“IT’S BETTER HIGHER UP!”
- There is a story told of a certain woman who was always bright, cheerful and optimistic, even though she was confined to her room because of illness. She lived in an attic apartment on the fifth floor of an old, rundown building. A friend visiting her one day brought along another woman – a person of great wealth. Since there was no elevator, the two ladies began the long climb upward. When they reached the second floor, the well-to-do woman commented, “What a dark and filthy place!” her friend replied, “It’s better higher up.” When they reached the third landing, the remark was made, “Things look even worse here.” Again the reply, “It’s better higher up.” The two women finally reached the attic level, where they found the bedridden saint of God. A smile on her face radiated the joy that filled her heart. Although the room was clean and flowers were set on the window sill, the wealthy visitor could not get over the stark surroundings in which this woman lived. She blurted out, “It must be very difficult for you to be here like this!” Without a moment’s hesitation the shut-in, pointing towards heaven, responded, “IT’S BETTER HIGHER UP.” She was not looking at temporal things and earthly sufferings. With the eyes of faith fixed on God, she was joyfully looking forward to the ultimate glory that awaited her.
- There was once a young fellow who found a silver dollar. From that time on he never raised his eyes from the ground when he walked. In the next ten years he accumulated $350 in silver, 37 pennies, 18,478 buttons, 14,369 pins, a hunch back, a miserly character and a very rotten disposition. He lost the beauty and glory of sunshine, the smiles of friends, the gorgeous colours and beauty of flowers and trees, blue skies, and all there is which makes life worthwhile… Keep your head up, your eyes towards the stars. You may miss finding a few pennies but you will find all the beautiful things that make the living of life a glorious adventure.
- A church-goer wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper and complained that it made no sense to go to church every Sunday. “I’ve gone for 30 years now,” he wrote, “and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them. So, I think I’m wasting my time and the pastors are wasting theirs by giving sermons at all.” This started a real controversy in the “Letters to the Editor” column, much to the delight of the editor. It went on for weeks until someone wrote this clincher: “I’ve been married for 30 years now. In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But, for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals. But I do know this. They all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today.”
Last week, the 1st Sunday of Lent – ‘Temptation Sunday,’ the Gospel Reading led us to the desert with Jesus, where he prayed and fasted for forty days & nights and was tempted by the devil – and we had a “desert experience” of spiritually disciplining ourselves through prayer, fasting & works of piety. This week, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, the Gospel Reading takes us to the mountain-top to contemplate the mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord Jesus and calls us to ‘holiness’ by having a “mountain-top experience” of spiritually strengthening in us the cardinal Christian virtues viz. Faith, hope & Love.
How often in our own lives do we long for a transfiguration moment. We may struggle for long periods of dryness in our life of prayer. We may struggle with obscurity in our discernment. We wonder if God is calling, but we want to be sure. How often have we wanted God to break through the veil so that we may see his glory, if only for an instant?
Today’s First Reading from the Book of Genesis involves the divine calling of Abraham to become the spiritual father of the people of God. The appearance of Abraham in history marked a new era. The Lord called Abram to take his relatives and to depart from his country and his father’s house to the land that the Lord would show. He was asked to sacrifice all familiar places and the people he knew and move to a new place shown by God himself. His trust in God will lead to his blessings. Abram did not take the initiative to communicate with God or to seek his blessings. Rather, it was Yahweh who made the first move. But God makes his own demands of Abram. First, he was required to completely disassociate himself from his pagan past. Secondly, he was required to migrate to a land of God’s choice. God makes a promise to Abram, that of him, he would make a great nation, that he would bless him and make great his name so that Abram would be a blessing to many. God now builds a new relationship with him. He tells him that through him all families on earth would be blessed and all those who stand with him would be blessed by God. Abram loved God and lived his life searching for God’s voice and being religiously obedient, left all his security and surroundings and entered the unknown. Abram accepts this call in faith and with him a new nation is formed. However God makes it clear that this gift he receives is gratuitous.
