Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Transfiguration And The Great Commission: A Sunday Rumination

     And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray. And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering. And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias: Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.
     But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him. And it came to pass, as they departed from him, Peter said unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias: not knowing what he said.
     While he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him. And when the voice was past, Jesus was found alone. And they kept it close, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen.

     [The Gospel According To Luke, 9:28-36]

     Among the many curiosities I’ve had about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, this one was highly prominent: During his time in the flesh, how much Divine knowledge was he allowed? For example, the Transfiguration episode, which Luke narrates in the above, speaks explicitly of Jesus’s upcoming Passion: “his decease, which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.”

     I’ve speculated that, being both Divine and a mortal man, Jesus was probably greatly afflicted with fear of the pain he was to accept, and that Moses and Elijah counseled him about the necessity thereof and how he should bear it. Other passages in the Gospels make plain that Jesus knew he was to die a mortal’s death and return to the world on the third day after...but how much did he know about the details of his Passion? Did his Father spare him foreknowledge of the agonies he was to endure, out of mercy toward his beloved Son? Or would that be a misconception of the nature of Divine mercy?

     We cannot know, of course. But we do know, from the Transfiguration story, that Jesus appreciated the importance of remaining “on mission:” that is, of not cloistering himself on the mountain, alone with Peter, James, John, and whatever mystical visitations might be allowed them. He knew that until he was to die, his proper place was among men: the poor and desperate of Galilee, to whom he had brought the first revelations of the New Covenant.

     That is the essence of the Great Commission Christ laid upon the Apostles. They were to spread the knowledge of his New Covenant among men, according to their capacity for doing so: a capacity he promised them would be augmented by the Holy Spirit:

     Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things.
     And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.
     And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy:
     And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen.

     [The Gospel According to Luke, 24:45-53]

     The Great Commission has passed from the Apostles down to each and every Christian today. We are no less under its obligation. We are forbidden to withhold ourselves from others.

     What Peter, James, and John had in mind was exactly that sort of withholding: to remain on the mountaintop as Jesus's sole companions. It was the first serious temptation offered to Jesus since his time of privation in the wilderness...and just in case his weariness and need for alone time might sway him, his Father spoke to remind him and his three companions that it simply wouldn’t do.

     A saying attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, though possibly apocryphal, runs thus: “At all times preach the Gospels. When necessary, use words.” Another story of his life, of which I’ve written before, reinforces the sentiment:

     Saint Francis of Assisi was known for his embrace of poverty and utter simplicity. His evangelism was largely by example. An illustrative story about his style of evangelism concerns a brother in a monastic order where Francis had taken lodging. One day the young monk begged Francis for permission to accompany him on a day’s preaching. The saint assented, and they went forth from the monastery at daybreak.

     First they came upon a group of men laboring in the field. Francis said “Let us work beside them,” which they did, in silence, for several hours before passing onward.

     Next they came upon a village where they found a group deep in prayer. Francis said “Let us pray with them,” which they did, in silence, for another hour before passing onward.

     Late in the day they entered a village where a wedding celebration was in progress. Francis said “Let us rejoice with them,” which they did. At last dusk was upon them and it was time to return to the monastery.

     When they had returned to the monastery, the young monk said to Francis, “Brother, was it not your intention to preach today? Yet we spoke not a word of preachment from departure to return.” Francis smiled. “Brother,” he replied, “this day we have done nothing but preach, from dawn till dusk.”

     In this manner should we preach. It’s a particularly important, even illuminating thought in these early days of the Lenten season.

     May God bless and keep you all.

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