Our Transfiguration

“Lord, it is good that we are here” (Matt 17:3).
 
Our hope for the personal and collective transformation that defies death is focused on Jesus. What happened to him is the promise we believe will also happen for us. Death will occur, even as it did for Jesus, but it will not claim us or separate us from the love of God. The question is how this will happen.
 
Today’s commemoration of the Transfiguration is a glimpse into the process that is the central theme of the New Testament and the heart of Christian formation.
 
Three events in the life of Jesus reveal the process of Christian growth St. Paul first articulated in his letters decades before the Gospels were compiled. He called it the “Paschal Mystery.”  Paul writes that our life in Christ begins with baptism. Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan is the first theophany, or manifestation, of who he is. As he emerges from the water -- a reenactment of the Exodus crossing from slavery to freedom -- the sky opens and a heavenly voice declares, “This is my beloved Son.”
 
The second event is the Transfiguration, which mirrors the baptism theophany and also tells us what the beloved Son will accomplish by his death in Jerusalem. The presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus indicates that he will fulfill the Law and the prophets by his passion and death in Jerusalem at Passover. He will lead the way for all of God’s people from the failed first creation to the new Creation, restoring to it the image and likeness of God obscured and frustrated by sin.
 
The third event, which accomplishes the first two, is the crucifixion. Jesus’ death, especially in John’s Gospel, is presented as a richly layered theology of what actually happens as the Son of Man is “lifted up” on the cross. Jesus fulfills the promise of salvation by surrendering himself completely to a sacrificial death that reveals simultaneously his resurrection, his ascension and his breathing forth of the Spirit at Pentecost. In this ultimate theophany, Jesus is revealed as the first born from the dead, the new Adam and the pioneer of our salvation. The church is born from his side in water and blood, signs of baptism and Eucharist as the means of our transformation. 
 
Jesus is our Exodus, our Passover, our human brother going on ahead of us from the old covenant to the new covenant. The command to “listen” to him means to follow him.  Here is the essence of Christian discipleship. We are to listen to his voice, to see our human journey in the light of what Jesus revealed as the purpose of life — to join with him in reclaiming the world for God.
 
This majestic vision can seem overwhelming to us as ordinary believers, but it is the heart of the liturgy we celebrate every Sunday and the purpose of all Christian formation. The Good News is that we have full access to this process of development as ordinary human beings because Jesus is one of us. His human journey is the key to our human journey. His life for others is the pattern of our call to use our gifts to serve others. His full encounter with every form of human suffering, temptation and struggle is our assurance that we can face and overcome the same challenges with his help.
 
Intimately united with Jesus, our faces shine with the divine image and likeness that Jesus restored to humanity and to creation by his Paschal Mystery. This is now the mystery of our passage from death to life in him. From the waters of baptism to the mountains of transfiguration and the inevitable crosses of life, we, too, will hear God’s voice saying that we are beloved children and bound for glory.

Who Do You Think You Are?

"And they took offense at him" (Matt 13:54)

A priest friend who ministered as a counselor in a small city said he knew it was time to move on when he knew too much about everyone. He couldn't go to a restaurant without running into couples who were stepping out on their spouses. He had had several generations in counseling from the same family and knew all the dark secrets.

St. John Vianney, known as the Cure of Ars, would  have had the same burden after hearing the confessions of everyone in Ars or in the region, He must have had to bite his tongue as he recognized the interlocking sins and failures of hundreds of people who confessed to him. 

Jesus returns to his native place, and he impresses everyone with his eloquence and miraculous powers. But, as they realize that he is that home town kid they know everything about, they take offense at him for putting on airs. Who does he think he is? They know he is just a carpenter, and all his relatives are their neighbors. As the old saying goes, "familiarity breeds contempt." 

The tragedy was that because the home town crowd suspended their belief and could not participate in the miracles they hoped Jesus would perform for them, no miracles were possible. The role of faith -- their part in opening the way for God to act in their lives, was withdrawn, and lowered expectations limited what might have happened if they had surrendered themselves to God. 

Jesus wants to come our own home town, to the intimate relationships of family and friends, colleagues and coworkers-- the people who are most familiar to us. Believing that something major can happen in these close relationships is harder than believing that great things can happen to other people in other places.  But home is where we need the miracles most, the healings, the reconciliations and the chances to start over.  The carpenter is in town, the healer of hearts and the source of infinite mercy available to all.  Whoever you are, before God you are always beloved. 

 

Cloud of Faith

"Only when the cloud lifted did they go forward" (Exodus 46:37).

