16 Mar 2014
“‘Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’” (Matt. 17:9)
In the name …
This past week the internet celebrated its 25th birthday. Some of the people who were present and participated in its birth have been interviewed and have said that they never expected the internet to become what it has. They never anticipated that internet users would create the lion’s share of internet content. They relied on older models like radio and television. They thought internet users would be passive consumers and that there would be large government and corporate providers, something along the lines of an NBC or a PBS. They could not see the potential of what lay before them 25 years ago.
Likewise, we should not be surprised that the three disciples could not grasp all that the Transfiguration meant as Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the epitome of the prophets, stood as witnesses when the voice of God declared something radically new: “‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.’” (17:5) Just as the internet became more than what was ever expected so those first followers of Jesus could not grasp all that was Jesus. At that moment they could not yet see how Jesus would change everything.
Since last Sunday we celebrated the Feast of the Institution and the founding of our church denomination, today is our first Sunday of worship with a Lenten theme. And today’s Gospel may seem a bit out of place as we begin to talk about the tragedy of Jesus’ passion and death because it tells us instead of a glorified Jesus. But we take our first Lenten steps by trying to grasp the incredible mystery that in Jesus God goes to the cross. It’s easy to see the face of God in the risen Jesus of Easter. The Transfiguration is telling us, however, that when we look up at the cross we are also looking at the face of God. This scandalizes whole other religions. It even bothers many a Christian. But the scarred, pain-racked face of the crucified Jesus reveals to us a God who has suffered like us, a God who suffers with us. This is why we begin Lent with the Transfiguration. Jesus reveals a God not only of transcendent glory, but a God of engaged compassion, a God who knows what it is to be us.
The most beautiful statue I have ever seen in any one of our churches is in Central Falls, RI. It is a copy of a painting that Bp. Hodur included in his altar missal, the book of the prayers and readings for the various Masses of the church year. Jesus is nailed to the cross, but one hand is left free. With that hand the crucified Jesus reaches down to try and touch a broken person. That is our God. Who even on the cross, yearns to hold and to heal even as He Himself suffers. He can’t make every pain disappear in our lives or every tragedy end happily in our world, but a crucified God can stand with us through anything a mean world can devise. And this is a message we need to better proclaim especially during Lent.
I was at a funeral of a family member. I was joking around with a relative who is not a church goer. With no tone of accusation or anger, he said to me rather matter-of-factly that he turned away from church when he watched his father die on Christmas Day in terrible, almost unbearable pain. He didn’t need to finish the train of thought. He felt God had either abandoned him and his father at that point or that God was only a dream. This is why we need to preach the message of a crucified God, a God who has experienced the worst that we humans can manufacture. Because the Transfiguration tells us that in Jesus the fullness of God is present, and because that same Jesus endures the cross, we can then believe that when we suffer or when the ones we love suffer, that this same Jesus is right beside us. The glorified Jesus is not only the resurrected, on-my-way-to-heaven Jesus. The glorified Jesus was also on that horrible cross. This is what some Christian writers call at-one-ment. It looks to the cross not as Jesus’ payment for sins, which would be atonement, but they see in the cross the unwavering love of God for all of us so that He can be at-one with us here and now. This is why we start Lent with the Transfiguration.
But even Jesus’ closest followers who were there, Peter, James and John, were bewildered and terrified by the realization of just who Jesus was. Compared to them at the Transfiguration the guys present at the birth of the internet 25 years ago were only mildly off the mark. Language fails in the encounter with heavenly realities. Matthew, for instance, begins by telling us that Jesus was physically transfigured up on that mountain, but on the way down Jesus calls the whole event only a “vision.” Did Jesus’ body physically change for a moment or somehow were the disciples drawn into a vision that Jesus experienced? That’s the nature of mystery. It’s unexplainable. The Malaysian Airlines plane that disappeared over a week ago is an earthly mystery that will eventually be explained, but look at all of the anxiety it has created all over the world. We don’t like the unknown, the unresolved. We want answers. It’s no wonder, then, that after it’s all over Jesus touches the three disciples and says, “‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’” (17:7)
We can’t know for sure what happened up on that mountain, but we know why it happened. God had to make absolutely clear that no one could imagine or profess a different Jesus coming out of the tomb from the Jesus who hung on the cross. The God of the resurrection is the God of the cross. The God who triumphs is also the God who suffers. Lent is our sacred time to encounter this God and to proclaim Him. May we do just that through our Lenten practices, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo