February 23-24, 2002, Second Sunday in Lent, Cycle A
It is pretty obvious that the Transfiguraion story is used by all three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, to make a connection between the glory of the risen Christ and the death of Jesus on the cross. All three of the Gospels put the Transfiguration about a week after Jesus first trys to explain to the disciples that the journey they are on will end in his death at the hands of the leaders in Jerusalem. And then as they are coming down from the mountain, Jesus urges Peter, James, and John to keep quiet about what they have seen until after the crucifixion.
This link between glory and suffering goes both ways. Jesus admonishes the disciples to keep quiet about the transfiguration until after his death because there is no way to fully understand the glory without understanding his death on the cross. And in the midst of pain and suffering, we sometimes need a vision of what is beyond that suffering to sustain us.
Throughout the Gospels, and especially in Mark's, Jesus often tells those who have witnessed his power to keep quiet about it. The evangelists use this to remind us that we really can't understand who Jesus is, and who we are called to be, by just looking at his miracles or the vision of the transfiguration. We must also understand his self emptying in his suffering and death.
It is not that Christians are masochists, looking for pain so that they can achieve glory. First of all, anyone who has lived for even a short time knows that you don't have to go looking for pain or suffering. They find us just fine by themselves. More importantly, as Paul reminds us in that second reading, no matter how much suffering and pain we go through, it doesn't earn the glory. The glory is a complete gift from God that cannot be earned. And the suffering and pain is really not the point; what allows us to receive these wonderful blessings from God is our giving ourselves over completely to God's plan.
There is just something about human nature that holds back from giving everything to God so that he can transform us, transfigure us. Our salvation history is full of stories of people who achieve glory only after wholeheartedly responding to God’s call. Our first reading is one of these stories. Abram leaves everything he knows behind to follow God’s promise to make him a blessing for the world. And we sit here as the spiritual descendents of Abraham, almost 4000 years later, as testimony to God's fulfillment of his promise. The ultimate story of giving oneself to God is Jesus. Jesus gives everything, even death on a cross, and so God raises him on high.
God continually demonstrates his willingness, his desire, to give us glory, to make us into dazzling lights for the world. But only if we submit fully to his plan. Instead we try what C. S. Lewis called the taxpayer approach to faith. This is where we citizens pay our taxes but hope we will have enough left over so that we can do what we want. In fact, we go to great lengths to make sure that we pay the minimum tax so that we maximize what is left over. While this may be a sound approach for taxes, it is a strategy that is sure to fail in our faith. The big difference between paying taxes and having faith is that our reward in faith is not having anything left over from the fruits of our labors. Our reward in faith is pure gift from God, as Paul tells us in that second reading. It is not our works but the grace of God that destroys death and glorifies us with the glory of the risen Christ. We can’t earn it no matter how hard we try. And the graciousness of God is boundless.
The hard truth of our human nature is that it is very hard to give ourselves completely to God when things are going well, in those rare moments without stress and turmoil. For some reason, in good times we see ourselves as having earned this, and so we ignore God. It is like the guy who was walking along the railroad tracks who slipped and got his shoe stuck between the rails. As he tried to free himself he saw a train approaching in the distance so he started to pray, “Please God, if you let me get free I will stop drinking.” The train drew closer and he still struggled, so he increased his prayer, “ Please God, if you let me get free, I will stop drinking and cussing.” Still trapped, with train bearing down on him, he yelled out, “Please God, if you let me get free, I will stop drinking and cussing and I will give all my money to the poor, and volunteer at the food pantry.” Just as the train was about the crush him, he yanked his foot free and rolled to safety. Before he even came to a full stop, he looked up and said, “Thanks anyway God. I got it free myself.”
So we need to see that the glory and the suffering are connected in that in is in those moments of suffering and pain that we are most likely to turn everything over to God. And that is when we will start to experience the glory.
As I said it works both ways. When we are in the pain and suffering we sometimes need a vision of the glory to sustain us. Many of the commentaries state that Jesus shared the Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John so that they would be able to weather the darkness of the crucifixion. I think there is more to it than that. After all Peter and James still ran away from the garden of Gesthemani, and all of them, even John, shut themselves up in fear after Jesus was killed. I think that it was Jesus who humanly needed the vision of the glory of his relationship with the Father to sustain him in his suffering.
But like the apostles, we are sometimes so overcome by the trouble in which we find ourselves that we don’t even see the glimpses of glory that God offers us as encouragement. In the depths of so much pain and suffering and scandal in our local church who can see the glory of the hundreds of catechumens and candidates for full communion who gathered at the Cathedral last Sunday? Who can see the glory of the more than 550 teenagers who gathered at Xaverian High School three weeks ago for Catholic Youth Day, with more than 40 of them coming forward for a special blessing from the Cardinal for those who were considering religious life? Who can see the glory of the InnerCity Scholarship fund celebrating the raising of close to $5M for partial scholarships to Catholic high schools for children from disadvantaged neighborhoods? These are just a few of the stories in the Pilot over the past few weeks that we didn’t see in the secular media.
And what about our own lives? Do we see the revelation of God’s glory around us? It is important for us to look for them. The transfiguration reminds us that we are not a people of suffering and pain. Even in the midst of Lent, we are primarily an Alleluia people. Lent is a time to renew ourselves, to strip away the selfishness and self-centeredness that blinds us to the grace of God that surrounds us.
Let the grace of Jesus Christ touch us and comfort us to “Rise and do not be afraid.” The glory of the risen Christ is made manifest all around us, even in the worst of times. Let us all rise up and become the light of Christ to banish the darkness around us.