It is Only in our Emptiness that we find our Fullness

The Triduum

A guest post by Fr. Joel Fortier

“Have in you the attitude of Christ. Christ Jesus, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this God greatly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every other name…” [Phil 2:5-9]

“Now, full authority both in heaven and on earth has been given to me, go and share my life and power with all people.” [Matt 28:18 ff]

We are called as a new creation to share in that same authority, power, and life: to discover the power of the cross, to find in our emptiness our fullness, just as Christ did. It is the power of love. It is in only our poverty that we find our true wealth. “It is in possessing nothing that I possess all things.” —St. Francis of Assisi

We want to know from our lovers; in the hearts of those we love, “Do you have a place for me in your heart?” Why is that important to you and me? Because that is what love means…having a place for each other in our hearts, to carry each other in our hearts, to have a heart for people.

When I truly love and care for someone I make a place for them in my heart. They abide there, whether they are physically present to me or not, and I can always go to that place in my heart and find them…be with them and present to them across space and time.

It is a wonderful thing to have a heart for others. It gives me a joyful grateful heart…full of love, full of people and all creation. It gives me a heart of mercy, understanding and compassion, a heart vulnerable and willing enough to be pierced and emptied even as Christ’s heart was. So that even in and through our emptiness we find the heart and fullness of God. “Have in you the attitude of Christ.” [Phil 2:5]

Because…the great secret is that God’s heart has been placed in us, we have been given the fullness of the Spirit. [Jn 1:16] It is hidden in our own hearts, and we can only discover and release it through our own emptiness. Love only exists if you give it away. The only way we can have what each of us wants, is if we give it to each other. It is then that we discover and meet God who dwells in us and in our hearts, and who wants us to be the heart, hands, eyes and ears of God in our world, full of compassion, mercy, and love for us and for all.

I think that is what it means to have the heart of God, a heart for people, a place where people can dwell in love, where harmony and peace lead to true joy and authentic happiness. As the hymn says, “Where charity and love prevail there God is ever found.” Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them, because God is love. [1 Jn 4:16] What a wonderful thing it is to live in love, to live in God!

Yet we can only do that if our hearts are empty. We have a place in God’s heart, so the question becomes, do we have a place in our heart for God? Or are our hearts are full of other things and people in self-serving ways of self-gratification. Does greed, lust, fear, envy, fill our hearts and minds, or does the love and light of Christ impel us in selfless service and love, for the good of others not just our own.

God can only fill our heart as we empty our hearts. When we empty ourselves we find ourselves, Jesus tells us. [Matt 10:39  and 16:25]. In our emptiness we find our fullness, and in our hearts we discover God; the heart of God which is vast and infinite and has a place for me and you…room for everyone, a heart for people, a heart full of people and all creation! “In my Father’s house there are many mansions…I am going to prepare a place for you, so that where I Am you also may be!” [Jn 14:1-3]

God has given us a new heart and a new Spirit. “I will give you a new heart and a new Spirit…I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you…” [Ezekiel 36:25-27]

Six days before the Passover and the Last Supper, Jesus was with his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Mary took and emptied a jar of costly perfumed oil, washed and anointed Jesus’ feet, and dried them with her hair. Such a profoundly tender and intimate gesture must have touched Jesus very deeply. It was a symbol of Mary emptying her soul out in love for Jesus. Jesus was so touched that he used the same gesture of washing the feet of his disciples as the symbol of the emptying out of his own life in love of us, and as the symbol of service and love he was calling his disciples to live if they were to follow and learn from him. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” [Mk 10:45 and  Jn 13:1-17]

It is only in our emptiness that we find our fullness. Through death comes life! It is the Passion of the Lord; let us enter into it with all our hearts…to discover the joy of Easter!

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Born in 1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL,the Pastor of St. Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”

Though I am lost, I will not fear.

Holy Week (C)

A reflection for anxious wanderers at the start of Holy Week.

Instead of writing about one or more of the readings for Palm Sunday I want to share this prayer from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, a book on the solitary life and the need for quiet reflection. You may already be familiar with the prayer and know Merton’s words are a spiritual balm for a wounded world. Apply liberally, and as often as needed.

 “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”[1]

We live in distressing times. It is hard to see the road ahead when dangerous and hateful talk is celebrated by so many and the use of violence so handily defeats dialogue. This is not Godly. None of this is pleasing to God. These are not the actions of people who desire to follow God’s will, no matter what they say to the contrary.

