by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12: 1-4.
“Jesus took with him Peter and the brothers James and John and led them up a high mountain…As they looked on, a change came over Jesus: his face was shining like the sun and his clothes were dazzling white.” Matthew 17: 1-9.
Today’s second reading from St Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy reminds us of something we all know, namely that living the Gospel is no easy task: “…but with the strength which comes from God bear your share of the hardship which the Gospel entails.” (2 Timothy 1: 8). This reflection will concentrate on the first reading from Genesis and the gospel-reading from Matthew, which reveal something of how God’s strength can impact on the lives of all human beings, even on the life of Jesus as he grew to understand himself.
But let’s start with Abraham. At a time when it looked as though he was well into the second half of his life, he was prompted by God to move out of his comfort zone and embrace a nomadic lifestyle by undertaking a journey to a destination about which he had no knowledge. That would be a challenge for somebody in the bloom of youth, but for a man bordering on old age it might well be considered as unreasonable. The fact that Abraham and his elderly wife Sarah gathered together their family, their possessions and their flocks and launched out into the unknown is testimony to their faith and trust in God. They are presented to us on this second Sunday of Lent as the benchmark against which to measure our faith and trust in God and the depth of our spirituality. We’re all familiar with the notion of a journey as a metaphor of our lives. Literature through the ages has presented life as a journey. The motif of journey is written large in novels like The Pilgrim’s Progress published in the 17th century by the Puritan preacher John Bunyan. In more recent times, the same motif has been a feature of novels like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The earliest example is probably the short story of Abraham and Sarah as presented by the author of The Book of Genesis.
When we stop to think about it, we can see that life for all of us has so far been a succession of comings and goings as we have moved from the security of home to study in a university or to begin our first job; as we have said goodbye to parents and set out to explore the world; as we have fallen in love, married and begun a family of our own; as we have moved interstate to pursue new employment opportunities; as we have made decisions to move to more manageable accommodation when our children have flown the nest; as we decide to retire and make application for a place in hostel or aged-care facilities. Irrespective of where we find ourselves on life’s journey, today’s first reading invites us to stop and reflect on how our faith and trust in God has progressed, and even to count the times when we have set aside self-care to offer hospitality, help and friendship to angels who came to us in the guise of strangers, refugees, discards or strugglers at the bottom of the social heap. As we look at our lives, the story of Abraham and Sarah nudges us to ask ourselves if we are just growing older, without becoming more compassionate, more tolerant, more open to accept those who are different from us, more forgiving, more like the Jesus to whom we have committed ourselves as disciples?
Let me share a story I have borrowed from William Bausch, a retired priest from the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey. It’s the story of Rose, a woman who enrolled in university at the age of eighty-seven. Blessed with a quirky sense of humour, she replied to an interviewer who asked her what a woman of her age was doing at university: “I’m here to meet a rich husband, get married, have a couple of children and then retire and travel.” When the laughter of everyone within hearing range died down, Rose added that she was at university because she had long dreamed of rounding off her education with a tertiary degree. In the course of that year, she won the admiration of other students because of her wisdom common sense and the depth of experience she shared with them. She became something of a darling to the university community and was invited to give the occasional address at the football banquet. As she stepped up to share her prepared speech, she dropped the cards that had her notes. In that moment of embarrassment, she leaned into the microphone and apologised with: “I’m sorry I’m so jittery. I gave up beer for Lent, and this whiskey is killing me.” When the laughter subsided, she proceeded: “Look, I’ll never get my speech back in order, so let me just tell you what I know.” Here are snippets of what she shared: “We don’t stop playing because we’re old, you know. We grow old because we stop playing… We all have to have a dream. When we lose our dreams, we die…There’s a huge difference between growing older and growing up. Anybody can grow older. That takes neither talent nor ability. The idea is to grow up by always finding the opportunity in change. Growing older is mandatory; growing up is optional.” The stories of Abraham and Sarah and of Rose, together with the arrival of the Lenten season are reminders to us to stop and assess the extent to which we are growing up as followers of Jesus. That kind of growth is optional. Lent invites us to explore our options.
Let’s turn now to the gospel-reading of the transfiguration. This reading fits what Paul reminded us of in the today’s second reading: “God has called us to a holy life.” (2 Timothy 1: 8). We can easily excuse ourselves from heeding that call, rationalising that it’s a call only to those who are saints, not to ordinary people like us. In reality, it’s a call to all Christians. Moreover, the voice from the clouds at the moment of Jesus’ transfiguration was directed to us as much as it was to Peter, James and John: “This is my beloved Son on whom my favour rests. Listen to him.” (Matthew 17: 5). While Jesus and the three disciples heard that pronouncement, it is not clear that any of them grasped its full significance at the time. We might note that only the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke record the transfiguration event. John is silent on this extraordinary occurrence. I cannot read today’s gospel without wondering just how aware Jesus was of his divinity. Limited by his humanity and the physical and cultural circumstances into which he was born, Jesus, like every other human being, had to slowly discover his identity. If he was fully human, such a discovery process would have been as difficult for him as it has been for us. Do I really know who I am? Do you really know who you are? We all see something of our identity reflected in what we say and do, in what we create and imagine, in the mistakes we make, in our personal sins and failings. We are all more than what we do and say, more than our failures, successes, sins and triumphs. Let’s not ignore what today’s gospel reading does not record. When Peter suggested building a monument to mark what they had all experienced, Jesus did not correct or reprimand him as he had done on other occasions when Peter demonstrated his impetuosity. Without commenting on the actual experience, Jesus simply asked his friends not to tell anyone about it, adding that there was no need for a monument. I therefore dare to suggest that the experience was something of a revelation to Jesus himself, a revelation in which he glimpsed vividly a side to himself that he had not until then seen. He saw something of his divinity. True, there was a voice from heaven at his baptism by John in the Jordan, but there is no indication from the gospel writers that Jesus comprehended it. The transfiguration was for Jesus a very intense experience, something which increased his self-awareness. It was like a bolt from the blue.
The transfiguration of Jesus was an intense experience for Jesus himself, and it was an intense experience for Peter, James and John as they witnessed how Jesus shone with the presence of God. Somehow Peter grasped that the glory he saw in Jesus transfigured, and in the visions of Moses and Elijah was the glory that awaits us all. I suggest that, in his experience on the mountaintop, Peter realised that in Jesus God became like us humans so that, eventually, we might become like God, by increasingly learning how to reflect to our world something of the compassion, love, mercy and forgiveness of God. That’s the promise and mystery of our faith. In order to respond to Paul’s reminder to us that “God calls us to a holy life”, we have to take time to be present to Jesus who is present in everyone and everything we encounter. In that way we open ourselves to be transformed and transfigured. There is no need to set about doing what Peter suggested in the intensity of the moment and busying ourselves building tabernacles and monuments. The presence of Jesus in our humanity is the only tabernacle worthy of our attention and worship.