To the dismay of those who already know me on this discussion board, poor peoples, I have a "THEME SONG". It can drive some of them totally bonkers. Everybody should have one you know? If you don't already then it's time you found one.
Mine is supposedly a children's song and it is one of those truly annoying songs that once it's in your head, it's not only hard, but virtually impossible to get rid of. For that purpose I'm asking Brian to have it play while you read the rest of my "take". I wonder if you'll make it to the end? My song as you can guess from the title of "My Take" is This Little Light of Mine.
This little light describes my faith. It is pretty little and dim most of the time. Even so, I try to let it shine wherever and whenever I can. Sometimes it is ignited into a big flame but not nearly as often as I would like or as it should.
The Gospel of the Transfiguration is one of those sorts of texts that come out of the blue. It is one of those texts that leave us with a feeling of what the dickens really happened on that mountain? Did it happen at all? Well I guess it must have happened because three of the four Gospels tell us it did. John however doesn't mention it and he was supposedly there. Why would something so "miraculous" be left out of one of the witness's accounts of the life of Jesus?
But assuming that of course the transfiguration did happen, what exactly was it that happened? The disciples with Jesus saw him in a new light. His light, whilst praying "transformed" HIM. It became a huge flame. One that made his face and clothes brilliantly white. We see this in people sometimes don't we? Those that have the gift of a wonderful faith and prayer life that transforms them. They just seem to "shine".
"He went up the mountain to pray with them" … Mountains in the bible were places where one was closest to the Divine. The comparison with Moses is impossible to ignore. Moses was on the mountain six days, in a cloud, and on the seventh day God spoke to him. In biblical terms "seven" has a meaning SOMETHING is 'complete'. This is when God completes the old Covenant and gives it to Moses.
With Jesus it is after 6 days – presumably following the time of Jesus preaching and trying to explain why He must go to Jerusalem – we are told (the new covenant is not yet finished but will soon be) that He takes the three to the mountain and converses with Moses and Elijah and in their, the disciples, awe, "in a cloud" (again the reference to Moses) they hear God speak to them. "This is my son 'in whom I am well pleased,' Listen to HIM!" The resonance of these words with the Baptism of Jesus is also hard to ignore. The "In whom I am well pleased" is not reported in all 3 gospels though. The stress when reading this passage should be on the HIM. "Listen to HIM!" In other words, the new covenant of Jesus is replacing the old covenant of Moses and Elijah. God's new prophet is his Son Jesus. It is now time to LISTEN to HIM!
Mountain top experiences...
I personally have had some mountain top experiences like the disciples and like Peter that's where I wanted to stay. One I will relate to you. As I told you last week as a nurse if you don't want to connect with people don't look them in the eye. On this one occasion I was on an afternoon shift in a medical ward with mainly elderly and very sick and dependent patients. It was my first time on the ward for some time and it is much easier to work day after day on a ward because after the first day you get to know the patients. Know what is wrong with them, what they need doing for them, what medications they are on etc. Your first day back they are usually all new to you. So I had been on duty for about an hour and a half. The day shift were about to knock off and I had not yet laid eyes on my "allocated" patients. I had been very busy answering buzzers and trying to read 'my' patients notes to find out what their problems were and what I would need to do for them and also get their medications ready for the first "pill" round.
Whilst doing this in the treatment room, one of the nurses stuck her head in the door and said Mr So & So is dirty. He was one of MY patients so it was my job to clean him up. To say I was a little miffed would be an understatement. I thought "Oh great just what I need" and "why can't you do it before you go home EARLY," finders keepers is an unsaid rule of nursing.
Anyway, I put aside what I was doing temporarily and gathered the requirements to clean the "dirty" patient. Dirty meaning he was laying in faeces. I gathered the bowl of water and washers and soap, towels and gloves, dirty linen skip, clean linen and went to his room. He was one of 4 patients in a ward.
I pulled the curtains around him and as I put the items down I told him my name and said "Now mate I'm just going to clean you up". THEN I looked at him.
He was very old, frail, cachetic (skin over a skeleton) laying on his side in the foetal position. He didn't speak to me, just looked into my eyes.
At that moment I was hit like a ton of bricks. Looking at me was Jesus.