Yet our current chaos is nothing new. These days repeat like a needle stuck in a gouge on the album of human dysfunction. And the reason, Merton concludes, is because we can’t hear.

In the preface to this book Merton writes:

“No amount of technological progress will cure the hatred that eats away the vitals of materialistic society like a spiritual cancer. The only cure is, and must always be, spiritual. There is not much use talking to (people) about God and love if they are not able to listen. The ears with which one hears the message of the Gospel are hidden in (a person’s) heart, and these ears do not hear anything unless they are favored with a certain interior solitude and silence.”[2]

And here we have the challenge of our faith and the meaning behind our Lenten experience: To live in a way that is a true expression of our love for God and for our neighbor requires the ability to listen, as Jesus listened. We know that this is a way which is wrought with peril; it requires an open and vulnerable heart, or more accurately, as writer Katharine Mahon so beautifully put it, a “broken heart made whole by God for the sake of loving the world”[3]. We do this willingly and fearlessly because we trust that God will never leave us to face our perils alone.

Blessings to you and your loved ones as you enter Holy Week.

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[1] Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, New York, 1956. 79.

[2] Merton. xiii.

[3] Katharine Mahon. “Rend Your Hearts: How to Break your Heart this Lent” Daily Theology, February 10, 2016. http://dailytheology.org/2016/02/10/rend-your-hearts-how-to-break-your-heart-this-lent/ (accessed March 19, 2016).

The _______ who _______.

5th Sunday of Lent (C)

A frightened and humiliated woman slumps to the ground, surrounded by her accusers. She shields her face and her body from their stares, covering herself with what little clothing she managed to gather before they dragged her through the streets to the Temple. She braces herself for the sting of the first, second, and then countless stones hurled at her. She expects to die: she is the woman caught in adultery.

But this story, which is the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is not about her; she is merely the pawn of her accusers, who care as much about her as they do the meaning of the Law which they profess to uphold. The story is not about her crime, although we are confronted with it; it’s not about forgiveness, although it appears to be given; and it’s not a lesson about judging others, although it can be inferred to be. The story of the woman caught in adultery is about the nature of God.

Jesus knew what the Scribes and Pharisees were up to. Yes, they hauled a woman whom they claimed was caught “in the very act” of adultery into the Temple, and thrust her before him as he sat teaching, and demanded that he acknowledge the punishment prescribed by the Law—death by stoning.  The irony of their challenge to Jesus was not lost on him. If they were so inclined to adhere to the letter of the law regarding adulterers, they would not have left the man behind. The law insists both parties be stoned to death [Leviticus 20:10]. That is not to say Jesus’ response would have been any different; his refusal to look at them, his silence and doodling in the sand would have sent the same message. Jesus declined to participate in their charade.

I think a more accurate name for this story might be, “the infidelity of the Scribes and Pharisees,” because it was they who were unfaithful through their continued attempts to trap Jesus, to sideline his teaching, to find reason to kill him; they were unfaithful to God and the meaning of God’s word, which they claimed to know so well. It is they who had been caught “in the very act” and their departure from the scene, one by one, confirmed their guilt.

But even they were not condemned by Jesus. They condemned themselves.

This Gospel is about Mercy, and Jesus shows it both to the accused and her accusers. He chooses not to stare at the Scribes and Pharisees, as they stared at the accused woman. He did not watch them as “they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” [JN 8:9]. To the woman whose life was spared, whose name was “adulteress,” Jesus restored her humanity. No reprimand, no lecture, just the freedom to begin anew. Jesus said to her, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” [JN 8:11]

Over and over and over again, Scripture and our Christian faith encourage us to begin again. We may be lost, confused, living with the consequences of poor choices, but we are never trapped in that identity, “the one who…” We are more than sinners, more than the labels that describe our failings, and as much as it is our human nature to tag and box and prevent one another from moving forward, our faith tells us to keep going. This is what St. Paul, possibly the greatest convert in history, tells the Philippians, “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” [PHIL 8:13-14]

Sin separates us from God. It’s a simple equation: remain close to God, avoid sin. Not so simple in practice, however. Like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day who felt it was their right and duty to end a woman’s life for her sin, it has been the church itself, in the course of her history, whose lack of mercy served to box and label countless women and men. And when I say “the church” I am referring to you and me, not just our leaders. Look no further than today’s headlines showing “Christians” speaking and acting in ways that outstrip the infidelity of the Scribes and Pharisees. Our lack of mercy is so far from the truth of Jesus’ teaching—the truth of God’s nature. We who so readily slip into the robes of the Scribes and Pharisees and accuse others of the crimes we ourselves are guilty of miss the point entirely. Mercy is for everyone, including ourselves. Jesus asked the woman, “Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” [JN 8:11].

