Feast of the Transfiguration

So yesterday was the Feast of the Transfiguration, and yours truly was given the chance to give some reflections on the Scripture at Mass this weekend (not a homily...the shortened, yet canonically-required, homily was given by the presider before my words...). I have some meta-reflections on what it was like, but here's what I said about this feast:

What do you want to be when you grow up?

You’ve been asked the question since you were little; I have on parental authority that my earliest response was “a Christmas tree.” Not a bad gig. It’s a question that, as you enter high school, then college, then early adulthood, gets asked of you with a decreasing sense of hope, and an increasing sense of anxiety.

I want to suggest that today’s Feast of the Transfiguration presents us with the Christian answer to that question, what we can hope to be when we “grow up”, as modeled by Jesus and witnessed by these apostles. When we grow up as Christians, when we become daughters and sons of God as fully as Jesus was, we will also be “transfigured,” that is, we will be transparent to the glory of God, glowing and dazzling white as we once were in our baptismal robes.

Take some phrases from today’s readings: the “glory of God”; “the Ancient One”; “flames of fire” and “wheels of burning fire” – these are not the phrases that might spontaneously spring to mind in our prayer lives these days. Here at the Paulist Center, in legitimate reaction to years of an image of God as a kind of unpredictably abusive Santa Claus, many of us tend to be much more comfortable with Jesus as he was known by his disciples: the Jesus who told earthy parables, who enjoyed a good glass of wine with his friends, whose message of love for neighbor resonates deeply with our own desires for peace and justice in our world. The experience of Jesus as “buddy Christ” was the same one shared, I think, by his disciples, and particularly by these three who were his special ones, his chosen ones.

And then they went up the mountain. (Whenever anybody goes up a mountain in the bible, alarm bells should go off in your head immediately; something important is about to happen.) In the Gospel of Mark, Peter has just confessed his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed one, and also been rebuked as a Satan, an adversary, for questioning Jesus’ intention to undergo the passion. And so Jesus takes these three disciples, who know him as a prophet, as a wise man, as a friend, up the mountain to reveal more of what being a Child of God means, for him and for us.

It was a privileged moment, a sneak preview of the resurrection, when familiarity gave way to strangeness; when this unnameable Presence that we name God burst through normality into their lives. It was the brightness of a human being not putting any obstacle in the way of God’s presence, not blocking God’s love from pulsing through him completely. Its brightness was the exact opposite of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima sixty-one years ago that we remember this weekend. This was the brightness of God, not the brightness of evil. It was the strange, and beautiful, and, yes, terrifying love of God burst into the world.

Scarier still, it wasn’t just a possibility for Jesus, it was a possibility for these disciples, and is a possibility for us. For our Eastern Christian sisters and brothers, the Transfiguration is the great feast; while we in the West tend to focus on the forgiveness of our sins in Jesus, they focus more upon our “deification”, our “being made like God”, in Jesus. The transfiguration reveals that a human being – truly a human being, while still Son of God – could be fully transparent to God’s love. When we received our white robes at baptism, it wasn’t just a pretty piece of fabric; it answered the question for us, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” We can be, and spend our lives learning how to be, adopted children of God, transparent presences of the powerful love, the loving power, of God in the world. Our baptism started us down the path of being as “dazzling white” as Jesus was.

Now, I’ve used the language of terror here, as our Gospel does, language that gets thrown around easily these days. But there’s something important about retaining this language of fear, of terror, in the Scriptures that I think we need to hold on to. This is not the kind of “fear of the Lord” with which many of us were first terrified, the fear of God as Chief Warden, as a drunken Zeus ready to punish us for lying to our sister or missing Mass one Sunday – pick your favorite heretical God-image. No, this is a fear of the Lord which has nothing to do with “being a good little boy or girl” ethics, and everything to do with those moments when the “beyondness” of God and God’s love bursts into our world. These moments can be in prayer or in the most inappropriate of circumstances, they can be loud or quiet, they can be moments of great joy or of great sadness – suffering, our own and that of those we love, seems to particularly open up a chasm under our feet in this way, opening cracks for God to slip in. In these moments we realize that this God-talk, this Christianity-thing, this dying-and-rising event that we remember each week with bread and wine is actually real, more real than the little things we spend so much time worrying about, more real than our internal balance sheet of “good deeds” and “naughty deeds.” And this very real God who enters our lives periodically can be terrifying precisely because it shows up our God-images as pale copies of what God is really like, as potential idols to distract us. Terrifying, too, because this experience of being filled with God’s love isn’t possible only for Jesus, or for a Mother Teresa or Saint Francis, but is something that, thanks to Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit, is possible and in fact the calling of each of us. Being bearers of God’s powerful love in the world: that’s what we’re going to be when we grow up.

How do we respond to this calling? There are two ways in which I think that Mark lets Peter off the hook here. First, these guys were fishermen, they were sailors. I have to think that Peter’s first words in reaction to the transfiguration were something far less family-friendly than “rabbi, it is good that we are here.” And the second way in which he gets off the hook is in Mark’s caveat that “he hardly knew what to say.” I think Peter might have been far more on the ball than Mark thought, because Peter’s first reaction is exactly the reaction that most of us have when faced with a real encounter with God’s love: to try to make it fit back into our normality as quickly and as painlessly as possible. To capture the experience of the divine in our own boxes, in our own tents, and to keep it safe by keeping it covered up. To go back to pretending that our routines, our legitimate concerns with work and school and relationships, our images of God and of ourselves, are doing just fine, thank you very much, and that the upsetting, upending love of God hasn’t just made all of our “real” lives seem relatively unimportant. We go back to pretending that this meal which we’ll celebrate in a few moments is only a minor moment in our week, rather than the food that keeps us from starving. It’s true that our Christian lives aren’t lived primarily on the mountain – there are the hungry to feed and the sick to heal, as Jesus demonstrated in this very Gospel. But we need to stop regularly to see where God is bursting into our lives and upending them. Our prayer, here and on our own, is the way we learn to be open to that trip up the mountain, we learn how not to domesticate God, we learn how the pulsing of God’s love through us – the Holy Spirit, we call it, to whom this chapel is dedicated, who “poured out God’s love into our hearts” – gives us the strength to be the Body of Christ down below the mountain. In short, we learn on this Feast of the Transfiguration how we’re being made adopted children of God, transparent bearers of God’s love; we learn what we’re going to be when we grow up.

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