Not for one minute did I expect it, nor for one minute have I ever believed Jesus had blue eyes, but these were bright blue and I KNEW, I just KNEW that was Jesus laying there looking at me. Not saying a word just looking with the most intense gaze and love and suffering. I think I sort of understand what Mother Theresa felt when she looked at the sick and dying of India.
I proceeded to clean the mess the man was in, constantly looking into his eyes. I would have liked to sit beside him and hold his skeletal hand for the rest of the night. I don't think I treated him any differently than I would any other patient, except for the rest of that shift I kept going back to his room just to look at him and to make sure he was comfortable. I didn't want that experience to go away. But there were other patients that needed my care and I had to go back to the "real" world, down the mountain, and do the same for them.
So I sought of connect with Peter's desire to build the 3 booths and stay up there on the mountain. To not let the experience go. So powerful was it.
In a talk on the Transfiguration I read by Joan Chittister — I guess you know by now she's one of my heroes (I wish I had her light cos she sure lets it shine) — she spoke of Peter wanting to stay in the pietistic moment. To remain above the fray of the world.
So if you have the time take it to read and reflect on her words and hopefully the song is finished by now. I don't want you totally loopy. And think of what is happening in Lebanon and Israel at this time … it is profoundly difficult not to.
There is a tension in religion today that swirls around the struggle for authenticity. Is adherence to doctrinal purity the true mark of the committed Christian? Or is it deference to hierarchy? Or does authenticity lie in being citizen Christians whose intention to maintain the Christian world lies in fashioning into law and public structures the theology of one denomination or another: Enshrining the Ten Commandments in every courtroom, for instance, in a pluralistic society; maintaining a common Sabbath and a common religious calendar of holidays. Or does real spirituality lie in withdrawal from the fray into some kind of pious Nirvana where the cares of the day and the questions of the time touch us not?
The answer, I think, lies in our own story, this one from a scripture that is often translated as a glimpse of glory or a case for contemplative withdrawal from the chaos around us but which, I believe, is really an insight into the spirituality of courage. It is a call for the kind of involvement that changes things. It is a commitment to work miracles for the poor and marginalized rather than maintain them in the name of tradition and authority and good order.
The story that really makes a difference for us today, I think, is the story of the Transfiguration.
Mount Tabor, site of the Transfiguration, is one of those places that is not "on the way" to anywhere. It is steep and rugged and hard to scale. The path that leads to the top of the mountain is hand-hewn out of rock. It is also narrow and dangerous and long: a journey not to be made lightly. Then, at the top, with the exception of the view of the vast, unending plain of Jezreel below -- there is nothing there. It's an out of the way place that has all the character of a dead end.
And it is bleak, isolated, stark Mount Tabor to which Jesus took Peter, James and John.
In the first place, Peter, James and John thought they had been called to go up the mountain to be with Jesus alone. So, the scripture says they "left the world" below and went off by themselves, prepared, apparently, to follow Jesus and find God, to become "contemplative."
On this particular excursion up this particular mountain theirs was a very select group: No one else was with them and they had Jesus all to themselves. It was a pietist's dream. And, sure enough, scripture records that a strange and wonderful thing occurred there. Up on the top of that faraway mountain, Peter, James and John got a new insight into Jesus. Up there by themselves, they began to see Jesus differently. And he was a great deal more than they had ever imagined: He was dazzling and intense and all-consuming. The idea was overwhelming. And very, very heady. It was also very, very disturbing. Because then and there, in a gospel that is apparently about the mystical, the privatized dimensions of religion we begin to see the perennial struggle between piety and Christianity, between religion-for-real and religion-for-show.
There, on the top of that mountain, right in front of their eyes, Jesus, the scripture says, became transfigured before them. He was radiant as the sun. And he was talking to Moses and Elijah. And that's the part of the story that makes the difference.
If we're going to understand the difference between piety and Christianity, if we're going to be able to make the distinction ourselves, it's important to realize four things about this gospel.
