Where would we be without our relationship to God?
A priest is called to the emergency room of the local hospital only to find a young mother, a member of his parish, crying bitterly. Her child and husband were badly injured in an auto accident and their fate is uncertain. As the pastor tries to console her, the mother looks up through her tears and asks, Where would I be without my relationship with God?
I’m not certain that I could even begin to count the number of times that I’ve heard a version of those words in my years as a priest in the church.
Where would I be without God . . . without my faith . . . without my relationship to Jesus Christ?
I am always amazed and strengthened by such words when they come in the midst of such pain and grief.
On the other hand consider the co-worker who sees the cross hanging about your neck and asks, How can you believe in a God who would let innocent people, even little children, starve to death?
What is the difference between these scenarios? Why are some people, in the face of tragedy, able to pick up and move on, to be thankful for their faith even in the midst of suffering? What makes them able to cry and wail and yet have a glimmer of hope, while others only see a God who fails to act?
I can hazard a guess. I think that somehow the hopeful ones have been able to grasp the honest truth that God’s greatest power, isn’t being more powerful than a locomotive or faster than a speeding bullet. Somehow they understand that God’s power resides in God’s willingness to identify with humanity, especially in times of need.
I believe it’s their realization that God’s greatest gift to us isn’t saving us from every danger that comes along, but being with us through the times of injury, pain, loss and grief. There’s no pastoral visitor that should be more welcome than our God of love!
In the Gospel appointed for the Last Sunday of Epiphany, we read the awesome and mysterious recounting of our Lord’s Transfiguration. Jesus takes James, John and Peter, and they climb the high mountain, and it is there that Jesus begins to shine in a dazzling glory. Suddenly this man from Nazareth becomes a reflection of the almighty, everliving God!
And if that isn’t enough for you, Moses and Elijah, the first and the last and perhaps the greatest of the prophets are present on that mountain, and they are speaking with Jesus. And when they had finished, a cloud came over the mountain and engulfed them and they heard the very voice of God: This is my beloved Son.
Kathy and I had the privilege to stand at the foot of Mount Hermon, the mountain that some of the locals in Israel believe is the mountain where this event actually took place, and I could only see the base of the mountain because it was covered in a cloud. Clouds, in the Hebrew Scriptures you may remember, symbolize the very presence of God.
I wanted to take my shoes off and fall to my knees right there. The presence of the Almighty was absolutely thick and utterly palpable in that place! I was awe-struck. I could certainly understand why Peter might get a bit carried away at the thought of it all. It seemed like God became present just for me and a few other tourists who got off of some old bus. But, you see, that’s the nature of our God!
And I would further submit that the Transfiguration reveals that nature to us in this reading.
Now what do you suppose Moses and Elijah were talking about with Jesus up on that beautiful mountain? We really don’t have to guess. All we have to do is flip forward to the Gospel of St. Luke who tells us in no uncertain terms that they are speaking to him about his departure which he was destined to carry out in Jerusalem. The word Luke chooses here is very deliberate.
The Greek word for departure is exodus. It means departure as in the Exodus out of Egypt, but it is also euphemism for death. It’s similar to when we use the words the faithful departed instead of saying the faithful dead.
On this high mountain, Jesus is squarely facing his impending death outside of Jerusalem. He’s facing Good Friday and all that comes with it, and it is in this facing the departure of death that the Glory of God, the very presence of God comes in a dazzling light and from a voice in a cloud.
So what is the meaning of the Transfiguration for us on this last Sunday before the beginning of Lent in the year 2023? Well I think it is safe to say I’m not going to exhaust all the possibilities before I finish this reflection, but I believe that part of what this epiphany on the mountaintop is trying to give us is a panoramic view, a vista of the presence of God in the midst of human suffering.
Moses died peacefully on Mt. Nebo overlooking the lush land below. Elijah got a free ride to heaven in a whirlwind, but the divinely transfigured Jesus — the beloved Son of the very God — was to facedeath while nailed to a wooden cross.
A Rabbi once asked his students who they thought was the most tragic figure in all of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jacob, said one, Saul, said another, and yet another shouted, Job.
Good guesses for beginners, said the Rabbi, but I tell you, the most tragic figure in the Bible is GOD!”
Stop and think about it. In his infinite love and compassion, God surrounds and caresses the suffering of every single person who ever lived. Even in the face of the death of God’s own Son, God’s glory appears in a tangible way.
I believe there just might be a go and do likewise message in this Gospel. When Jesus is Transfigured before us, we are transformed, and we can carry God’s presense into the lives of others. Because of the Transfiguration all of us can now ask — even as we look through tears:
Where would I be without my relationship with God?
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