Today’s Second Reading from the Second Letter of Timothy is a reminder that God calls each person and he has not stopped communicating to people. God wants everyone to be holy, reminding that all believers have received their life and immortality through the Gospel. Therefore, a special call is given to join in the suffering for the Gospel. For the good news can entail hardships. In the midst of sufferings, a person is called to rely on the power of God. Paul indicates that God offers us salvation and sanctification as a pure gift and not as the result of our works. His calling is according to his own purpose and grace and this grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began. In his foreknowledge of sin entering the world, the Lord God had planned to dispense his loving and merciful grace through Jesus. Now Timothy is asked to preach the Gospel despite the fact that Paul was in prison at that time. But Paul and Timothy recognize that God’s word is a Gospel of power, of salvation, of the expression of God’s eternal purpose, of immortal life in Jesus Christ. This was before the age of God’s people when the Law had been given to mankind, before the age that covered from Adam to Moses, and even before the age of Adam in the Garden Eden. But now, through the incarnation of our Saviour Jesus Christ, death has been abolished, and life and immortality have been brought to light through the Gospel.
IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND today’s Gospel we need to put it into context. Peter had just, in the name of the other disciples, recognised their Teacher, Jesus, as the expected Messiah of Israel. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” It was a climactic moment in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples.
But this was immediately followed by Jesus clearly telling them exactly what being Messiah was going to mean for him. Far from being a mighty warrior-king who would crush all the enemies of God’s people, he was going to be rejected by the leaders of his own people, arrested, tried, condemned, tortured and eventually executed – not by them but by the very hated enemies they expected the Messiah to overthrow.
This was too much for Peter (undoubtedly speaking in the name of all his companions) and he objected strongly. In turn, he was severely scolded for obstructing God’s way of doing things. Even more, Jesus had said that, if anyone wanted to be his follower, then they would have to be prepared to walk the same road of rejection, oppression – and even death.
A Morale Boost
All of this must have seemed like a large bucket of cold water landing on the heads of the disciples.
What Jesus had said was totally against all they had ever heard about the expected Messiah. It is in this perhaps depressed mood that today’s experience takes place.
To give a boost to their morale, to help them see that the way of Jesus would lead to victory and triumph, Jesus takes Peter, James and John to a high mountain. They are the inner circle of the Twelve and are found with Jesus at other times of crucial importance e.g. at the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the Jesus’ agony in the Garden.
This happened “six days” after the declaration of Jesus as Messiah. It is perhaps a reminder that it was after six days that God called Moses into the cloud of glory on Mount Sinai. Also in biblical times revelations often took place on mountain tops. There has been much speculation about which mountain in Palestine was the ‘Mount of the Transfiguration’ but it does not really matter. It is the divine significance of a mountain, any mountain, that is being emphasised.
As the disciples watched, Jesus was suddenly transformed (metamorphoo, metamorfow, a rare word in the NT, from which our English word ‘metamorphosis’ comes). “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzlingly white.” Again it reminds one of the radiance on Moses’ face after he came down from the mountain where he had spoken face to face with God.
Then, suddenly, Moses and Elijah are seen talking with Jesus. Their presence is very significant. They represent the two great traditions of the Old Testament: Moses personified the Law of God’s people and Elijah the traditions of the great prophets.
Their presence and their talking with Jesus indicate their total endorsement of all that Jesus is doing and also of all that he will experience in the days to come. Jesus is the natural continuation of their Jewish tradition and is fully part of it. Therefore, the disciples need have no misgivings about anything they have heard from Jesus about his coming destiny.
A Good Place To Be
Peter, then, with his usual impulsiveness, enthusiastically suggests building three tents or shrines for Jesus, Moses and Elijah so they could stay on the mountain. It was a wonderful place to be just then. Often, when things are good, we would like them to stay that way forever. Unfortunately, life is seldom like that. We have to move on. When we are in the cinema watching a film, we can’t shout to the projection room and say, “Stop the movie right there! I like this bit.” Life moves on. It is true of Jesus and it is true of his followers. We have to keep moving forward and come to terms with the happenings in our lives. In the First Reading, Abram too is told to leave his country and his family home and go to where God will lead him. God is telling us the same every day of our lives.
As Peter spoke a “bright cloud” covered them. No ordinary cloud but a luminous cloud. It both concealed the unbearable brightness and revealed the very presence of God himself. (Again, it reminds one of the cloud which covered Mount Sinai when Moses spoke with God there.)
From the cloud comes a voice, the voice, of course, of God himself: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” These are the exact words spoken at the baptism of Jesus. Again they are an endorsement of Jesus and of all that he will experience, including his rejection by his people and his suffering and death on the way to life and victory.
