Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Transfiguration and the Season of Lent

On the Last Sunday of Epiphany we heard the Gospel Story of the Transfiguration, but now we have fully entered into the Season Lent. Lent is a penitential time – when the Church refocuses us on our personal need to do a bit of (or a lot of) “spiritual housecleaning!” That can mean some very hard work needs to be done; yet, the result is that we are transformed – transfigured, if you will – into what God fully intends for us. So as a Lenten Reflection for us, I’d like us to return to that mountain with Jesus and just maybe we can find reason and purpose for Lent.

Read: Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-10; Luke 9:28-36

Poor Peter! Here he is the Apostle of Apostles, the keeper of the keys to the kingdom, the rock upon which Jesus will build his church. Once again, Peter demonstrates that he is more human in his saintliness than is often depicted. I, for one, am thankful that Peter's most human moments are preserved in scripture rather than simply glossed over, cleaned up, or even left out. For those who continued to transcribe and produce our scriptures, the temptation to "fix" his apparent blundering must have been tremendous. Yet I believe that we are more like Peter than we realize.

Like Peter, we live in a matter-of-fact world. Even though our modern world is vastly different from the ancient world and we are so-called enlightened individuals, it remains true, that we still have our own particular ways of explaining the mysterious and the unexplainable. For example, through science, we now know how living creatures reproduce. From our DNA on up, we can identify patterns in a person's genetic code that indicate specific characteristics. Yet, with all of our scientific knowledge, we still can't explain what Life is! Although our species still keeps trying, we still cannot create "life" – even if we can “manufacture” important bits of it. Life is still a mystery to us – because life is more than just a biological being that pumps blood and has awareness.

Like Peter, we experience events of the supernatural with misunderstanding. Part of this is we are limited by our language. We can only explain these events in analogies; however, the importance of biblical supernatural events lies not in trying to explain how they happened. Meaning is found by seeking the practical importance of God's action. In fact, seeking importance in the Transfiguration is so significant, the church calendar requires us to focus on it twice every year. Why is that?

The yearly reading of the Transfiguration serves a number of purposes for us. First there are biblical reasons. In its context, this event is directly tied to Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. If there was any doubt remaining in the disciple's minds, the transfiguration stood to prove that Jesus is more than a carpenter; he is not John the Baptist, nor Elijah, nor even one of the ancient prophets who has come back to life. Jesus is the anointed one of God who will redeem and save creation from the power of sin and death. It was at this moment when all was fully revealed to our Lord. In a moment of seclusion and prayer, the Kingdom of God intersects human reality and Jesus speaks with the two most important figures in Hebrew history: Moses and Elijah. Though driven to Jerusalem by the Holy Spirit (knowing the prophecies about his final arrival) Jesus is now fully informed of his journey's cost. For God's beloved Son and for the disciples the events that follow will test every part of their being. Knowing the future doesn't guarantee that they will have the courage to face it.

This event served the practical and mystical purposes of giving both Jesus and his closest friends the supernatural courage to go on to Jerusalem and face the cross. This was the hardest thing for them to do. Is it any wonder that some of the earliest heresies of the church involved explaining away the agony of the cross? To some, God somehow “possessed” Jesus' body and was immune to pain. To others, Jesus' death was simply unnecessary; therefore, somehow he avoided the whole affair. One ancient legend has it that the Romans were stupid enough to crucify Simon of Cyrene by mistake, while Jesus scoffed in victory at his executioners. These heresies show how easy it is to forget the real anxiety and apprehension Jesus humanly faced on his way to the cross.

All of us share the need for profound vision to carry us. The events of Jerusalem and the cross are simply too much for us to bear without it. We cannot depend on our optimism, for we are all faced with the eventuality of death. “Wishful thinking” will not sustain us when the journey becomes difficult. “Positive thinking” forces us to deny what lies ahead. The point here is that "taking up one's cross" is not possible unless God has first "taken us up" by the power of the Holy Spirit. We simply cannot do it alone. The event of the Transfiguration calls us to put the “religious experience “back into “religion”. What is it that draws you to religion? Is it an experience with the Holy?