During the long journey through the Sinai desert, and in particular after Moses receives the tablets of the commandments from God, he makes a kind of traveling structure called the "Dwelling" in the meeting tent. There he places the the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the tablets, and surrounds it with a curtain. 

A thick cloud descends on the Dwelling when the glory of God fills the tent, and this cloud also serves to designate the area as sacred. The symbolism serves to convey the awesome nature of God's Holiness, veiled by a curtain and shrouded in cloud. The mystery of God is presented as a cloud that comes to rest on the community when they are encamped, but lifts when it is time to move forward. God guides the journey,  telling the people when to move and when to halt and wait. 

The parables of Jesus seem simple, but they too reveal their message in stages, veiled and in a cloud, and understanding them requires patience and prayer. A single parable, like the one in today's Gospel that compares God's Kingdom to a dragnet, will offer different lessons to different people at different stages in their search for God. A net cast into the sea collects all kinds of things, some of value and some not.  How will we know? Only with experience and wisdom. Our interpretation of the parable will change the more we unpack its questions in the light of our experiences.  All of the parables of Jesus are journeys. He accompanies us through life and teaches us what we need when we need to know it.

If you feel your life is in a cloud, perhaps that cloud contains God. Faith asks us to trust and be patient when we cannot see clearly. We will go forward when God shows us the way.  If you feel your life has caught so many things, people and experiences that you no longer know what is important or worth keeping, God will help you discern what is of value and what to let go of. In any case, God is always traveling with us, even if we cannot see or feel the divine presence. 
 

The Veiled Face of Glory

"Holy is the Lord our God" (Psalm 99).

God's presence in the Bible is manifested as light. Creation occurs when God says, "Let there be light." The brooding, shapeless waters of the void suddenly reflect the image of God mirrored on the face of the trackless wastes, and in that moment the divine image is imprinted on Creation. God, Source and Creator of all that is, continues to sustain the world  as the life-giving light within all things.

The encounter between Moses and the Lord in Exodus is an encounter with the pure Light of the divine Being. After each meeting with God, Moses emerges from the tent with his face radiant. The people see this glow and are frightened of so direct a contact with the holiness of God, so Moses wears a veil when he speaks with them. But when he speaks with God, he removes the veil. This dramatic imagery conveys something of the mystery of God's glory, which is what human's experience when in the divine presence.

Many people have had some kind of experience of God that they cannot explain in ordinary terms. It can be as simple as a series of coincidences that seem to point to special care in a time of suffering or trouble.  It can be a jarring sense of transcendence when everything stops and a kind of breakthrough contact occurs that takes us out of the moment. We know after the fact that everything has changed, and we feel uplifted, liberated from some oppressive weight. God is near, and we feel reassured and strengthened. 

The whole idea of the sacraments is that even ordinary reality-- birth, water, food, forgiveness, vocation, crisis and death-- is only the visible surface of an invisible world of spiritual revelation and encounter. God is in all things, and if we are alert and attentive to the divine presence we catch glimpses of grace at work, love capable of working small miracles, hope holding on in times of despair and darkness.  A light shines through, and we know that we are not alone. 

The parable of the treasure and the pearl invite us to look below the surface, to pursue holiness wherever we find it-- in nature, in human relationships, in challenges and opportunities, in all our decisions. We discover that the light of God is the very sustaining substance of our lives and all of creation. We are meant to glow with God's presence, to be light for others, especially in times of darkness and suffering.  Some day the veil will be lifted and we will see what has always been there -- God -- loving us and guiding us to our destiny in glory.

The Scandal of Mercy

"The Lord is kind and merciful" (Psalm 103).

Whenever we find an interpretation of one of Jesus' parables, most scripture scholars believe that it is a later addition to address some issue in the faith community the gospel was written for.  Today's parable of the wheat and weeds is a good example.

The original parable presents the ambiguity of good and evil in life, a field sown with both wheat and weeds. The farm workers are frustrated and are eager to tear up the field to purge the bad from the good, even if it is hard to distinguish these before harvest.  The central figure in the parable is the owner who is patient and wise. He counsels the workers to wait until harvest, when justice and truth can be applied. It is a gift of mercy to everyone who is still a work in progress. 

The interpretation of the parable reflects the eagerness of the righteous to purge those they think are evil. The situation names the bad seed as the children of the evil one and the sower as the devil. The angels will arrive soon to rescue the good people and cast the bad people into the fire of hell.  This may have described conflict in Matthew's community some 50 years after the time of Jesus, when Jewish Christians were being faced with gentile converts. 

