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Posts Tagged ‘Transfiguration’

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In Pursuit of Transfiguration

I’m probably not the best person in the world to make some sense of the Transfiguration of the Lord, for one simple reason.  I’ve always found this episode to be curiously out of place in the life of Jesus.  It seems so gratuitous and unnecessary.  Why in the world would Jesus pull off a stunt like this?  At worst it seems cheaply theatrical, meant to dazzle a few select disciples.  At best it seems like an irrelevant display of power meant to put distance between Jesus and us.

At first glance, in the Transfiguration Jesus seems to suggest that he’s not at all like the rest of us.  But in fact, years of puzzling over this now suggests to me just the opposite.  Jesus is very much one with us; and of greater importance, in this event he invites us to follow him in a lifelong pursuit of our own Transfiguration.

597FC45A-A9B5-4F96-A294-3B29884FE2BFFor me the key to understanding this episode is the guest list on that mountain with Jesus.  There’s Moses and Elijah, locked in mystical conversation; and watching, like children, are Peter, James and John.  The latter don’t quite know what to make of it all, but in fact Jesus has just invited them to join in this moment of Transfiguration.  Like Moses and Elijah, Peter, James and John are meant to be part of the experience.  And by extension, Jesus also reaches out to you and me to pull us into the picture.

The Transfiguration, then, is meant to humble neither the disciples nor us.  Rather, in it Jesus extends an invitation to continue in a lifelong transformation.  In baptism we took the first step; in the Eucharist we grow further in our transformation; and in the little things of our lives we walk with the Lord on a pilgrimage that once seemed scarcely possible.

So as much as the Transfiguration may be about Jesus, it’s very much about us too.  It’s not some gratuitous stunt meant to put distance between Jesus and us.  Rather, it’s the moment when Jesus shakes us up to the reality of our own possibilities.  It’s an electrifying wake-up to remind us that there’s more to our lives than what we may have imagined.  There is in fact transcendent purpose to our lives.

We all are flesh and bone, as was Jesus.  But like Jesus there is more to us than that.  God has created us in the divine image, and Jesus has come to gather us and lead us into a lifelong process of Transfiguration.  So it is that the Transfiguration is no cheap theatric.  It’s a glimpse into who God calls each one of us to be.

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NOTES

+Today’s post is the text of the sermon that I delivered at the abbey Mass on August 6th, the feast of the Transfiguration.

+Today’s post is something of a personal milestone, in that it begins the eighth year of this blog.  It is the 366th post, published on 366 consecutive Mondays.  The entire experience has reaffirmed one old saw that I regularly repeat.  If I knew at the beginning how much work it was going to be, I never would have done it.  If I’d known the positive impact it would have on my life, I’d have done it a lot sooner.  Thanks for reading this!

+This past week we hosted the Eden Prairie High School marching band for their annual band camp, and it was wonderful to hear their music as it drifted across the campus.  In addition to other groups at prayer with us this week, we welcomed at evening prayer on Saturday the incoming class of architecture students from the University of Minnesota.

+This week I am hosting for a five-day retreat a member of the Order of Malta from San Francisco.  He is here in preparation for his promise of Obedience, which he will make this fall.

+Relatively benign temperatures and plenty of rain have marked our summer at Saint John’s, and the 2.2 inches on Saturday served as icing on the cake.  The rains have worked their own transfiguration of the campus, as the photos in today’s post demonstrate.  They are from the cloister gardens on either side of the church.

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IMG_2644A Moment of Transfiguration

The feast of the Transfiguration has never had the popularity in the Latin Church that it enjoys in Orthodoxy.  In the latter there are icons galore that celebrate the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah;  and the liturgy for the feast is anything but ordinary.  Not so in the West, where it slips by with scarcely any notice.  The fact that it takes place on August 6th, when people tend to be on vacation, dooms it to obscurity.

You’d think that the feast would deserve a little more respect.  After all, the occasion is pretty dramatic, as the gospels narrate the moment in which Jesus, in prayer, meets two great figures from the Bible.  As the disciples look on, stupefied, Jesus is transfigured before their very eyes.  It’s a mind-blowing experience for Peter and the others with him.

