glass, life circling back upon itself with no future and nothing to hope for. Some of the dreams are mystical, like the one where no one remembers what has gone before. There is no past only the present. Or the one in which time stands still, leaving raindrops hanging motionless in the air and people suspended holding onto loved ones for what they hope will be forever.
The narrative account of Jesus transfiguration has been often noted for its dream-like quality. This story, like most dreams, is a bit unusual or strange. Jesus and his closest friends: Peter, James, and John, go up a high mountain. While there is nothing unusual about that, what happens next is striking for suddenly Jesus is transfigured before them. He appears suspended in the clouds. His clothes become a dazzling, blinding white. He joined by Elijah and Moses. Peter wants to erect a monument to mark the occasion. And then a cloud comes over them and a heavenly voice declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Then, just as suddenly, everything is back to normal. No voice. No cloud. No Elijah. No Moses. No white robe. With what has occurred, it is little wonder that Mark describes how the disciples “kept the matter to themselves.” It’s not something you might want to discuss at the water cooler.
The story does indeed have a certain kind of dream-like quality to it. And, like many dreams, the details do not always make sense. We are, however, given a clue in the passage about what the event might mean. Notice what happens when Jesus and the others are coming down from the mountain. Mark notes that Jesus orders the others “as they were coming down the mountain…to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
What we have here is an interpretative clue, a glimpse into the big picture of Mark’s Gospel. You see, in Mark’s Gospel there are three major points of confessing the identity of Jesus. The first is at the baptism, when the heavenly voice declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” This is a moment of glory, the Spirit descending and Jesus entering into his ministry. The last of the confessions occurs at the foot of the cross, when after Jesus dies, the Roman soldier (a gentile) confesses, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” This is a scene of total suffering, the glory of Jesus apparently lost.
Now, in between these two scenes – one of glory and of suffering – is the one we read today, the Transfiguration. Again, a voice from heaven declares, “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him.” The confession from heaven mirrors the baptismal glory but then there is the foreshadowing of the resurrection on the way down the mountain and the prediction of his death in the immediately preceding section: Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (see Mark 8:31). So here we have a confession that is suspended between glory and suffering.
None of us really want to go through Lent to get to Easter, do we?. Why can’t we just skip the ashes and sackcloth and the giving up chocolate? Can’t we just have our spring of new life now? Can’t we just sing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and be done with all the suffering? Yep, we’d rather take the shortcut to Easter, but we can’t. In his book Peculiar Speech, Will Willimon quips, “When you join the Rotary they give you a handshake and a lapel pin. When you join the church we throw you in water and half drown you.” The Lenten journey ahead of us begins with ashes and leads toward a cross. That’s the truth.
But it’s not the whole truth. The transfiguration is a glimpse of things to come. It is worth noting, therefore, that Jesus’ words of explanation end in resurrection. He comes down from the mountain and warns them not to say anything about what happened until he is raised from the dead. If the beginning of Lent is ashes, its end is resurrection.
Indeed, as Christians we dare to dream that Christ has been raised. We dare to dream of a world where love lasts and war doesn’t. We dare to dream that the pain we carry will someday be put to rest. We dare to dream of a different way of being in the world. We dare to believe that our loved ones who have died in Christ will also be raised in Christ.
In that book, Einstein’s Dreams, Einstein has these interesting and powerful dreams. One of them stands out. The dream begins like this: A mushy, brown peach is lifted from the garbage and placed on the table to pinken. It pinkens, turns hard, it is carried in a shopping sack to the grocer’s, put on a shelf, removed and crated, returned to the tree with pink blossoms. Life from death!
But the dream is not over. There is another scene: A woman stands at the graveside of her husband, throws a handful of dirt on the coffin, and feels the cold April rain slap against her cheeks. Only she does not cry. Instead she looks ahead to days to when her husband’s lungs become strong, and he checks out of the hospital, and he is well enough to get out of his bed at home. She looks ahead to when the two of them eat together, hold each other’s hand, go for a walk, and talk and laugh together. She does not cry. She waits for a day she remembers in the future when the two of them will be together and life will be new.
Can we envision that? A reversal from death to life. It is true, you know, even if for now, it seems like only a dream!
Imagine that, the dead raised! It is true, you know, even if for now, it only seems like a dream! Amen.