Scripture had to be read anew with the suffering Christ, and so it must ever be. We constantly have to let the Lord draw us into his conversation with Moses and Elijah; we constantly have to learn from him, the Risen Lord, to understand Scripture afresh. Ratzinger, Joseph (2007-05-15). Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (p. 313). The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I am writing in a stressful time for me. I have a song stuck in my head: “Oh Come All You faithful” to be exact. Annoying as that may be in late February, it is actually much better than the last time this happened to me. Then it was Al Yankovich: “There’s a Cat in the Kettle at the Peking Moon,” a parody of Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.” I am not sure what my mind is trying to tell me right now by having “Oh Come . . ,“ stuck in it. With the Weird Al song, I am quite sure, it was trying to say: “I’m bored.”
The mind works on us every day. Western culture likes to play these things down and is the minority view in doing so. The interior life of people is not just a bunch of neurons firing and making stuff up, at least not to the rest of the world. In most cultures today, if a child came to breakfast and said: “I talked to great grandfather last night,” the answer from the parents would be: “What did he have to say,” regardless of the great grandparent’s place in life or lack thereof. Visions are important to most cultures, even though they are taken serious in our’s only on Saturday afternoon programs on Si-Fi Channel or History Network.
"Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” For Westerners: No problem! We’ll be happy to shut about it. Peter, James, and John may not have shared our dismissal of the matter though, even if they had been 95% sure that 9 /10th of what they had seen had been 99% vision. So, the question needs to be asked how they would have been changed by the experience and why it was necessary at that point in the story for them to be changed that way.
They had been called by Jesus by the side of the lake. Everyone who heard the Sermon on the mound agreed that his teaching had authority. (7:28) He had healed many to the delight of everyone. He had driven out demons. That crossed a boundary. Some ask him to leave their region. (8:34) The Pharisees see this power and question the origin of it. Could it be that his power is not from above but from below? (12:24) Their argument is bolstered by Jesus claim to be Lord of the Sabbath and therefore over its rules. (12:8) How can the Son of the Most High contradict the law of the Sabbath? They had a point: Could not the dark prison below do miracles by commanding its own to mislead the faithful? Jesus’ own mother has attempted to seize him and take him out of public view since he had attracted negative attention from the Pharisees. (12:46) His own hometown had rejected him. (13:53-58) Jesus had attracted the attention of Herod. (14:1) That crossed another boundary. Attention from the political realm, especially from Herod is not a good thing as John the Baptist found out. Neither does anyone else, including Jesus, doubt that the political powers, having taken note of him, will be the death of him. (16:21) He had hung out with out with tax collectors and sinners and it had been noted. (9:11) That crossed yet another boundary because that association was not just ignoble in the eyes of the mosaic law but also a dark blot on his honor and standing in his culture.
How does one sum up this plot line from the Sermon on the Mount to the Mount of Transfiguration? If at verse 7:28 you had all the confidence in the world in Jesus and were ready to follow him, obey him; if you were ready to defend him and tell of his deeds and preach his message (10:5), by the end of chapter 16 you might now be harboring some — what shall we call it — misgivings, or questions, or doubts; all the same, you were asking a more fundamental question: Can I afford to give my allegiance any longer? In a world where such things as honor and allegiance mattered they were aligned with someone whose honor was increasingly under question, especially since he had given away that his was a cause that would end in his dishonorable death. Judas had the right idea. At least let Jesus die with honor in battle for his cause. Lead the legions to him at dark and maybe he will fight. It is one interpretation of Judas’ actions.
The vision on the Mountain of Transfiguration made an important point to Peter, James, and John: Jesus is aligned with God and God is aligned with him — Take that all you who think him a disciple of Hades. Moses who gave the law is there — Take that Pharisees! Elijah who challenged Kings like no other is there — Take that Herod! Both of them are mystical figures who had no graves, at least none that anyone could find or point to. God himself had taken care of their earthly forms somehow, somewhere east of Jordan in the land of Moab. (Dt 34:6, 2K 2:12) It would follow that only God almighty might find them again to have them appear on a mountain in the region of Caesarea Philippi and if they can, by the word of God and by the grace of heaven, appear there as real as Jesus then is the dishonor and disgrace of this world suffered by Jesus and his followers really dishonor and disgrace? “Blessed are you . .“ (5:10,11)
“Do you want us to wait to disconnect the ventilator?” I heard my self answer: “Yes, but that would be unfair to Mom, go ahead, I’ll be O.K.” “Drive careful...” “I won’t.” I set to driving the six hour trip to Nashville. Yes, my mind agreed that it was best for her not to wait for me. But my heart had not settled into the thought of letting go. My foot was firmly planted on the accelerator.