We will not understand the scandal of mercy until we reach the limits of our own forgiveness for those who offend us. But this is the same threshold we are being invited to cross to know the mystery of God's unconditional love. If we can cross over, we will hear the voice of Jesus telling us to forgive 70 times seven, to leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one lost sheep.  This is the radical call to holiness that even the early church struggled to embrace and live. 

Parables of Growth

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed ,,, like yeast" (Matt 13:31). 

The history of the church holds examples of every kind of growth and decline, failure, reform and renewal. When wealth and power threatened to corrupt the church, St. Francis of Assisi appeared and by his radical example was able to draw the institution back to Gospel ideals. In times of laxity and division, St. Ignatius of Loyola inspired a disciplined cadre of scholars and missionaries to bring fresh purpose and direction to the church. 

Throughout that history, Jesus' remarkable little parables have seemed an inexhaustible source of guidance. The mustard seed and the leaven were both small and mysterious causes of enormous potential growth. These images have inspired many generations of Christians who felt discouraged because their efforts seemed small in comparison to the problems they faced. Yet when small seeds were sown, great things happened.  When a small amount of leaven was applied to the larger culture, the results were often astonishing.  

The parables are like the gospel in miniature. If all of scripture and canon law and theology were somehow lost, one of these little images would go far to reconstitute the spirit of the movement Jesus proclaimed.  

A tiny seed blown into the wind finds its hold on soil, germinates, sends down roots and sends up shoots that become plants that grow large enough to shelter the birds.  This natural miracle reveals God's plan for all of creation. It inspires confidence in the power of even our smallest efforts. It teaches us perseverance, generosity, hope and hospitality. Behold the Kingdom of God!

A woman in a village rises early to prepare bread for her family. A small amount of leaven mixed into flour, salt, flour and oil bursts into an expansive miracle of rising dough filling the pans, crowding the ovens, until the aroma of fresh loaves and rolls awakens the community to another day of shared life and labor. Behold the Kingdom of God!

What small resource do you possess that could be multiplied today to bless others? Do not underestimate the power God can draw from your littleness, your inadequacy, your desire to help others. These are mustard seeds and yeast waiting to be multiplied among the many small miracles that will make our world better.

The First Gift

"Do you understand all these things?" (Matt 13:51).

King Solomon was praised as the wisest man on earth because, when he was offered anything he wanted, he asked for wisdom. Proof of his wisdom was that because he asked for wisdom instead of a long life or riches or power over his enemies, he received all of those things as well.

Solomon only prefigured the wisdom Jesus had. The three parables in today's Gospel were all about the gift of discernment as the key to possessing the kingdom of God.  The man who found the treasure in a field quickly devised a plan to get ownership of that field in order to claim the treasure. Though it cost him everything he owned, the man seized the opportunity with joy.. Likewise, the merchant had a discerning eye for fine pearls, and when he found an exquisite one he sold everything he had to buy it. 

Wisdom is both insight about value and the practical skill to sort through all the possibilities to choose what is best. The net fishermen catch many things, but they must know what is worth keeping.  The point of these parables was that the kingdom of God was being offered to anyone willing to make it their highest goal, their heart's desire above all other desires. 

The most discerning listeners in Jesus' audience understood that the treasure, pearl and catch of the day in these compelling stories was none other than the storyteller himself.  Jesus was the the gracious invitation to enter into a new relationship with God that would bring joy. We might imagine that in the crowd was a rich man who realized that all his wealth could not bring him joy, and so he went to Jesus to ask what more he needed to do, Jesus looked at him with love and said, "Sell your possessions and come with us."  Unlike the people in the parables, the rich man was unable to take this crucial step and went away sad. 

On another occasion, a blind man cried out to Jesus, who called him to himself and asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?" This was the same scene in Solomon's dream: "Ask for anything and you will receive it." Like Solomon, the blind man asked for the gift of sight. And when his eyes were opened, what was the first thing he saw?  The face of Jesus. From that encounter he used his newfound sight to follow Jesus on the way. This was his new life of joy.

We are meant to hear this same invitation to come to God in these parables. It is both an exercise of the imagination that one of faith. God continually waits for our response, and those who surrender their hearts will know the joy of the Gospel. 

Word of Life

"Lord, you have the words of everlasting life" (Psalm 19). 

The strength of any culture or society can be seen in the way it uses language.  For the Jews, creation itself was the result of God's Word. Sacred language was the basis for reality and the right relationships that flowed from respecting the underlying structure of the world as an expression of God's design.

