Here is the second of two talks given at parish lenten retreats in the Diocese of Long Island, 2016. The are intended to form part of an eventual book.
The scriptural text on which this reflection is based follows afterward, for the reader’s convenience.
[Icon of the Transfiguration, Theophan the Greek]
We have been considering the question of identity, about who you really are. We have agreed that t\your real identity has something to do with your relationship to Jesus the Christ. Let’s look deeper into that truth.
Jesus took three of his nearest and dearest with him up onto the mountain while he prayed. I wonder whether he knew what was going to happen; what we call the Transfiguration. Jesus prayed all the time according to scripture. He was forever going aside in the night, in the early morning, any time and place he could, to spend some time with the One whom he calls ‘Abba,’ ‘Dad.’ This time he invites Peter, James, and John to come with him. Typical of disciples – those three then and us now – they basically went to sleep while Jesus prayed. But this prayer of his, in that time and place, like all prayer at any time and place, led to something. And this time the something it led to was quite visible and dramatic. Imagine if you were one of the three invited there by Jesus. You wake up because there is the sound of voices in conversation and a bright light as you open your eyes. And there are Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets – basically the whole message of God to God’s people – and there is Jesus as you have never seem him before, shining brighter than the sun, and recognized by the other two leaders of Israel as the One who sums up in himself both Law and Prophecy, the Word of God in the flesh and now in apparent glory as well. How overwhelming would that be! How many times would you blink your eyes to make sure that you were not still asleep? But no, it is real. And more real than any other moment of your life.
Think about it. Does it not have to be true that as the four friends came down from that mountain a while later that it was not only Jesus who had been transfigured? Doesn’t it have to be true that his disciples as well have been changed, renewed, transformed? How could anyone experience a scene like that and not be changed? Something profound had to have happened in them. As we have understood that event in later Christian history, it was a moment of revelation of Jesus as he really was, the Son of the Living God. The glory that was his always was made manifest in that moment. But for Peter, James, and John, this was the re-creation of these three as something more than they had been before. As all of Scripture testifies, from Moses to the Letter to the Hebrews, no one comes into the presence of the Living God and goes on living as before. No. Something dies. Something new is born. And so it had to be a new Peter, and a new James and John who descended with Jesus from that high place and back to what looked like ordinary life.
But could life ever look ‘ordinary’ again?
Actually maybe it could. I say that maybe life could seem ordinary even after that extraordinary experience because, in a sense, all of us are doing that every day. All of us who have been baptized have a habit of going on and living each day as if it is ordinary. And yet, if we had a living idea of what it means that we are baptized, then we could not possibly live a single instant as if it were ordinary, mundane, nothing special.
And in a real sense, this is where the season of Lent comes in. Lent comes in here as a visible, tangible, livable annual reminder of what the fact of our baptism means for us, yesterday, today, and always.
The roots of this season of forty days are found in the first centuries of Christianity, among the men and women who came asking to be made a part forever of the Body of Christ. After years of preparing to be baptized, to receive the Spirit, to partake in the Eucharist, the final forty days of that time were lived as an intense experience of spiritual retreat before the celebration of the sacraments. Cyril of Jerusalem, archbishop of that city in the fourth century, has left us a series of the talks he gave to those preparing to be received into the church, whom they called the catechumens. The first of those talks tradition recalls that Cyril gave off-the-cuff, spontaneously as it were, when he recognized that he was in a public place in the city in a crowd that likely included some people who were thinking of becoming Christians. According to what those present heard, these words are a part of what Cyril said that day long ago:
“The present is the season of confession: confess what thou hast done in word or in deed, by night or by day; confess ‘in an acceptable time, and in the day of salvation’ receive the heavenly treasure. Devote thy time to the Exorcisms: be assiduous at the Catechisings, and remember the things that shall be spoken, for they are spoken not for thine ears only, but that by faith thou mayest seal them up in the memory. Blot out from thy mind all earthly care: for thou art running for thy soul. Thou art utterly forsaking the things of the world: little are the things which thou art forsaking, great what the Lord is giving. Forsake things present, and put thy trust in things to come. Hast thou run so many circles of the years busied in vain about the world, and hast thou not forty days to be free (for prayer), for thine own soul’s sake? ‘Be still and know that I am God,’ saith the Scripture.”
Cyril of Jerusalem, #5, First Catechetical Lecture
Now there may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable words buried in there for us. Catechisings? Exorcisms? Fear not! ‘Catechisings’ are just the times this group of would-be Christians would gather to be instructed together. ‘Exorcisms’ are the prayers that were offered over them throughout the season, praying for their strength and steadiness and commitment to leave behind a way of life that did not include Christ in favor of a new life centered in and on Christ.
But my favorite words in this 1600-year old talk are these:
“Hast thou run so many circles of the years busied in vain about the world, and hast thou not forty days to be free (for prayer), for thine own soul’s sake?”
This rings so contemporaneous with our present age. In effect he is saying, “Are you telling me that you have been able to run around like crazy people for years and decades concerned about career and investment and planning and work and all the rest, but you cannot carve out six weeks to attend in God’s sight to your own ultimate good?” In other words, are you too busy to think beyond the present to the things that last? That really count?
Sixteen centuries ago these words were on the mark. And it seems they still can hit the mark in us.
So Lent at its roots is the time to realize that time counts. It is the season each year to allow ourselves to be reminded that every day is miraculous, that every moment is astounding, that every prayer is a revelation, that every hymn is the only song ever sung. It is the season to know that it is we who have only just come down in the company of the Christ from the transfiguration mountain and we have been transformed and we will never be the same.