The depth of God’s mercy is expressed most eloquently by the Prophet Isaiah when he says, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”[IS 43:18-19a]. How refreshing these words are. Our Creator is not a God of the past, but of the present. The same God, who led the Israelites to freedom, is the one who continues to restore, liberate, and make a way for us today.  Do you perceive it?

Today’s readings can be found here.

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In this Jubilee year of Mercy, and at all times we are reminded to mirror God’s mercy in all that we do. How do you think we are doing? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website includes a full menu of information, options and suggestions, prayers and studies, and ways for us to put our beliefs into action. Please visit http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/new-evangelization/jubilee-of-mercy/index.cfm.

Return to Me with all your heart

4th Sunday of Lent (C)

You may see some flowers[1] in your church this weekend. Enjoy them while you can, because they’ll be gone again next week. The fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday, is a breather, so to speak, from the rigors of our Lenten fast. Laetare [ley-tahr-ee] is Latin for “Rejoice;” it’s a day of celebration. Hurrah, we’re halfway to Easter! The end, or to be more accurate, the beginning, is in sight!

If you were unaware of the liturgical significance of Laetare Sunday, the sight of fresh flowers on the altar after so many weeks of absence (or their replacement with overturned empty vessels) might feel a little bit like the stunt Old Man Winter often pulls on us Northerners, you know, slipping in a few warm, sunny days so all the people of the world (it seems) can step outside of their stale and germy houses to breathe some air that won’t freeze their faces off, only to resume business as usual the very next day with a record-breaking blizzard or arctic freeze. But in reality, bringing fresh flowers into the desert of our sanctuaries—like an early winter thaw—serves as an aperitif; a reminder of the ultimate Feast we will celebrate with the entire world on Easter.

Speaking of the world, it’s no coincidence that the theme of this weekend’s readings is the joy of Forgiveness and Reconciliation.

Forgiveness is hard work. Reconciliation is hard work. Heck, tolerance is hard work. Pride, legitimate differences, misunderstandings, selfishness, ancient grudges, deep hurts and resentment get in the way of making peace. It seems a particularly daunting task nowadays just to agree to find the common ground required for conciliatory talks to start. No one is listening; everyone is shouting.

Returning to God with all our hearts is hard work, too. Alice Camille writes, “The need to forgive so many wrongs in the world “as is” often reaches into the most private sanctuary of all: the relationship between us and our God.”[2] Relinquishing our self-power, recognizing our wrongs and vowing to do better, comprehending our true identity, our interconnectedness with all people and all of creation and our implicit responsibility to care for it all; it’s hard, hard work for human beings.

But Jesus teaches us that, like the son whose father never lost hope in his return [Lk 15:11-32], God is always ready, always waiting for our homecoming.

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. [Lk 15:20b]

I so love to meditate on the image of our creator running to us, embracing us and kissing our faces. (For the record I generally do not anthropomorphize God, in that God is pure spirit, but I find comfort in this image. You may agree.)

The experience of resting in Wholeness is the joy of reconciliation. Whether our reunion is between humans, the earth and its creatures, or with our Creator, re-joining broken pieces is not something we should leave unfinished. But we resist.

Why should we care about reconciliation when it requires so much of us? Because being able to forgive one another, to reconcile ourselves with all of humanity and all of God’s creation is and will always be the greatest accomplishment our species is capable of doing.  You want to see a miracle? We have the power to bring about the reconciliation of the world!

Today is a day to rejoice and continue to work for reconciliation. We began Lent with these words, “Return to Me with all your heart,” [Joel 2:12]. Our faith exhorts us to forgive and ask forgiveness of our brother, our sister, our neighbor, our community, the world, and make amends; start fresh. We are to return to the earth; take off our shoes—it is Holy Ground—reduce our footprint, and steward, rather than exploit creation. Envision wholeness, and restore life to our empty, broken vessels. Return to the Lord, learn what is good, and be strengthened so that tomorrow we can to do it again.

