This is Transfiguration Sunday, a good time to revisit this homily I composed for an English-speaking congregation in Switzerland. Few events in the Gospel show man as closely and directly in contact with the Almighty as the miraculous and mysterious events on the top of Mount Tabor.
Well, you came to church this morning and you really got church. You got a miracle. A powerful event. Because what we have in today’s Gospel is powerful, and it happens only once. It’s the experience of the Transfiguration, on the mountaintop, when Jesus becomes brilliantly white and shines with light. He shows that he is the Lord.
The disciples were overwhelmed, filled with fear. And then Jesus touched them and he said, “Rise and be not afraid.” Be not afraid.
In the first reading today we have Abram, soon to be Abraham, who is called by God, and God says, leave your people and your father’s house and go into a land that I will show you. Be not afraid. And Abraham might have been afraid, but he went. He went out of the city of Ur, in Mesopotamia, with its corruption and its idols, and he followed the one true God and became the father of the Chosen People. And you can visit his grave in Hebron in the Holy Land today. God chose Abraham. But Abraham also chose God. There’s a sarcastic little rhyme from 100 years ago that looks at Abraham and says, “How odd of God to choose the Jews,” to which we can respond, “Not so odd, the Jews chose God.” And so it can be in our own lives. God doesn’t force us to go, but he calls our name and says, follow me. What we do next is up to us.
In the second reading today Saint Paul is writing to Timothy, a young man. And he is very frank. He says, you are going to bear certain burdens for the Gospel but do not be afraid: you will be strengthened by the grace of God.
And the same thing goes for the disciples. Our Lord knew what they were facing. And he wanted them to know who he is, in all of his glory, so that they would not be afraid. There he is on Mount Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration, with Moses, this Moses who came down from another mountain, Sinai, with the tablets of the Law — and here he is standing alongside Jesus, the establisher of the New Law. And here was Elijah. Why Elijah? Because Elijah is the prophet that, in Jewish teaching, would come in order to prepare the way for the Messiah. The Anointed One. The Christ.
Peter is so overwhelmed that he says, “Lord, why don’t we stay here on the mountain, and I’ll build three tents.” But Jesus makes clear that the mountaintop, this peak, this blissful experience, is not a stopping point. It is not a place to stay. They would have to come off the mountain and onto the plain. They had to go down the road to Jerusalem, and face the events of Good Friday. The disciples didn’t know what was waiting for them. But Jesus did. And still he told them not to be afraid.
To Abraham, to Timothy, to the disciples — the word is always the same: you do not know what is going to happen, but God knows, and that is enough.
Paul says to Timothy, “You can depend upon the grace of God that was bestowed upon you before time began.” Before the foundations of the world, from eternity — you were intended by God. Saint Paul does not say that life is predetermined, that you are simply walking through a plan that has been set by God. No. God invites you to come along. He asks you to cooperate, to follow.
And our lives become like a journey, from childhood to adulthood, growing more and more into the fullness of what God intends for us.
Now some of us get stuck in childhood. A young woman was talking to me about her boyfriend, and she said something you hear a lot: “he’s not ready to commit.” Not ready to commit. Playing the field. Some people think that refusing to commit, playing around, that this is freedom.
And this idea of freedom seems really modern. People drift causally from one to another, playing the field, playing with their own lives. There are iPhone apps to help you do it. And they imagine they are part of a new digital age of total freedom. Well, Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, wrote about this sort of freedom in the 1870s, 140 years ago. Some of you may have read his novel Anna Karenina. Anna is a woman married to a rich man who choses adultery out of pure physical attraction, on a whim. And her choice is completely self-centered; she is so absorbed in herself that, even when her arms are reaching out to touch her lover, she can’t see past the end of her own nose. She is blocked up and closed in on herself by sin, and Tolstoy gives a graphic portrait of how poisonous and destructive the choice of the self can be.
We know that love is not freedom FROM others, it’s not a choice of oneself and one’s pleasure. Love is FOR the other. It is a total gift of the self. A Dominican theologian who worked here in Switzerland, Servais Pinckaers, taught that freedom doesn’t mean doing whatever we want. It’s not freedom FROM something: he called that negative freedom. Freedom is freely choosing to do what we ought. And that is positive freedom. Freedom FOR something. And when it comes to committing to another human being, people get frightened and they ask, “Am I capable of commitment, of giving love? Am I really capable of making a total gift of myself to another?” And the answer is yes. The answer is that Christ, who gave himself totally for you on the cross, Christ lives within you, and his gift is not only an ideal to be admired. It is a power, a dynamic in every one of us, it’s like an engine of love that works in our relations with others. This is the essence of what is called the Theology of the Body, which is a term we learned from John Paul II.
And as in love, so in life. Be not afraid. As Paul says to Timothy, depend upon the strength that God will give you. And he will give that strength. You say: I am a sinner. Of course you are. That’s why you’re here. That’s why we’re all here. And what better time than this time of Lent to take advantage of the healing of the sacrament of reconciliation?
There on the Mount of Transfiguration: the disciples in their fear. And Jesus reached out, and he touched them. And so Jesus touches you now. Here in the Eucharist. Physically, palpably — as real as reality can be. Jesus present. He dwells in this church in the box over there that we call the tabernacle. And the word tabernacle means tent. Just like the tent Peter wanted to build. Just like the tent Moses built for God in the desert, when there was no permanent place in which God’s presence could dwell. And in Hebrew, the word for tent or tabernacle and the word for God’s presence come from the same root. This is the connection between the Old Law and the New Law. Here is Christ in front of you, and in his humanity and divinity, Christ in this Blessed Sacrament: this is his tent. He reaches out to touch you and to urge you, be not afraid.
Wait on the Lord. He will show you what decisions you are to make. He is showing you. As he showed the disciples, and we read that they looked up there on the Mount of Transfiguration, they looked up in shock after these weird events, there were no more clouds, and they saw Jesus only. They saw no one else but Jesus.
If you are ready to commit, if you are ready to be recommitted to the community into which you are bound by baptism, this Church, the community that keeps its eyes on Jesus, the community of all the saints, living and dead — then you will hear in this hour and in every hour of your life — hear him say, to you, and especially during this testing time of Lent: “Go forth … to a land that I will show you.” “Bear your share of hardship … with the strength that comes from God.” “Rise, and do not be afraid.”