The Transfiguration of our Lord, Year A
19 February 2023
2 Peter 1:16-21
I received an e-mail from my brother while we were away. He had come upon a book our mother had given me when I was 14. I did not remember the book. I also didn’t remember that I was 14 then. Inside the cover my mother had written “for Christoph”, as well as month and year. The book is in German. The title translates roughly as “Ordering Principles of Life as the Pathway to True Health.” Now, I was not a sickly child and I cannot remember that I ever read the book. But it is a sign of love when we share something that is important to us with someone we love.
Healthy nutrition and alternative medicine were of great importance to our mother. So much so that our pastor would occasionally preach against it as an ideology. That always annoyed my mother, feeling very much misunderstood.
But the truth was that for her it was an ideology, and if not an ideology then it was the scaffold she held on to, for without it she experienced life as a raging sea. But I did not know that then. What she longed for was no different than what we all long for, stability, happiness, and most of all to be understood. But because she didn’t think she had any of it, she was always searching, and was vulnerable to promises that if she did x then y would happen. That works for some things, but not for all things.
I thought of this as I read the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. A miraculous experience Peter wants to preserve in perpetuity. We all want to preserve the beautiful moments of our lives. And remembering them it seems that our memory transports us back to them. I experience that when I think of our son Elias.
And yet life moves on and we can neither freeze the present nor the past. Life is also not as predictable as we may wish. We are not in control of as many things as we wish we were. Often y does not happen when we do x. Peter certainly wasn’t in control, nor was James, or John, they had simply come along. And when they had fallen to the ground in fear, Jesus came, touched them, and said, “Don’t be afraid. Let’s go.” They could no longer see Moses or Elijah, only Jesus, and it turned out that that was enough.
Often when we just wish that our life were OK and whole, we forget about the rest of the world. That was what happened to Peter. On the Mount of Transfiguration his own private life was well and whole and that’s all he thought he needed. He didn’t even remember their nine friends who had stayed at the foot of the mountain.
Of course, sometimes we need to forget about the rest of the world because if we always think of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, or the war in Europe, when we are weighed down by the things we have little if any control over, then we are no good for each other, not even good for ourselves. But not always carrying all the weight of the world does not mean we carry none of it, because life is not a beach, nor a mountain top, no matter how much we wish it were so.
We have been hearing the Sermon on the Mount during the last three weeks. Jesus talks about what it means to live into the Kingdom, but he begins by telling us how with God what is down is up and that those we would not think of calling blessed are blessed by God.
Dorothy Day was the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. She was a socialist and remained a socialist after her conversion. She founded houses of hospitality for the poor, supported striking farm workers, published a newspaper, and protested against war. Protesting against war often cost her people’s sympathy.
Last week I came upon letters Day had written in which she decline honorary doctorates American universities sought to grant her.
In 1971 she wrote to the President of Catholic University of America, “It is with all humility that I must refuse your generous offer of an honorary degree. … The Catholic Worker stands in a particular way for the poor and the lowly, for people who need some other kind of schooling than that afforded by universities and colleges of our industrial capitalist system. I have a deep conviction that we must stay as close to the poor, as close to the bottom as we can, to walk the little way, as St. Therese has it.”
I find this is remarkable. I am certain that if some institution decided to offer me an honorary degree I would think that now finally I received the recognition I deserve.
But like Jesus, Day is not interested in recognition. Her aim is to stay close to the poor and as close to the bottom as she can. Mountain tops are not her thing. Perhaps an honorary doctorate would have been a rejection of the realities to which she had been called, not unlike building a hut on the mountain to stay would have been a denial of the path Jesus yet had to walk and which we are called to follow.
Peter’s proposal of three huts was the rejection of his nine friends at the foot of the mountain, and the rejection of the way of Jesus.
One of the strengths of Martin Luther’s understanding of God is that Luther does not try to fit God into a box but is able to speak of God in paradox. And how else could we understand the Sermon on the Mount, the task of discipleship, and the cross of Christ?
And so in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 Luther can say, “Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isaiah 45:15 says, »Truly, you are a God who hides yourself.«
And Luther continues, “So, also, in John 14:8, where Philip spoke according to the theology of glory: »Show us the Father.« Christ forthwith set aside his flighty thought about seeing God elsewhere and led him to himself, saying, »Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father« (John 14:9). For this reason true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ, as it is also stated in John 14 (v.6) »No one comes to the Father, but by me.« »I am the door« (John 10:9), and so forth.”
That means that the glory of God is revealed in the cross, in the One who chose to suffer rather than to inflict suffering. When we see Jesus we see God. It also means that we do not need to build a hut, or turn life into a beach, or try to escape the difficult things in life (though no one says we should seek them), but the gift we receive is that God’s glory and presence is right here, in our midst, in our life, even in our suffering.
We need not be able to see Moses or Elijah, because being with Jesus is enough.