Laetare!

[1] GIRM, 305.

[2] Alice Camille, Paul Boudreau, The Forgiveness Book. ACTA Publications, Skokie, IL, 2008. 16.

A perfect and generous love

Friday of the Third Week of Lent (C)

My heartfelt thanks go to Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, blogger at There Will Be Bread, for inviting me to write the following reflection for her readers, and for the community of faith at St. Edward the Confessor in Clifton Park, NY.  This post and a wealth of deep spirituality and theological pondering, evidence of Fran’s  perfect and generous love, can be found here, on There will Be Bread. I encourage you to visit.

It happens every year about this time, give or take a couple of weeks. Of course, I am talking about the midpoint of Lent, but I’m also talking about the change of seasons. Lent, like spring, is a time of conversion, of reawakening, of planting new seeds, of grace-filled turnings, returnings, and reconciliations.

Around the fourth week of our Lenten practice, new spiritual growth emerges like tender buds urged on by shortened nights. We carefully push back the winter mulch and beckon the sun’s warming rays.

This morning as I walked my dog, a neighbor who I pass every day remarked: “you look happy this morning.” He was right; I know I had joy written all over my face. The birds seemed to chant, Come out! Come out! Squirrels giddily complied, springing crazily from tree to tree, dropping to the ground, and diving in and out of unraked leaves. I spied a family of eight wild turkeys jauntily making their way up a neighbor’s drive. Upon my return I searched the back of my garden for surprises, something I do every morning now. Two days ago I noticed a few snowdrops pushing through the mulch; today I saw hundreds waving their happy little heads in the breeze.

On days like this, when love fills me to the top, I recall the words of Thomas Merton:

“If I were looking for God, every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of (God’s) life that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest.” [1]

Like Merton, I am aware (or, at least, I always try to be aware) that it is God’s love that I feel when the sun warms my skin, and it is through God’s love that I hear the chirping of springtime birds, and it is God’s love that motivates and urges and surprises me year after year with the arrival of brave little flowers and tender buds.

Today’s first reading bursts with lush and verdant imagery. The Prophet Hosea’s final exhortation to the Israelites to repent and return to the Lord is given with an expectation of the Lord’s joyful response. Of course! Of course, the Lord would respond with a promise of new life!

I will be like the dew for Israel:
he shall blossom like the lily;

He shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar,
and put forth his shoots.

His splendor shall be like the olive tree
and his fragrance like the Lebanon cedar.

Again they shall dwell in his shade and raise grain;

They shall blossom like the vine,
and his fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
[Hos 14:6-8]

The whole of Sacred Scripture is the story of God’s desire for our homecoming, and the paths we take in life represent our response. Every Lenten practice provides opportunities to assess and course correct so that we might continue to draw closer to accepting God’s invitation. On Ash Wednesday, we heard these words from the prophet Joel, “Return to Me with all your heart.” [Joel 2:12]. Today’s Responsorial Psalm includes an emotional expression of God’s longing for reconciliation. “If only my people would hear me, and Israel walk in my ways, I would feed them with the best of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would fill them.”

What God offers us is so abundant, so rich, so fruitful, so ridiculously good. Why is it so difficult for us to accept it? What is it that causes us to separate ourselves from the Love of God? Today’s gospel helps us answer that question.

One of the Scribes who valued Jesus’ teaching approached him, asking “Which is the first of all the commandments?” [Mk 12:28b]. While Christian awareness of the commandments is limited to ten, there are 613 commandments in the Torah, so this was an important question to ask. Jesus told the Scribe that Love is first: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” [MK 12:30-31].

Love of God and Love of neighbor. This greatest commandment is the summation of all other commandments, and as the Scribe indicated to Jesus, more than burnt offerings and sacrifices. Everything Jesus taught is an expression of this greatest commandment. Yet, the history of the world reveals our consistent inability to obey.

Our fundamental problem and its resolution are one and the same: God’s gift of free will. We have taken the gift but have lost touch with the giver. God urges us to love, yet we use our freedom to ignore God’s will. Again, words of Merton speak to me:

“If these seeds would take root in my liberty, and if (God’s) will would grow from my freedom, I would become the love that (God) is, and my harvest would be (God’s) glory and my own joy.” [2]

If my every action is a reflection of my love for God, my response to God’s love will infuse my thoughts and words, my relationships, and the work of my hands. I will become love.