In today's first reading from Exodus, the words of the commandments were so immutable that they were carved on stone tablets. They summarized the behaviors and attitudes that gave stability to society, based on keeping God at the center and then treating others the way you wanted to be treated. Obey these basic rules and you will grow and prosper. Neglect these and chaos will ensue.  

Jewish study of the Word was a kind of love affair with the heart of God, cherishing every command, praying over every letter, every nuance or possible application of the law. Meditation on the word or phrase could lead to spiritual ecstasy. The communal scholarship built up by rabbis and their schools gave the world not only the sophisticated analysis of sacred language but also the methods of study that applied to philosophy and science.

Jesus was part of that Jewish culture of praying the scriptures and delving into the Word as an encounter with God. His knowledge of the stories of Genesis and Exodus, the Psalms and the poetry of the Prophets is reflected in his parables.  The Word had to be welcomed into one's inmost being, like seed germinating in good soil, supported by moisture and nutrients. It was not a mental exercise; it was a way of life. 

Face Time

To anyone who has, more will be given ..." (Matt 13:13).

What would direct contact with God be like? The Scriptures offer several accounts of encounters between people and God. Adam is said to have spoken with God as they walked in the garden in the cool of the evening. This intimacy reflects a relationship before sin disrupted creation and estranged humanity from its Creator. 

Abraham speaks with God; Jacob is described as wrestling through the night with a divine figure; the prophet Elijah sees God from behind while hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb. Moses encounters God in the burning bush and later is invited up onto the mountain to confer with God, an intimacy that causes his face to glow so that he wears a veil to protect the people from the refection of God's glory.  

In today's reading from Exodus, God comes down onto Mount Sinai in a theophany of thunder, dark clouds and earth-shaking power. The people are terrified and only too grateful that Moses is their intermediary, for it was believed that no one could survive seeing the face of God. It would be like being struck by lightning. 

God is also veiled, but in a different way, in the New Testament. Jesus was in fact God incarnate, but people were no more prepared or capable of a direct encounter with God than they were at the time of the Exodus. The identity of Jesus was hidden from their eyes. And like the Exodus story, meeting God in Jesus was so intense and transforming an experience that filters and layers were also needed to protect someone's sense of reality from so powerful a revelation.  Glory is glory. Gradual approaches, stage-by-stage understanding was needed until a person could grasp what they were seeing.

St. Paul was blinded by his conversion encounter with the risen Jesus. The disciples after the resurrection needed time and instruction to see Jesus in the breaking of the bread on the road to Emmaus. Their eyes were blinded until they were ready to grasp the implications of their encounter wth the mysterious stranger. 

The cloaking was achieved by the way Jesus revealed himself and the divine Mystery within him. He revealed himself in parables, stories with many layers, so that only those with faith could interpret and enter the Mystery.  The experience was like falling in love, which also involves layers of revelation that prepare people for the breakthrough moment in their relationship that shows who they really are. Strangers become friends, friends become beloved companions, glory meets glory, and an intimate bond is formed. 

Jesus is the parable of the hidden God. He is the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price, leaven mixed into the ingredients of life, the seed in search of the good soil of an open heart.  Let us pray for ears that can hear the deeper meaning of these parables, for they lead to a face-to-face encounter with Jesus our God.  

God's Grandparents

"This is the bread the Lord has given you to eat" (Exod 16:15).

Jesus had grandparents, and we acknowledge Joachim and Anne in today's liturgy. How often did Jesus' family join Mary's parents for meals and overnight visits? What did Jesus learn from his grandparents as he was growing up? These questions remind us of the depth of the Incarnation. God became one of us and shared in every aspect of human development. 

Both readings today deal with food.  Once in the desert, the Hebrews turned their attention to survival and their need for food and water. Moses takes their grumbling to God, who provides quail and manna, a mysterious substance that appeared on the ground with the morning dew.  In today's gospel from Matthew, we return to the parable of the sower, which was also about the food security of the community.  The failure to sow and reap an adequate harvest meant famine, so the apparently haphazard way the seed was tossed onto all kinds of unproductive soil was the tension in the story that is resolved by the abundant yield of some good soil. 

Our common humanity is bound together by our obligation to share food, without which millions of members of the family cannot survive.  Our brothers and sisters in the Sudan and in Somalia are now being ravaged by famine and political instability. They cry out to God, but the answer to their prayers involves us, who have more than enough. This crisis is our chance to ask Joachim and Anne to intercede, for grandparents are always alert to hungry children. 

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