I am just old enough to remember photography before the digital age.
As a teen I used to save up my $8 of allowance, which came every two weeks, to buy rolls of off-brand 35mm film. These I would load into the back of my camera, which was a little too large to fit comfortably in my pocket, and then I would have exactly 24 chances to get the photo shot I was hoping for. After the film was used, I would take it out of the camera, snap it back into the film canister case it came in, and take it to the local department store photo center – in my case, Walmart. And then I’d wait.
Because I was paying for my own developing on a meager teenage budget, I skipped past the check box on the film envelope that said “one hour”, and also the one that said “next day,” and simply marked “standard”. This meant I would wait for at least three to five days to find out what was on the film, and whether I got any good shots.
When I picked up my envelope from the photo lab after the allotted time, I would find two things inside: my photos, and the cut-apart negatives strips each containing four or five frames. This was in case I ever wanted reprints, which I never did, because these would cost more money and I was a somewhat lousy and eclectic photographer, most of my photos being of random, sometimes strange, subject matter that rarely required reprints.
Negatives were curious things, though. They were the inverse of the pictures, the lights and darks reversed. Sometimes I would take them out of their plastic slips and hold them up to the light just to see the world look a little bit alien, marveling at the bright white hair and glowing eyes in the tiny frames. Often times, I would simply throw them away – why keep the negative, if I already have the photo?
In the gospel text for this week, we hear Mark’s telling of the Transfiguration. And over time I have begun to think that photos and negatives might be a good way to think about this event in the life and ministry of Jesus.
The placing of this particular story in the overarching narrative of the book of Mark is telling. In the chapter before, Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah, who then goes on to tell the disciples that he must suffer. Peter then takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, and Jesus fires back that cringeworthy retort, “Get behind me Satan!” From there, Jesus moves into a description of what following him will cost his disciples – they must deny themselves, take up their crosses, lose their lives for Jesus’s sake so that they may truly find them.
Then, the story shifts, and Jesus and his disciples are on the mountain.
Following the story of the transfiguration, Jesus orders his disciples to tell no one what they have seen until after his rising from the dead. The disciples, who seem mighty confused about Jesus all through the story to this point, are puzzled by his statement and ask a follow up question about Elijah. In part of Jesus’s response, he again references his own coming suffering and the contempt he must experience.
This seems like a strange place for the story of the transfiguration, of glory: sandwiched here between two conversations markedly about suffering.
But here is exactly where the metaphor of photos and negatives comes into play. The transfiguration and the cross are two images of the same moment, one the “positive,” the photo so to speak, and one the “negative,” the darks in high relief. The glory on the mountain is developed, so to speak, from the negative of the cross. Taken together, they are one singular movement of Jesus that marks him as the Christ.
To draw the metaphor out further, there are circumstantial parallels between these stories. On the mount of transfiguration, Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah, and on Golgotha, Jesus is flanked on the right and left by thieves. In the transfiguration, Jesus is clothed in dazzling white, and on the cross, he’s naked with a crown of thorns. On the mount of transfiguration, the voice from Heaven says, “This is my son, the beloved,” and the voice from the cross cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And perhaps you see other reversals of lights and darks I haven’t named here.
The relationship between these two events is precisely what Peter misses. He gets that Jesus is the Messiah, but he can’t fathom that this fact could mean Jesus would suffer. And on the mount of transfiguration, when Jesus is dazzling and the glory is so thick, Peter is both afraid and enamored by what he sees. He’s ready to set up dwellings and live there within the glory forever.
What Peter can’t grasp illumines a risk for all of us too – namely that we would rush too quickly to the glory, to the resurrection, to Christ’s ascension to Heaven, and miss the call of discipleship, a call that requires the losing of ourselves that we might be found in God.
Transfiguration Sunday is only a few days before Ash Wednesday, and here the lectionary and the church year do us a favor, because perhaps we too, like Peter, are tempted to so quickly set up our tents within the glory. But lest we forget the loss and suffering that come with serving this particular Messiah, on Ash Wednesday thick crosses of ash, the burnt palms of yester-year’s Palm Sunday with its “hosannas”, are spread across our foreheads.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Recalling the creation of humankind in the garden, this pronouncement reminds us that any glory we have is like the breath of God breathed into our nostrils, bringing us to life: a gift of grace.
The Transfiguration gives us a glimpse of where the gospel story is taking us, but we’re reminded that this glory is a very particular glory, not like the glory the world would offer us. Instead, this glory is bound up in utter self-giving, profound service, and a new kingdom inbreaking. We, like the disciples, will travel alongside Jesus to Jerusalem and to the foot of the cross. Easter will come, and resurrection will be ours.
But often the reality of following Jesus as we live in the overlap of the already and the not yet allows us to taste of both realities: some days are glory, and other days crucifixion. At moments we feel them both acutely at once.
As we prepare to walk again the pilgrim way of Lent, may our eyes be open to this redefinition of glory, and may we join him in his dying that we might also join him in his rising. Amen.