“While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory…”
From Luke 9:28b-36
Every time I read the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration of Jesus, my childhood impressions of this event come to mind. The behavior of Peter, James and John after this mountainside experience perplexed me. I’d become familiar with the lives of the saints, and I was especially taken by those who had visions or heard the voices of Jesus or Mary. I concluded that these holy souls must have found the inspiration to do the good deeds that characterized their perfect lives in these encounters. I convinced myself that if I ever heard or saw anyone from heaven, I, too, would live the life of a saint from that moment on.
Since the disciples were privileged to walk, talk and live with Jesus day in and day out, I determined that they should have been the most perfect saints of all. The events that led to Jesus’ death left me heartbroken. I grieved because the disciples lost sight of their friendship with Jesus and deserted him to save themselves. I experienced hopelessness to the extent that a child can. After all, if the disciples who knew Jesus personally failed him, how could I hope to do any better?
Fortunately for me, my religious education did not end in elementary school, and I am not left with my childhood convictions. The realities of life and the human condition have helped me to recognize that Peter, James and John were not alone in the agony that followed their experience on that mountainside. Though Jesus experienced all of this with them, after all it was Jesus who glowed like the sunlight, Jesus was overwhelmed as well. Before he was taken into custody, Jesus wept, sweated blood and begged God to take this cup from him. This very human reaction on Jesus’ part helped me to realize that the disciples did the best they could at the time. After all, they were human, too.
My childhood heartbreak over all that Jesus endured returns to me this Lent. The scriptures tell us that Jesus suffered crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Historians provide the grisly details of this heinous death. Initially, Jesus was scourged with a whip, likely made of leather straps with pieces of metal tied to the ends. Most men of the time endured less than ten strikes, though Jesus was struck thirty times. The scriptures go on to report that soldiers crowned Jesus with a ring of thorns. Later, when they forced Jesus to carry the beam of his cross, they pressed the wood against bleeding muscle because much of Jesus’ skin had been torn away. The road to Calvary lacked the smooth pavement we enjoy today. Each time Jesus fell, dirt, pebbles and manure likely made their way into his wounds. By the time Jesus stretched out his arms to be nailed to the cross, his physical agony was unbearable. No wonder my childhood hope evaporated at the foot of the cross. No wonder my adult heart wants only to be there for my dying friend.
My childhood piety at the foot of the cross prevented me from focusing upon the lifetime Jesus spent teaching us why he would one day find the strength to endure his passion and death. In all that he said and did as he walked among the people, Jesus revealed God’s love. If we take to heart the compassion evident in Jesus’ healing and forgiveness, if we take to heart Jesus overriding concern for the poor, the heartbroken and those ostracized from the rest of society, and if we take to heart the promise of heaven offered in the miracle of The Transfiguration, we must also take to heart the love expressed in each of these things. We simply must not ignore what I missed as a child: That Jesus did what he did to convince us that we are loved and that we are called to love one another.
This Lent, our work is simple. We must put aside our own needs in order to attend to one another and to attend to God. Jesus did actually live and die for each one of us, and you and I are counted among his dearest friends. It is up to us to return Jesus’ friendship in kind.
Precious Lord, God touched humankind with the best of heaven when you became one of us. Help me always to be mindful of the gift of your friendship. Just as you laid down your life for me, give me the strength to lay down the life I have been given for you.
©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved