Mass readings for the 2nd of Lent:
Genesis 12.1-4 Psalm 33.4-5, 18-20, 22 2 Timothy 11.8-10 Matthew 17.1-9
We are called to journey; we are called to change. We are created as men and women to move out from the comfort of the familiar, to adventure trusting in God, and to become something startlingly new while nonetheless being ourselves.
The Transfiguration is often interpreted as something that happens to Jesus – Indeed, we should consider it as telling us something important about him. We are brought to share in the experience of the apostles Peter, James and John and its effect in the moment, but also how it affected them during the post-Pentecost era as they went into the world sharing this story of Transfiguration and proclaimed it as one of the great signs of hope for us. What we see is how the Passion, the suffering of Christ, but our own struggles in faith, lead to the glory of the Resurrection.
To better understand that Apostolic message, we’re helped by our lectionary, the cycle of readings that we go through over a three-year period, and today the story of the Transfiguration is paired with an Old Testament story of Abraham. And as I’ve observed to you before, the design of the lectionary is one that deliberately chooses passages from the Hebrew Scriptures that relate to the Gospel passage, and that furnishes us with an interpretive key to unlock that Gospel story’s depth and breadth.
God tells Abraham, or rather at this point in the story he is known as Abram, to leave the settled yet sophisticated life of the great city of Ur and to venture out to a land that God will show him. Yet the destination, as much as we know it to be the land of Canaan, the destination really is that of spiritual transformation and a new relationship with God for humanity by faith.
In the Transfiguration Jesus reveals to select disciples the ultimate spiritual destination: the glorified existence of those who live in full relationship with God. Jesus wears a dazzling white robe and that suggests the robe of the newly baptized, and how at that time of the ritual bath the priest will charge the newly reborn to bring that white robe of baptism before God stainless. What we see is what we can potentially become; after all, we understand ourselves to be actively pursuing the goal of becoming Christ-like; we identify ourselves as sons and daughters of God, albeit by adoption, but nonetheless children of God and therefore part of the family of God. Our new life in Christ will be marked by a new and living relationship to the law as symbolized by Moses, and the prophets as personified by Elijah. We are meant to be part of that conversation, now, and forever.
Too many Catholics understand their faith as a following of rituals as obligations that in meeting them please God, which it does, but that is not their point. This can lead to the rites of the Church and our observances becoming something that functions in loyalty cards the local coffee shops hand out. You go for coffee, they punch your card. For every ten coffees you get a free one; fill the card, and you get a free pastry with your next Mocha Grande – fill your sacramental card, at least get it punched for first communion, confirmation, enough Christmases and Easters, weddings and funerals, and a happy or somewhat happy God will be kind to us, even let us into heaven at the end of our days.
The Word of God read, studied, meditated upon, the reception of Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, but also Reconciliation, anointing in sickness, perhaps the happy occasion of marriage, and spiritual and material acts of Christian charity, these are all meant to affect a transformation, indeed, a transfiguration.
Now, some of you may balk at that: transfiguration? That is literally a change in one’s figure, one’s appearance. Well, I have seen people transfigured. I think the most obvious examples come from my time in street ministry in Ottawa more than twenty years ago. I saw people transfigured, but sadly, by evil. Women whose youthful beauty was ravaged by a lifestyle of drugs, serial relationships that too often descended into abuse; they found themselves degrading themselves by “walking the stroll” soliciting men on street corners. I’d see them at the local soup kitchen where I worked, chewing on a day-old doughnut and drinking coffee. Talking with them, I knew there had once been a bright-eyed, innocent and beautiful person who was now haggard, painfully thin, tortured by their addictions, and oppressed by their situation, feeling trapped and helpless, their shoulders sagged under the weight of it all.
I would also see others changed, transfigured by hope and by their actions done by grace and with the support of the ministry in Ottawa’s Chinatown. I can think of a young single mom, herding her children into the St. Luke’s lunch club for the hot meal; tired, fed up, depressed by where life had landed her (the regret and self-recriminations on a constant loop in her thoughts, I was sure), trying her best to be a loving parent to children who were equally miserable, complaining and not being very cooperative; but in her case, at last tired of it all and determined to change, I saw her register at the adult high school down the street. With help from the ministry, she got a plan in place; the kids were baptized—at last a happy event that celebrated her children and committed her to raising them to a better life. Slowly, not so dramatically and suddenly as on Mt. Tabor, she was changed. There were smiles, brightness in the eyes, no longer stooped over, she walked fully upright, shoulders back; there was something of a light around her—not a dazzling one, but the gloom had lifted. She was on her way to God.
It is an idea better articulated in the Eastern Churches both Catholic and Orthodox as theosis – we translate that into the English word, deification. That is, to become divine, to become God – but in Christian understanding, it is not us becoming God and supplanting him, but our becoming one with God, to be fully in communion with the Creator and as we move toward this communion, beginning to show more and more divine attributes such as generosity, kindness, mercy, truthfulness, and so on. This is the “flipside” of incarnation – God becoming human, Jesus Christ who takes on human attributes that limit him. In the reverse of this, deification, we take on attributes that open up limitless possibilities.
This flies in the face of decades of indoctrination through our schools and cultural institutions, the secular preaching of the self-esteem movement, the “I’m okay, you’re okay” school of therapy. A few years ago, there was a hit pop song, “Born this way” which at heart expressed the sentiment that we are fully realized at birth and that the process of growing through childhood into adulthood isn’t to be understood as a time of formation by religion, tradition, the community, the family, but rather it’s a slow reveal of who we are, and a time when the world discovers us; and then must accept us and adjust itself to us.
When we hear people speaking of the wisdom of children, or the clairvoyance of youth who then must be listened to, and followed, this is a further expression of what is an inversion, a setting upside down of the proper order of things. So much of the misery I saw came of failures to parent, to teach, to form people and set them on the path of growth and transformation, and too much indulgence in the human predilection toward sloth, and the other vices, but essemtially pride that says we have no need to change, we’re perfect already – after all, according to current popular theology, God made me this way. If we have problems, if life is not going well, that’s someone else’s fault entirely, I am a victim and in this mindset, I can only ever be a victim.
We are born to grow toward God as surely as a seed exists to germinate and then grow toward the sun. Remember God’s name in its deliberate ambiguity: Yahweh, which can be translated as “I am who I am” but also as, “I am who I will be” and “I will be who I am”. This suggests dynamism not stasis – our necessary growth cannot happen through a sheltered existence, an absence of responsibility, the forsaking of risk, the narrowing of experience to what is comfortable and affirming to one’s ego.
What we know of Abram, and the grand city of Ur is that our great ancestor of faith was no child when God visited him and invited him on the great adventure in which we participate. Rather, he was a successful man of business; an operator of caravans who had likely seen quite a bit of the ancient world, at least that of Mesopotamia, and the regions adjacent to it. Even then, at what ought to have been the autumn of life, Abram is called to an adventure we might think more suited to youth – but then God is a source of ever renewing life.
On Mt. Tabor, there was Peter, a married man who had settled down and likely had a fixed idea as to what his life would be about – fishing and a conventional family life; there was James and John, young men, indeed, John was just emerging from adolescence – they were restless, idealistic, and likely had their own ideas as to what their lives ought to be about. This vision of a fully realized humanity would change the direction of all their lives.
To Abram, to Peter, James and John, to us, there has been a holy calling according to God’s purpose and grace: to make of humanity a divine race, and to populate the New Jerusalem with a people such as this: redeemed, saved, those transfigured by Christ.