To choose what is difficult all one’s days
As if it were easy, that is faith. —W. H. Auden, For the Time Being
I have been thinking about the story of the Mount of Transfiguration. It features in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and it is a story that somehow connects heaven and earth, faith and doubt, God visible and God hidden, the past, the future, and the present — and so it is a subject for a New Year’s Day.
On New Year’s Day we come the closest to innocence that we are capable of as adults during the cycle of seasons in the year. We are done with the old year and its failures. We’ve shed that year like a snake sheds its skin, and we look to the new year with a touching naiveté, believing that if we want to fly, we can make it so. We will make new beginnings, we’ll have a breakthrough, all our false starts will fade away. Never mind all the home gym equipment that was set up in the basement with such resoluteness the day after Christmas, only to appear on the curb in March with the rest of the trash.
And so, we keep at it, this starting again and making promises to ourselves, because we absolutely must have a way to break up the surge of time and divert it at intervals. If December 31 is the lowest trough of the year, then New Year’s Day is the wave crest. End and beginning curve back to touch each other like one of Einstein’s sinkholes in time.
At the bottom of the worn-out year, scraping the barrel as it were, all the social norms for many ancient civilizations could be reversed or at least suspended for one night. Kings could be dissed without fear, peasants could don kingly robes. For a few hours, in a bacchanal celebration, all the fears and anxieties of the year could be discarded like old rags. It was a time for the expulsion of sins, for starting afresh, for the regeneration of time itself.
Recently, I read a news article about a dairy farmer who was finally selling off his cows after four decades of running the family farm. “It is said that farmers get forty chances,” he wrote in conclusion. “I’ve had my forty and I’m getting out.” Forces beyond his control had made it impossible to carry on, despite the efforts of him and his family. The plight of small family farms only highlights how important it is to us that we have a chance to start over.
Our lives are played out in an arena of paradoxical claims, as we try to unite opposing elements. “Be ye therefore perfect” sniffs at “All our righteousness is as filthy rags.” “Why has thou cast us off, O God? Is it for ever? Why art thou so stern, so angry with the sheep of thy flock?” gapes in disbelief at “The Lord’s love never fails those who fear him.” For those who search for God with all their hearts, the wry observation of R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet-priest, rings true:
…He is such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive. —R. S. Thomas, Pilgrimages
We may be breathless to keep the back of God within sight, but the time between Christmas and New Year’s offers a chance to catch one’s breath. It is a fertile field of both regret and promise, of challenge and joy, of surrender to the Incarnation and determination for the year ahead. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration reveals the poles-apart thinking of the disciples; we see his glory revealed even as his compassion drives him deep into the common suffering of the world, and he is shadowed by the ordeal to come.
He had taken three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, to the top of what might have been Mount Tabor or maybe Mount Herman, leaving the other disciples at the foot of the mountain where they soon attracted a crowd. The three accounts in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are substantially the same, with Matthew and Luke drawing from Mark’s core story, but adding significant details of their own.
Maybe Jesus anticipated what was in store for him on the mountain, or maybe he just needed to get away for a bit with his three good friends. In any case, there is an eerie resemblance to his night of sorrow in Gethsemane. The same three disciples are close to him while Jesus has a divine encounter; in Luke’s gospel account the disciples grow heavy with weariness and fall asleep, and Peter — bless him — speaks and acts in ways that Jesus must reject or risk losing his focus.
The outlines of the story are simple enough. Jesus and the disciples are on the mountain, when Jesus is suddenly radiant with light, his robe so white that it is almost blinding. Two resplendent figures appear and the three of them speak together.
The symmetry is arresting: Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, bookend Jesus with support just as he is growing into the conviction that he will die violently at the hands of authorities, religious and political, in Jerusalem. (An aside: how did the disciples know who they were? Were there introductions all round?) The disciples are both awed and terrified, so much so that Peter is babbling giddily about constructing three shelters when a voice thunders from heaven, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” The disciples fall to the ground, overcome, and the apparitions vanish, leaving Jesus to touch the disciples: “Stand up,” he says, “do not be afraid.” And when they raise their heads, they are alone with Jesus.
What were they talking about? Luke tells us they “spoke of his departure, the destiny he was to fulfill in Jerusalem.” On the way down the mountain Jesus tells the three not to talk of what they have seen until he has been raised from the dead. Ah, they say, apparently unfazed by talk of Jesus’ impending death and resurrection. In Matthew’s account the disciples raise a question on a technicality. Wasn’t Elijah’s appearance supposed to precede all this? Yes, responds Jesus, Elijah has already come, but nobody recognized him. “Then the disciples understood that he meant John the Baptist.” What remains unremarked upon by the disciples is that this future event, Elijah preceding the Messiah, is already in motion. John the Baptist is dead, the Messiah is Jesus, and he is going to die.
When they reach the bottom of the mountain, they see a commotion in the crowd gathered there. A man has brought his epileptic son to the disciples to be healed — and they can’t do it. The father implores Jesus to heal his son and Jesus explodes: “What an unbelieving and perverse generation! How long shall I be with you and endure you all? Bring your son here.” There is a final convulsion as the boy writhes on the ground, the demon departs, and Jesus hands the boy back to his father. Mark up another victory against the forces of darkness. All’s well that ends well, right?
If we were filming this episode, we would have used tight shots on the contorted face of the boy, closeups on Jesus as he casts out the demon, and then a slow zoom out to encompass the crowd, ecstatic at the miraculous healing, filled with admiration and awe for the power of Jesus. Luke says that after this Jesus went indoors and the disciples, those who had remained at the foot of the mountain, had a private word. Why couldn't we cast out the demon? they ask. Well, says, Jesus, this kind takes prayer.
Pull the cameras back into a high, wide shot stretching to the horizon, high and behind a group of tiny figures making their way south on the Jerusalem road. We know that Jesus has set his face like flint toward the holy city and that ahead of him lies the final conflict and his approaching death. Nothing is scripted here, no one’s hand is being forced; each actor in this drama sets his own lines and actions, according to his will. The events jerk and tilt toward their bureaucratic finality in a way that seems, in retrospect, foreordained, but for those caught up in it the outcome is realized too late.
For us, poised on the cusp of the new year, the transfiguration offers us a way into the times ahead. The Incarnation has been our transcendental experience on the mountain top, our unexpected blessing coming out of the darkness; we would like to remain there — if only for a few more days. It’s a time when people seem to set aside their egos and think of others. If they — we — can do that consciously for several days, why can’t we continue? Perhaps we can keep that going for a week and then New Years’ can act like a slingshot to keep us in orbit above the Earth.
“At some moments we experience complete unity within us and around us,” says Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey. “But whenever and however it happens we say to ourselves, ‘This is it… everything fits… all I ever hoped for is here.’” This is what Peter, James, and John experienced on the mountain with Jesus. “This is the experience of the fullness of time,” writes Nouwen. “These moments are given to us so that we can remember them when God seems far away, and everything appears empty and useless. These experiences are true moments of grace.”
But we can’t remain on the mountain top, up there in the glorious light with revered figures from our past. Down below, back in the world, there are the constant reminders that suffering continues and that we are not complete. This kind takes prayer, says Jesus.
Up ahead are trials, but also moments of transcendent joy, communion, beauty. We are blessed by the Spirit, by the epiphanies granted to us that open us to a steadfast courage. There are crosses up ahead, no doubt, but Spring is coming and there is a resurrection.
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Stephen Pedersen / Unsplash.com
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