Generations of preachers have had fun with all this, as if Peter and the disciples beheld aliens from another planet.  They scarcely knew what to say, and so Peter said some pretty inconsequential nonsense about putting up tents to celebrate the occasion.

What in the world is going on here?  Why do the gospel narrators give us this story but scarcely interpret its meaning for us?

IMG_2651For one thing, in this passage we have a fundamental insight into the nature of Jesus.  In him the divine and the human touch.  The sacred and the material somehow blend, and in that meeting we should all find some little measure of hope.  In the Orthodox tradition spiritual writers have stressed that in Jesus the divine became human so that humans might become divine.  The fact that Moses and Elijah and Peter and the others shared in the experience is an important signal to us all.  Each of us has spiritual value in the eyes of God.  God is not distant from us, and the mission of Jesus is to open our eyes and to draw us into the eternal dimension within us.

A second lesson may have to do with the nature of prayer.  There is something wonderfully naive about Peter’s offer to put up tents.  Still, I don’t think Peter meant those tents to be for the exclusive use of Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  I suspect he had every intention of crowding into that tent with them.  He intended to be part of the moment, and he intended to prolong the moment.  He wanted to milk it for all it was worth.

Years ago people were accustomed to greet the elegantly-clad in our midst with the observation that they looked “simply divine.”  That veneer of beauty is not what divinization is all about.  Rather, it’s about the potential within each of us to be open as God reaches into our very souls to touch us.

IMG_2635Secondly, when God reaches into us in prayer the experience of the divine is often very fleeting.  Only for the rare individual is it prolonged, and that’s the point of the Transfiguation.  In an instant the veil between the divine and human was pulled back, and for Peter and the other disciples it was a moment of incredible insight and perhaps even spiritual ecstasy.

As the Gospels make abundantly clear on more than one occasion, Peter and the disciples are the most ordinary of people.  Chances are good that they were even more ordinary than we are.  If a moment of spiritual vision was their privilege, so it is ours as well.  In that vein, Jesus reminds us that we know neither the day nor the hour of the Lord’s coming; but he comes, in an instant and in the twinkling of an eye.

The gospels encourage us to savor those moments and let them bleed into the rest of our lives.  That is the divination to which God invites each of us.  It  is nothing less than a conversation with the Lord in prayer, and translating it into the nooks and crannies of our lives.   In the process not only is the Lord transfigured in our midst, but he transfigures us as well.  We humans grow in the divine and share in the eternal.

IMG_2626Notes

+August tends to be a rather quiet time in the monastery, but there are moments when there’s almost more than we can handle.  On August 4th we had the perfect storm, when three events vied for our presence.  That evening a number of monks attended the opening reception for an exhibit of monastic art at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis.  Simultaneously there was the annual picnic for current and former trustees of Saint John’s University, which took place in Plymouth, MN.  Finally, those who stayed home had to carry the burden of Mass and evening prayer with diminished numbers.  Though I had two photographs in the art exhibit, I chose the picnic.  My reasoning was simple.  Summer in Minnesota does not last forever.

IMG_2642+On August 6th we celebrated the feast of the Transfiguration.  Again, it was a busy day for us, as the Abbey church served many purposes.  The day started with morning prayer.  Then it was set up for a concert by the Minnesota All-State Choir, whose 250 members had been with us all week.  Then the church was transfigured for a wedding, which continued as a dinner in the Great Hall later in the day.  Then came a baptism in the baptistry of the church.  We monks retreated to celebrate the Transfiguration in the chapel of Saint Benedict, in the crypt of the Abbey church.

+On August 7th we hosted a number of our sisters from the Monastery of Saint Benedict for evening prayer and a festive dinner.  It is an annual event that recalls the visit of Saint Scholastica with her brother Benedict.

+The first two photos in today’s post show an icon of the Transfiguration, by iconographer Aidan Hart.  The third photo shows a practice session for the Minnesota All-State Choir.  Next is Jesus as he presides over the impending wedding banquet in the Great Hall.  Finally, I’ve included a picture of a modern rendition of Saint Benedict, which sits in the entrance to the east cloister walk of the Abbey church.  He was the one who reminded us that “guests you will always have with you.”  How wonderfully right he was!

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