My friends, due to my hectic week of travel and illness—I have opted for some previously written comments with some update. Being that they were from nine years ago, some of you may be hearing them for the first time, and hopefully for the rest, a nice review.
We have completed a little more than a week of our Lenten discipline. Discipline is a good word I feel to describe what this time should evoke in each of us. Whether we are concentrating on “giving up” something or “giving for” something, discipline is needed. A reflection by Sister Joan Chittister entitled, “Why Give up Stuff for Lent?” speaks to this idea. And as is natural for Sister Joan, she lets us know the history of the practice within her comments. Penance and sacrifice go way back, she says—in fact they are part of all religions. Even though we may at times think negatively of doing penance and sacrifice, the purpose for such endeavors is really very positive.
Ascetics, those who practice austere disciplines of fasting and prayer, speak, she says, about conquering themselves and developing their souls—an admirable thing for any of us. Joan continues, “Life, we come to understand, is not only about joy. It is about the power to endure what is not joyful as well”—caring for a dying loved one and eventually laying them to rest as our family learned again this past week. “How is it, that the notion of bridling the self can be as important as satisfying the self?” Joan asks. It seems that it is about balance in our lives. Too much of anything is never good.
Even ascetics attest to the fact, Joan says, that the good things in life don’t have to be forgone, but simply held in balance. The Talmud, that is, the oral tradition commentary on the Torah instructs, “If a person has the opportunity to taste a new fruit and refuses to do so, he [she] will have to account for that in the next world.”
It would seem that we are all on a journey to be our best selves. Lent, as I have said, is a gift of time to help us do that well. Asceticism, Joan goes on to say, is not about giving things up for the sake of it, but really it is about achieving more, like—making space in our lives for the better as opposed to the simply, good. For me, spending actual, physical time with family and friends is better than a phone call, text or email.
For some of us, looking to the saints of old and perhaps even more present day saints—those who aren’t canonized, but we know to be saints just the same can be a help in being our best selves, by watching and listening to them and then, doing the same. The month of March, on the 19th, to be exact, looks at St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. The Italian community sets what they call, St. Joseph’s Table in honor of the saint. This is a feast consisting of a heaped table of food that is then given to the poor.
Sister Joan related this story as a Benedictine commenting that St. Benedict instructed his community to partake in what he called, “reckless, magnanimous hospitality”—not just good, but better! A fine point that she puts on this idea is to say that we don’t empty ourselves just to trim our own lives…but to make the lives of others better. In other words, to sincerely follow Jesus, there must be the responsibility to move beyond ourselves.
In our gospel today, we see the same kind of thing happening. Peter wants to remain in the glorious vision of the Transfiguration while the reality of ministry awaits him and the others. The gift he and the others received is intended to help them more effectively share Jesus’ message with the people—it is never just about the person receiving the gift. What they experienced was a theophany—Jesus’ self-revelation as God. James, John and Peter shared something very special and with all such things for which we are not worthy and have done nothing to deserve, there comes a responsibility to use the gift for others. The Three were entrusted with a special gift—Jesus’ expectation was that they would take the “good,” and use it for something even better–to draw many to follow in his path.
In the early days of my priesthood, there were those in positions of power within the Church and also other acquaintances of mine that accused me and other women priests of being after power and I could always answer truthfully that it was never about power for me personally, but about service for those who felt unserved within our Church. My prayer then and now has been that I could always serve in this role with humility, knowing that the gift and privilege is not at all about me. My hope in these disagreements with others, especially male priests is that they would likewise shine their light of introspection upon themselves with regard to power.
This brings us to our first reading today from Genesis. Here again we see the theme of this entire Lenten Season—God’s gracious goodness lifted up for us in the exchange between God and Abram. When we see what is being asked of Abram, who will later become, Abraham, we realize that there has to already be a strong relationship between him and God—why else would Abram be so willing without any question or argument to pick up family and basically leave all that he knows for a strange land and situation? Even so, given the already existing relationship, it couldn’t have been easy for Abram to do.
It is good for us to remember that what God asked of Abram was momentous in the culture within which he lived. A person in this culture was closely connected to family—one’s people. The place from which a person originated was seen as paramount—one didn’t leave that place lightly. God was basically asking Abram to leave his past, present, and future behind!
It is especially poignant for me to reflect on Abram’s plight in light of our family’s laying to rest our daughter-in-law’s Dad this past week. Patrick O’Flynn left his homeland of Ireland to come to the U.S. to make a home and raise a family. Each year he returned to his beloved homeland and as his children began to arrive, eventually—three; he couldn’t afford to take all of them each year so, each year he took one with him so that they could know their roots.
In the above story we see the generosity of a human father toward his children and in the story from Genesis; we see the five-fold generosity of God toward Abram:
1) God will make him and Sarai, later to be called, Sarah, a great nation, 2) God will bless his family, 3) God will make his family a great name, 4) God will bless those who bless his family and 5) God will curse those who don’t. We see this continued in Psalm 33—the theme of the graciousness of God—“The Creator loves justice and right.” Not only is God gracious but we hear hesed, that is, lovingkindness, used in this psalm to speak of the God who we are dealing with.
This theme of God continually bestowing blessings on the Chosen People, which we really should see as all of us, is one that continues through all the readings today. Paul in his letter to Timothy speaks of this “lovingkindness” as pure gift—not because we have deserved it or earned it. Paul uses a Greek word, to further explain this pure goodness—charis, which translates as grace. Paul then moves us into the 2nd theme for this weekend, which is, a new beginning. Through God’s magnanimous gift of Jesus we have the hope of new life. Our humanity is raised up and made perfect by Jesus becoming one of us and it is Jesus who calls us to holiness, to being our best selves Paul tells us. Our choosing to walk in Jesus’ footsteps is the final theme for this weekend—in fact; choosing to follow Jesus is what we should always be about in our lives as Christians.
The Transfiguration is an event that is good for us to reflect upon on several fronts. First off, if we needed something to confirm for us that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, there is much here to confirm it. Jesus, knowing the culture and beliefs of his time, would have been aware that he needed to choose a high place for such a revelation. Location is everything as the realtors, like my sister, tell us—high mountains were thought to be places where gods dwelt.
Jesus’ purpose was indeed to reveal himself as God while he was yet on earth. The thinking at one time was that the Transfiguration occurred post-resurrection and was a foreshadowing of his future glory, but now most scholars believe his purpose to be the former—to help these first believers to know truly who he was. Appearing glorified in the presence of Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, who represented the prophets, and himself who completed the equation, of all that the people had waited for, had to have been a tremendous strengthening of faith for James, John and Peter! Jesus shows himself to them as God incarnate.
These followers of his clearly can’t take it all in—they, at first glance don’t know the full significance of what they are seeing. Peter speaks out of his compulsive nature—it is what we all love about him! “Master, it is good that we are here!” Yes, Peter, it is, but you can’t stay yet—this is a respite, a time away to become solidified in what you are being called to and for. God instructs them further—“Listen to his, meaning, Jesus’ words.”
That is our call too friends, we must listen, watch and keep our eyes on Jesus—keep our eyes too on those who have followed him well in life—the past and present saints. If we keep our eyes open, strive to be mindful, present to each day and moment, if we can; there will be those times when we too are very aware that what we are seeing and witnessing is of God and we will again have the hope to keep on following him—giving of ourselves for not only what is good, but what is better. And we have opportunities, my friends, each and every day in our Church and country to do just that! May we each be blessed today as we journey through these Lenten days of grace. Amen? Amen!