In the first place, Peter himself opted first for piety. "Jesus, it's good for us to be here," Peter said. "Let us build three booths." Let's live in this nice comfortable religious cloud, in other words. Let's institutionalize the mystical. Let's concentrate on the next world. Peter knows a good thing when he sees it and Peter plans to settle down in a nest of pieties and wait. At the very moment of his deepest revelation and clearest call, in other words, Peter decides that the spiritual life has something to do with building temples and keeping the rituals and enlarging the facilities and floating above the fray. Indeed, if there is a temptation in Christianity it is probably the temptation to play church. To dabble in religion. To recite the prayers without becoming them. And therein lies the second significant dimension of the story: the almost cacophonous cry of this scripture. No sooner has Peter decided to be a church bureaucrat, a weekday mystic, an office manager, than the irony of the situation shocks us all: Scripture dashes the entire thought in mid-air. "While he was still speaking," the scripture records, "The voice of God said, 'This is my son ... Listen!' "
Then the passage continues beyond today's reading of it to the fulfilment of this incident. Slowly but surely, Jesus begins to lead them around the edges of the cliffs, over the rocky road, back down the mountain to the very bottom of the hill: to the dirty towns and hurting people and unbelieving officials and ineffective institutions below, where the sick and outcast, the abandoned and infected waited for them, expecting the miraculous, expecting to be healed.
The fourth and determining development in the story implies very clearly why they had a right to expect the impossible. Jesus, you see, didn't appear to Peter, James and John with David the king, or with Aaron the priest. Jesus didn't show himself to the disciples with those who interpreted the law or with those who maintained its temples in society. Jesus didn't reveal his work as either royalty or ritual. No, Jesus identified himself on Tabor with Moses and Elijah. With Moses who had led people out of oppression, and with Elijah whom King Ahab called "that troublemaker of Israel," [sounds like Paul Keating's words about Frank Brennan…that meddling priest doesn't it? – Kate] — the one who condemned Israel's compromise between true and false gods — the one, in other words, who exposed to the people the underlying causes of their problems.
Jesus identified himself, not with the kings and the priests of Israel who had maintained its establishments and developed its institutions, good as they were. Jesus identified himself with the prophets. With those who had been sent to warn Israel of its unconscionable abandonment of the covenant. With those who poured out their lives for the people around them.
This Lenten gospel is the very bedrock lesson of the Christian life. If the great spiritual journey is to have any meaning whatsoever in our times, we, you and I, too, will have to wade into the throngs of hurting people on every plain of this planet, listening, listening, listening to the prophet Jesus, and exposing to people the underlying causes of all the wounding in this world and healing what we touch.
And all of that in the face of those institution-types for whom saving the system is much too often a higher priority than saving the people. (I can't stop feeling that this Gospel is so much about what is happening today in Israel and Lebanon and the pictures of the carnage and death I have seen in the last few weeks)
The call to a Christianity that is profoundly prophetic presupposes of course a long, long journey up a mountain to find God. It certainly implies a deep personal spiritual life. But the call to Christianity also means that we cannot have a real Christian life and expect to stay on the top of our antiseptic little mountains.
The call of the spiritual life is the call to take all the insights into the life of Christ that we have ever been able to gather and to go alone back down our private little mountains to the grasping, groaning world of our own time. It is one thing to be devout. It's relatively easy, in fact, to enclose ourselves in a cocoon of pious practices. It is another thing entirely to live a life worthy of a follower of Jesus, the prophet.
If the question of this Gospel is "What must we do to be truly holy," the call to Christianity is surely the call to be aware of the root causes of suffering in this world and to have the courage to work a few miracles of our own.
National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2001
Photo Credits and other links worth a visit:
The image of Mother Teresa comes from the Bruni web gallery of art. I would seriously urge, if you have been moved by Kate and Sister Joan's words to take a further while and go spend some quiet time in this cyber gallery. Bruni is an artist in California and I am sure many here will love her style. There is a full tribute page to Mother Teresa but her range extends far beyond that. Here are the urls for the home page and for the Mother Teresa tribute page:
Virtual Candle: Kate herself maintain a website with a continuously burning candle which is well worth a visit. It is a place for quiet prayer in the presence of those whom you would like remembered in prayer. It's a sort of syber-chapel. It can be found at: http://www.nullisecundus.net/candle.htm
The image used as background to Sr Joan's reflection is of Mt Tabor, the place where it is traditionally held the transfiguration occurred. We've borrowed the image from the website of Zola Levitt Ministries.
KateD is another of the original gang from the CathNews discussion board which became a close-knit international cyber community. She continues to tease us with her Elle avatar and so we continue the tradition in this new forum. Kate lives on the central coast of NSW and has had an active involvement in RCIA and liturgical endeavours at parish and diocesan level.
We welcome your thoughts in response to this commentary in our forum.
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