“Listen to him.” This is directed at Peter and the others.
To listen to Jesus is:
– to hear what he says
– to accept what he says
– to make it one’s own, to identify with it fully.
So far, the disciples have not been doing this. They have been hearing, but not accepting.
At the sound of God’s voice, the disciples prostrate themselves on the ground, terrified. They hear the gentle voice of Jesus, “Get up (rise up) and do not be afraid.” Jesus words point to resurrection to a new life and the abolition of fear and anxiety.
They look up and see Jesus standing there alone; the Father is gone, Moses and Elijah are gone.
From now on they will see “only” Jesus but, after this experience, they know that he is not alone, that he has the full backing of his Father and of the Jewish tradition of the Law and the Prophets. They were learning the lesson that, though Jesus the Messiah would be rejected, suffer and die at the hands of his own people and their enemies, glory and victory would follow.
They were learning that, if they wanted to be truly his followers, they must accept this fully and that they themselves must be ready to go the same way. If they stay with Jesus, victory, his victory, will be theirs too. If they stay with Jesus, they will have nothing to fear.
Back With The People
Then they came down from the mountain. Being with Jesus means not staying up on the mountain.
Being on the mountain was a wonderful experience. “It is good for us to be here,” said Peter. But Jesus came down from the mountain to be with the people in their pains and sorrows, in their fears and anxieties, in their sicknesses and disabilities, in their sinfulness…
Jesus’ other name in Matthew’s Gospel is Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus’ place is to be with his people. And his followers have to do the same. It is nice to spend quiet days at a lovely retreat house deep in the countryside. It is nice to have a really good Mass with a good homily, lovely choir, candles and incense. But most of the time our Christian life is to be spent sharing in the joys and sorrows of our brothers and sisters. We are to be the salt of the earth, the leaven in the dough, the candle on the lamp stand, helping people to know, understand and experience the love of their God for them.
Most of the time we meet Jesus especially in those in need: the hungry and thirsty (in every sense of the word), the sick and handicapped, those in prison. “As often as you do or do not do it to one of these the least of my brothers, you do or do not do it to me.” We are to find Jesus in them; they are to find Jesus in us.
The Lessons of the Mountain-top
What do the apostles learn on the mountain-top? They peered deeply into the identity of Jesus and understood better his divine mission from heaven. The Mount Tabor experience is necessary in the midst of the journey up to Jerusalem, for it strengthened Jesus and the apostles and helps us, also, to gain the necessary perspective, vision and strength required for our Christian lives and discipleship.
Of the Transfiguration experience we might ask ourselves: Why did God hide all the glory on Tabor, where no one other then Peter, James and John could witness? Why didn’t God save it for the cross? Before light flows over us, we need to go through darkness. The transfiguration teaches us that God’s brilliant life included death, and there is no way around it — only through it. It also reminds us that the terrifying darkness can be radiant and dazzling.
Our Own Tabor Moments
Looking back over the past year, let us try to identify some “Tabor” moments in our own journeys.
Who was with us during those moments?
Why were such moments important?
What made us afraid on the mountain?
Why was it good to be there?
What frightens us about going down from the mountain of the vision?
Who or what is waiting for us at the foot of the mountain?
What part of our journey speaks the most to us and sends us forth with renewed vision?
What is that new vision?
How can we become compassionately hopeful people in the midst of the transitions and breakthroughs of our life?
On this Second Sunday of Lent, let us look upon the Transfiguration as the presence of Christ, which takes charge of everything in us and transfigures even that which disturbs us about ourselves. God penetrates those hardened, incredulous, even disquieting regions within us, about which we really do not know what to do. God penetrates them with radiant light, with the life of his Spirit, and gives them God’s own face.
This week let us be counted among those who listen to Christ’s Word and are transfigured by it. As we come down from the mountain of vision, let us pray the beautiful words of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who was inspired by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman to formulate this prayer for her community:
Help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go.
Flood my soul with Your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly
That all my life may only be a radiance of Yours.
Shine through me and be so in me that every soul
I come in contact with may feel Your presence in my soul.
Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus!
Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as You shine,
So to shine as to be a light to others;
The light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be mine:
It will be You shining on others through me.
Let me thus praise You in the way You love best:
By shining on those around me.
Let me preach You without preaching,
Not by words, but by my example,
By the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do,
The evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.