because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore
This week in From Ash to Water we focus on the transfiguration, that mountain-top moment where God reveals his beloved Son to three terrified disciples who up until this point realize Jesus is unique, perhaps even a prophet but more than anything, a mystery they have yet to figure out.
They have witnessed miracles and healings, they have been granted insider access — all-inclusive VIP passes dangle from their necks as they sit at his feet while he explains his parables to them around the dinner table — but still they do not understand who Jesus is! In Mark’s gospel Jesus sighs “from the depths of his spirit” when the Pharisees demand a sign of his divinity, but even his own disciples are given signs they fail to see:
Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear? And do you not remember, when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many wicker baskets full of fragments you picked up? They answered him, “Twelve.” When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many baskets did you pick up? They answered him, “Seven.” He said to them, Do you still not understand? ~ Mark 8:17-21
Immediately after this he heals yet another blind man, but the disciples continue to waiver and wonder.
I’ve written before about this Jesus; I call him “the eyerolling Jesus” because time and time again his chosen followers struggle to believe in him, despite all of his teachings, miracles, and healings. And he grows tired of their lack of faith, sighing and rolling his eyes. Need I perform yet another miracle for you? We tend to associate Jesus with perfect compassion, patience, and love, but look carefully and you witness also his very human frustration over the question of his identity. Who do people say that I am? This is why the story of his transfiguration is so important.
Jesus wants to explain the essence of his divine mystery to remove any question — to show his disciples in no uncertain terms who he is — and to help us understand we get this story in the scriptures of an encounter. Jesus takes three of his closest friends aside and asks them to walk up the mountaintop with him. If you allow yourself to imagine journeying alongside them, you could sense the hush all around, the isolation of the trail leading up and away from the village below. Crickets leaping at their feet give way to the distant chirping of birds or a whispering of wind ruffling through the grass. You feel the warm sun on your skin, and perhaps you imagine the anticipation brewing in the minds of Peter, James and John as they leisurely make their way up the mountain, wondering each to himself Why did he choose me? Where is he taking us?
Then, as they reach the peak, Jesus stops. He turns to face them as if to say, look at me now. And suddenly he is transformed before them into a vision of bright light, his face shining like the sun and his garments a dazzling white Mark describes as so unimaginably brilliant “no fuller on earth could bleach them.” No parables. No healings. Just the Son of God showing them, This is who I really am: a blinding reflection of divine energy. He stands between Moses and Elijah, and Peter, James and John become eye-witnesses to God’s promise from the Old Covenant fulfilled. The disciples are awestruck by the vision of Christ in his glory– they’re so drawn to that divine energy, they want to pitch tents and stay there forever!
I hear an important message in what happens next, though, for just as they begin to learn who Jesus really is and are ready to abandon everything to live in paradise with him on that mountain top, God casts a shadow over everything and like a needle scratching across a vinyl record, he breaks the spell. This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased: listen to him.
L I S T E N T O J E S U S
Suddenly that vision of paradise glimpsed is now gone, and the disciples are left with these words: this is my beloved son; listen to him. A voice from a cloud. Spoken and then gone. All outward signs of the miracle disappear — the shining light, the bright clothes, even the voice — but the experience changes the hearts and minds of the disciples. With renewed faith and utterly transformed by this miraculous encounter, the disciples are given hope that will sustain them through Christ’s Passion. They are given courage to walk back down from the mountain with Jesus. The transfiguration prepares them for their ministry, to be witnesses to the Paschal Mystery and to shepherd others in this journey of faith. This story is their story, and you know it well. But imagine yourself in their place and it becomes your story, too! What will happen to you if you truly listen to Jesus?
If you attend daily mass this week or if you follow along in From Ash to Water, Jesus speaks to us through the scriptures, inviting us to listen and to become ourselves transfigured by his divine teachings.
He will tell us to love with kindness, to be merciful, just as your father is merciful . . . stop judging . . .
F O R G I V E
He will tell us to live by example, to practice what we preach. He will warn us against seeking honor and glory, that whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
S E R V E O T H E R S with H U M I L I TY
He will tell us to listen to the cries of the suffering, to open our hearts to the poor, and to share in our harvest.
G I V E G E N E R O U S L Y
Before the end of the week, he will offer us a glimpse into his Passion. We know this story: God loves humanity so much, he will sacrifice his beloved son, subject him to suffering and death, and raise him up to eternal life.
L O V E
The transfiguration story gives us a greater understanding of who Jesus is but understanding is only half of the journey. God wants to intervene and remind us, we can not stay on that mountain top with Jesus no more than Peter, James and John could. We must listen to Jesus. We must be open to changing our hearts and minds, and once transformed by him, we must go out with renewed faith and share his divine energy with others.
Jesus is often described as a light, and in the transfiguration story in particular, he literally dazzles the disciples with his emanating energy, shining like the sun. Have you ever felt the electrifying presence of God in this way? What is it that draws you closer to God? Can you articulate what pulls you in?
Wouldn’t it be nice if God’s voice was always clear, whether booming at us from a cloud or whispering in our ear? How else have you felt God present in prayers answered?
Being in the presence of God is a comfort and joy, and when we are deeply spiritual we might feel our spell is broken when we “come down from the mountain.” Have you ever felt this way? What were you afraid of?
How can we personally and as a community be better listeners to Christ?
P R A Y E R
This week we’re using a beautiful prayer that can be found on the Prayers for Lent page. It’s called “for Transfiguration.” If you’re ready, click on the link to read the prayer.
If you don’t already keep a prayer journal, maybe this Lent you’d consider experimenting with this rewarding spiritual practice. Find a special pen and a lovely notebook and copy the prayer onto a blank page, to keep and reflect on later.