Story of “Mary” and “Martha”
Some time ago, as part of my seminary education, I worked as a chaplain for a hospital. There were several other seminary students as well, from various other denominations. One of our responsibilities was to meet regularly as a group to share case studies and offer support. One of the students was a Unitarian Universalist and her faith consisted of a combination of Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity. For “Martha” (as I will call her), Jesus was simply a great teacher but no more the “son of god” than you and I are “children of God”. For Martha, there is no afterlife, no unity with God.I'll never forget one occasion where Martha shared a faith struggle with our group. One of the patients that she had been visiting was dying of breast cancer. The doctors had tried everything to save “Mary” (as I will call her), but the cancer had hopelessly spread throughout her entire body. All they could do for Mary was to keep her comfortable on morphine while they waited for her to die. Mary had two daughters: one a proclaimed atheist, the other a New Age mystic. Mary had begun to have visions, which deeply disturbed the atheist daughter. Mary would refer to these visions as a spiritual pilgrimage. She would be visited by and have conversations with angels. Much to the amazement of the nursing staff and her two daughters, Mary knew everything about her condition. When asked how she knew so much about her condition, her answer was always the same: “The angel told me.” The atheist daughter had come to Martha and asked in desperation, "Is my mother 'really' seeing angels, or is it the morphine?" After a short conversation with her, Martha finally answered, "I don't know."

When Martha got to our group she tearfully confessed, "I lied to her; I just couldn't tell her I believe that death is the end of all life. I copped out, there just doesn't seem to be any hope in that answer." All of us in the group tried to reassure Martha that, "I don't know" was actually the most honest answer she could have given. The rest of us also witnessed to her that our faith, the Christian faith, had a different answer. We can never really know for sure whether Mary saw and conversed with angels, but her experience with the Holy was REAL. Mary died peacefully in her sleep, knowing her destination. She simply went with her friends and this time stayed with them. I don't know how Martha's faith was changed by this event, but I do know that she was asking some very deep questions of herself after the summer was over. Mary's witness to Martha was a gift.

Peter's experience there on the mountain was also a gift. It was a gift that he would later draw upon. Faced with a community that had come to doubt the promises of Christ, Peter could state with boldness: "We were there! We saw it! We heard the voice borne from heaven!" (See 2 Peter 1:16-18) Peter states clearly: no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation; prophecy comes not from men but from the Holy Spirit. (See 2 Peter 1:20-21) If our scriptures are simply a collection of human reflection, then it is truly Peter who is wrong, and we truly do follow "cleverly devised myths". And if this is true, then there are truly no dreams left for us. The transfiguration shows us otherwise! Just like Jesus, and the disciples, we too need visions to give us courage.

Are you a visionary? What are your visions? Peter himself tells us that we are to be visionaries and it is the Holy Spirit who brings us these visions and dreams. In the Acts of the Apostles (2:17) on the very day of Pentecost, Peter quotes the book of Joel to his skeptics and says: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”

The Holy Spirit sows in our hearts and minds the seeds of dreams and visions. Life in the land of dreams and visions, with God, is a life that transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. That is what Transfiguration is all about. It’s also what the Season of Lent is about: Transforming us from a life of sin by the Power of the Cross and making us into men and women of the Kingdom of God. In other words, transforming us into men and women of vision. And what is so different about being men and women of vision? Again, years ago, I read this from Pastor Dale Galloway, then Pastor of New Hope Community Church in Portland OR on what a difference visions and dreams can make:

  • Men and women of vision and dreams have no trouble praying because they have something to pray about.
  • Men and women of vision and dreams have no trouble tithing because they believe in it wholeheartedly.
  • Men and women of vision and dreams have no trouble believing in God for success because they know that God can do the impossible.
  • Men and women of vision and dreams have no trouble with drifting and laziness because they know where they are going and they're turned on for Jesus…
  • Our calling from God is to learn the life of the Spirit and to be men and women of visions and dreams.
I know there are visionaries here in our midst. Young and old we come together each week to experience the presence of God and to worship Jesus Christ. Sharing our visions with one another is a step in the right direction. Praying for our visions is the next. But unless we take the chance in carrying out the vision that God has given us, we are simply “dreamers.” Lent is before us to be more than “dreamers.” It’s here to make us “doers” too! Jesus, Peter, John, and James dared to climb a mountain. Their intention was to pray. Their reality was an experience of the Kingdom of God. Lent can be that for us too – if we will but dare the journey!

May your Lenten Journey be Blessed! And may you be transfigured this Season!

In Christ,
Fr. John Riebe

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