In Cyril of Jerusalem’s 3rd lecture to the folks who followed him home from the square intrigued by his first talk, the bishop points to the very moment, in our experience, when that transformation happens. Listen!
“For thou go downest into the water, bearing thy sins, but the invocation of grace, having sealed thy soul, suffereth thee not afterwards to be swallowed by the terrible dragon. Having gone down dead in sins, thou comest up quickened in righteousness. For if thou has been ‘united with the likeness of the Savior’s death,’ thou shalt also be deemed worthy of His Resurrection. For as Jesus took upon Him the sins of the world, and died, that by putting sin to death He might rise again in righteousness, so thou by going down into the water, and being in a manner buried in the waters, as He was in the rock, art raised again ‘walking in newness of life.’”
Cyril of Jerusalem, #12, Third Catechetical Lecture
What is this? It is baptism. The moment that the forty days pointed toward, and still point toward, is baptism. It is there that our transformation takes place and a new life begins that does not know – ever – any ending. Cyril’s description of baptism, if any of it sounds unfamiliar to our ears, is founded on baptism the way it was always done – and maybe should always be done – by immersion. You stood in water. You went down into the water. You were under the water. Completely. The Trinity was invoked over you. You came up from the water. You died. And you rose to new life. You went down into the darkness. And you rose into the light.
Cyril echoes here the sixth chapter of Saint Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, when Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:3-4)
In this sacrament we share in Christ’s own dying and rising and are made one with him. In baptism we experience what those three disciples did on the mountain. We are utterly changed. Or to put it quite differently but just as truly: we are revealed to ourselves for what we are. In Christ we too are agents of transformation for the world. Through Christ we like him are words of God into the world. Words of challenge and comfort and radical possibility. We become, as the Christian tradition has said since the beginning, ‘other Christs’, anointed ones of God. The promise made to the Samaritan woman we met last night at Jacob’s well is kept in us.
In the seventh chapter of John’s good news, we read that:
“On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’ (John 7:37-38)
That festival was Sukkoth, the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. It recalls the little huts that Israel lived in for 40 years in the wilderness, 40 years when they were learning in painful ways that God always stays with them, that God is always their God, that in every time and place God is always faithful to them as his people. Every morning of that feast the priests of the Temple processed to the pool of Siloam and came back with waters from that pool. They circled the holy place of God, singing with joy, and offered that water back to God.
On the ‘last and greatest day of the festival’ they circled the altar with that water not once as on preceding days, but seven times. It was at that moment, at the crescendo of joy, that Jesus cries out about the water he carries, water that lives within those who believe in him and live in him, water they too share with the world.
We are those people. We are those believers. We are those water-carriers. We are those disciples. We are taking on the way of Jesus.
And what is that way?
It is the way of water. It flows downhill. It gives itself away, natively, without thought, and always. In the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians, in words we have heard here tonight, Saint Paul quotes an early Christian hymn that beautifully expresses this way of water which is the way of Jesus. And in verse 5, before quoting the hymn, Paul says to us, his readers,
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
The Greek word that we translate as ‘mind’ is φρονεῖτε (phroneite). It is rendered as attitude, as mind-set, as one’s way of understanding the world and life and our own place in all of it. It comes originally from a word that points to the diaphragm, to the middle of the human body, to the moving parts around the heart. Paul is saying, ‘Let your ways of thinking and feeling and breathing and moving and doing and being and living be just like Christ’s.’
That way is revealed in one word that comes just two verses later in Philippians 2, verse 7. The word is ‘kenosis.’ It means self-emptying. This verse is sometimes translated in this startling fashion:
“Christ Jesus made himself nothing.”
And we, knowing him and living his life from the inside, are called to the same: to letting go of our own will in favor of allowing the will of God to be done through us.
This way makes no sense in western culture, in 21st century society. But it is the way of Christ and the way of the Christian. It is our way when we are our truest selves.
Have you seen the late 80’s movie, “Babette’s Feast”? It is the story of a French woman, a famous chef, who ends up for years and years serving as the live-in unpaid cook for two sisters in Scandinavia. Babette’s one link to her home nation is a yearly lottery ticket. One year she wins 10,000 francs. She prevails upon the two sisters to allow her to prepare a proper French feast in memory of their deceased father, a minister and pastor and prophet, on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
The meal is fantastic, so much so that even the preparations for it are too much for the sisters and the people of the village. They are scandalized. But the meal in its excellence and flavor and savor wins them over as they sit together at table and enjoy Babette’s feast.
As she and the two sisters are cleaning up afterward, they ask her how soon she will be leaving them, now that she is rich. “Leave?” she asks, “I am not rich.” They inquire about the lottery winning and Babette confesses that she used all she won to buy and prepare and serve the one meal. Everything.
It came freely and it was given freely. It flowed the way of water. Downhill and gone, nourishing the lives of others on its way. There is the key. God gives and we in turn are invited to give as freely and as completely.
Toward the end of the meal a retired general who is present rises and speak words that reveal what it might mean to live as Jesus does, to give as Jesus does, to love as Jesus does.
These words might provide us an entry way, an open door into this Lent and into the rest of our lives transformed in Christ Jesus.
“‘Mercy and truth have met;
Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another,’ he begins, quoting the 10th verse of Psalm 85. And then the General continues,
“Man in his shortsightedness and foolishness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We all know . . . fear.
“But no. Our choice is of no importance. The moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace makes no conditions. And see. That which we have chosen is given to us, and that which we have refused is also granted us.
“Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”
The identity that is ours in Christ Jesus? The way of life that is ours in him? Must we strive? Must we work at it? Must we worry and fret? No. “We must only await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.”
That is the invitation of this season and of this life.
© John P. McGinty 2016
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus* took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake,* they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,* one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen;* listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.