Homily for the Feast of the Transfiguration
1. August 6, 2006
St. Martin de Porres, Lincoln Heights
(Based on Daniel 7:9-10,13-14; Psalm 97; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Mark 9:2-10)
I’d like you to imagine that you are in a small room that is pitch black. There are no tiny cracks through which light might enter the room. But over in the corner is the flame of a small candle. There is nothing to distract your attention, so you are mesmerized by the flame of the candle.
Hold that scene in your imagination as we explore the readings on this feast of the Transfiguration.
The church gives us two readings that were first addressed to communities in times of deep crisis. They were offerings of hope in the face of dire circumstances.
First there is the vision of Daniel. It takes place a little more than 100 years before the coming of Jesus. The Israelite people have now been battered and beaten down over centuries, by one foreign oppressor after the other. In the sections before today’s reading Daniel has been reflecting on each of them: the Babylonians and the Persians and the Medes and now the Greeks. He’s been teaching the people that although these look like plain old politics God has been in charge, using each as a purification of the people of the Covenant.
The Greek king is pursuing an aggressive program to force the Israelites to abandon the practices of their faith and worship him instead of the Lord. It’s a crisis of meaning: which way to turn?
Then in today’s reading he offers them his climactic vision, of the Son of Man coming to bring final liberation to the people. In the face of oppression they can remain faithful to the Lord’s ways because he will soon usher in a kingdom that will last forever.
And then in the Second Letter of Peter we have moved to a period about 40-50 years after the time of Jesus. This is the last writing in the New Testament. The issue now is very different. They had believed the word of Jesus that he would return – but they had thought it would happen very soon. Indeed in his earliest letters Paul had to tell the Thessalonians to get off their duffs and work at their spiritual lives. They had fallen into the mind-set that said "hey, he’s going to return very soon, so we can just take it easy; why work?"
Now 40 years have passed and he hasn’t come. They have experienced persecutions for their faith. Even the Temple which symbolized God’s favor had been razed to the ground by the Romans when the Jews revolted in 70 AD. The journey was much longer than they had expected. They were losing heart.
They needed a burst of hope. So Peter reminds them of that incredible moment he had experienced on the mountain. It was obviously an experience that shaped his whole consciousness, a story they must have heard many times over the years.
At Jesus’ call they had climbed the mountain – the place set apart where the holy sages had always confronted the Lord. And after all the time they had spent with him, and listened to his words, and watched the works of his ministry, suddenly there was this blinding insight into just who Jesus really was.
Mark tells us his form was changed. It reminds us of the insight of Paul in Philippians, where we tells us that "though he was in the form of God he did not take that to himself but rather took on the form of one like us, even taking on the form of a slave." On the mountain it was as if that outer form was removed for a brief spell-binding moment and the reality of his true inner identity exposed. It was clearly a life-changing experience, one which Peter must have returned to all through the crises of his life – as he does in his letter to the Christians wavering in their faith.
And then, what? In an instant it is over. As Mark says, "suddenly there was no one else there but "only Jesus." Imagine: "only" Jesus. They are left with the ‘form’ that had first attracted them to leave everything. Only Jesus. And he’s confusing them even more by talking about "rising from the dead. . . ."
As in the time of Daniel and 2 Peter, we too live in disturbing, stressful, and confusing times. We, too, try like Daniel to understand our unfolding story: when will the madness of these wars ever cease? Who can make sense of it all? Who can break the chains of violence we humans continually inflict on one another?
So many of the signposts we used to rely on are gone. There are so many new questions for which the old answers just don’t work. It’s frightening. Where is the center that can hold?
All around our world people turn in their anxiety to one form of fundamentalism or the other for some small semblance of security. In the Middle East the issue is: will we accept the realities of a modern world that seems to challenge the faith of Islam? The Sunnis say it can be done; the Shiites throw up their hands and cry, "No! We must return to the practices of the Prophet whom you are denying."
And in the US we have people clinging for salvation to a word-for-word literal interpretation of the Bible: God did create the world in seven actual days! Evolution is the work of the devil, not God’s creativity at work. We must not rely on science, that’s idolatry. Is stem-cell research God’s way of expressing trust in the gifts of creation or is it a step on the slope toward a culture of death? These are not easy questions, and we seem to be without any reliable precedents.
In his letter to the church Peter takes us back to the image with which we began. He tells us to stay focused on that single flame which is the real identity of Jesus.
I want to tell you a true story, of a real man with a real candle
I worked a few years ago with a group of religious brothers. One of them was a fine man, probably one of the most spiritually alive men I have ever met. He had been a teacher in the brothers’ school in Newfoundland where it had come to light that several of his brothers had been involved over the years in sexual abuse of the young boys at the school. It was a national scandal; the community had been bankrupted and some of the men had been sentenced to long prison terms.
He had not been one of the abusers. We were alone at breakfast and I sensed he might want to talk about it. I said "it must have been very painful for you." I don’t think I will ever forget his response.
"You can’t imagine how painful. I had been on the top of the world. I was a respected man in the church, a vowed religious brother, belonging to one of the most prestigious communities in the country. We were known as the cream of educators, highly respected in the civic world. And suddenly it was all ripped away. Everything I had made into God in my life was gone. Everything I had made into God . . .
I would return from school to our residence and pass through crowds of people shouting obscenities at me, day after day.
I went to my room and sat in silence for hours before a lighted candle, asking myself where God could be in all this. No book of Scripture or pious meditation, just silence and that candle. For four months."
He’s on the other side of his crisis now. But changed forever. He had been tested by fire. Stripped by doubt and shame of all his illusions, all the idols he had set up as substitutes for God: reputation and self-esteem, the praise of the community. I believe it’s the closest I have come to someone who has faced what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul.
One of the idols we set up to avoid the cost of that darkness and the single candle is our ceaseless search for certitude. "If only I could see a sign, I’d really believe." It’s the thing Jesus had to fight all through his ministry: "this adulterous generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it but the sign of Jonah; as Jonah was I the belly of the whale for three days, so will the Son of Man . . ." We seek certitude, but that’s not our human condition. What is the song we frequently sing here? "We walk by faith and not by
sight. . . ."
You and I do not have that brilliantly illuminating experience given to Peter and James and John. We must be content with "only Jesus" – in the form of a slave, a humanly accessible form. The form that confronts us every day in the sisters and brothers who are the object of God’s delight as they walk this earth with us. We need to pray that the Father will give us the insight to see through that humble external form so we can respond in love to the spark of divinity that resides in every last one of them.
It is a gift. To be asked for with humility. We must ask for it with the stubbornness of the woman in Jesus’ parable who pestered the judge until he gave in out of sheer weariness at her ceaseless bugging.
Then after that gift we just might be ready to tackle what it might mean "to rise from the dead."
George B. Wilson, S.J.
6330 Corbly Road, Apt. 2
Cincinnati, OH 45230