I was outside Carrolton, Kentucky. I was staring out at the highway as if in a trance. The sky was a uniform grey and the fields and woods that bordered the highway seem to match that color as they do in January when everything is painted in shades of grey. Then I heard my soul say: “Mom, why don’t you go. I’ll be alright.” It gave me a start. I knew something had happened inside me. I looked at the clock. It was 3:35; I found out later that it was the very time of her death.
I was at a gas station 20 minutes later. My phone rang. It was my friend Michael Shahan, our family pastor in Nashville: “Peter, where are you?” “At a gas station, Michael, I know why you are calling. Mom died 20 minutes ago.” “That’s odd. Your brother asked me to call you?” “I just knew. Don’t ask me why right now. I’ll tell you eventually.”
The greatest mystery of the contemplative life is not that we see God in the world, but that God within us recognizes God in the world. God speaks to God, Spirit speaks to Spirit, heart speaks to heart. Contemplation therefore, is a participation in this divine self- recognition. It is the divine Spirit praying in us who makes our world transparent and opens our eyes to the presence of the divine Spirit that surrounds us. (Nouwen- Greer “The Only Thing Necessary,” 1999, 35)
I use this Nouwen quote to make sense of the moment. There is a connectedness that is the Holy Spirit that was in two places at once and let there be peace in both places. It should not surprise us that when God stirs in our presence that things are happening that we cannot, and maybe do not want to, explain.
That Sunday I found myself in my pulpit. I had the text from John 2: The wedding at Canaan. I now understood it. Miracles and visions are there to ease our hearts, they are signs to tell us that God is good, that God can be trusted, that there is nothing to fear, that in spite of it all God loves us deeper than we know. But those miracles do not go on forever. They are hints of the future, often missed. They end at some point. They are reassuring words of the heaven.
Certainly the guest at the wedding at Cana had no idea where the wine they where drinking had come from. They most certainly assumed that their host had provided it. No one asked; not even the head steward who assumed the host had merely held back on the most choice wines. Very few, Mary and a few disciples, actually knew what had happened. Everyone else was probably left to wonder where all the wine was from. Yet, a question lingers: After Jesus’ death and resurrection, did the wedding party think back and say: “He was at our wedding, was he not? Is that how the matter with the wine happened?” If they ever did, they most certainly marveled, but the stone jars where empty by then and remained that way. At the same time however, would they not have rethought all their encounters with Jesus to see if anything else stood out? Would they not also have entertained the possibility that God might do further miracles around them and therefore have lived life just a little bit more attentively?
And the disciples? Would the vision they had seen not allowed them to question their doubts, doubt their questions, and give up on their misgivings? Don’t get me wrong: They have a long way to go and this vision will not carry it all the way, no vision really ever does unless it is at the occasion of an utter conversion — ask St. Paul about that. (Acts 9) No, these “events,” vision or physical, have the simple subtext: “Don’t give up.” Must they be physical or can they be ambiguous? Does it really matter? If, in this case, it allows the disciples to follow Jesus some further on down the road to see the outcome of the whole affair then it was worth it and who says that it was not God breathed? They gave Glory to God because of it. Is that not the point? (5:16) What — Peter denied him in the end so it did not work? Peter was at least there to deny him. Where you? Would you have been?
Few are the Saints who are without “events” that they cherish if only in the secret spaces of their hearts. As a matter of fact I know of none, but I have not memorized Butler’s great compendium on the saints. Synapsis do not fire at random. (Yes, they can, that is called epilepsy.) Who says God cannot be involved in that? Can God still have our permission to be about the affairs here on Earth? The flash of a vision is the same as sick person healed or a dying person at peace if they achieve their aim: Glory is given to God and peace is extended to his people on Earth. (By the way, Pharisees, all of Jesus’ Sabbath “work” did that. Just saying)
On a particularly difficult day, having the second layer of your conscious mind stuck singing: “Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation, sing all you citizens of Heaven above, Glory to God in the highest, Oh come let us adore him, Christ the Lord, “ means what?