This kind of love means I will use my freedom and hold nothing back; I am to love completely, perfectly, generously, and without pause because the love of God inspires me to do so.

Come out! Come out!

The readings for today can be found here. 

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With just a little over two weeks to go before the Triduum, let’s also express our love of God and neighbor with prayer. Let us pray for those individuals whose Christian journey has just begun; for the elect who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil; for the hungry, the lost, the lonely, the hurt, the disillusioned; for the homecoming of all of our brothers and sisters who have been distanced from our faith communities. And let us love God and neighbor by praying most fervently for those to whom our love seems the most difficult to give.

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[1] Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation. Reprint edition. New Directions, New York. 2007. p 16-17

[2] Merton, New Seeds. p 17

In the Din of our Discontent there lies the Burning Bush

3rd Sunday of Lent (C)

I love Moses. I love reading the stories surrounding his birth and adoption, his privileged upbringing, his character and his development as a leader. I love his cautious response to his calling, his developing relationship with God and his honest and forthright expression of frustration both with his work and with the people he was called to lead.

I’m grateful that the Hebrew Scriptures do not sugarcoat or disguise the faults and limitations of God’s chosen leaders and people. What this tells us is that God works through sinful people, and that is excellent news for us. Moses, for example, exhibited real and understandable emotions and weaknesses, making him, for me, one of the most sensitive and sympathetic characters in the Bible. And he’s more like you and me than one would think.

The first reading for the third week of Lent tells the story of Moses’ calling and commissioning. [Ex 3:1-8, 13-15]. The text tells us that while Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flock, an angel of the Lord visited him in the form of a burning bush. (For those who are paying attention, any time an angel or fire appears in Scripture something really big is about to happen. Here we have both!) Naturally, Moses was curious and turned to investigate how a bush could burn and not be destroyed. But before Moses could get closer, God called his name, as if to say, “Moses, this is not about the bush! This entire place is holy!”

Today as we reflect on Moses’ calling consider the burning bushes in your life. Moses witnessed the misery of his kinsman; he saw the injustice of their bondage and infighting [Ex 2:11-15].  What are the needs that demand your attention, what compels you to service? Do you recognize the holy ground beneath your feet? Ask yourself these questions, frequently. Because like the bush that burned but was not destroyed, our callings persist.

Moses became the official spokesperson for God, the hero of the Exodus story, the deliverer of the Ten Commandments and the fearless wilderness wanderer guiding thousands of liberated people to “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” [Ex 3:8b]

But Moses himself did not get to see the Promised Land. Frankly, being on a first-name basis with God has its rewards, but it’s not all chocolates and roses. At the time of his calling Moses was so frightened by the power of God’s presence he hid his face [Ex 3:6]. He had serious doubts about his leadership abilities [Ex 3:11-14]. And on multiple occasions Moses questioned God’s motivation for saddling him with such a burdensome people [Numbers 11 is a doozy]. And they were a miserable bunch: their appalling lack of gratitude, their murmuring and grumbling about the food and conditions, and pining for a misremembered past, their abject disaffection with the present, skepticism about the future, their fickleness and idolatry, their lack of faith, and utter disrespect for Moses, and their rejection of God.

Still, through it all, Moses’ confidence in God’s faithfulness to him never wavered; he turned to God for strength and guidance again and again; he forged on, and he got the job done.

From the perspective of the post-exilic Jews, these stories were painful reminders of why they lost everything and were exiled to Babylon: they had forgotten who they were. But this understanding cemented the identity of Israel as a people freed from slavery by the hand of God; this truth is the heart of the Jewish faith. Moses completed the mission God entrusted to him and left an “afterwards[1]” that continues to grow stronger. The history of the Jewish people attests to this truth. This is our story too.

Because we live in a world of grumblers, I am sympathetic both to Moses and the people he led through the wilderness. We are a sorry, ungrateful, and dissatisfied mob. It is becoming harder and harder to fend off feelings of despair. Every day we read reports that tell us how far off the path we have stumbled. We are heading in the wrong direction. We have lost our way in the wilderness. Even worse is the knowledge we are willingly being led off that cliff.

Have we also forgotten who we are?

But listen carefully. Through the din of our discontent we can make out the sound of hope. It is there. I know it is there. It is rising up. It is a burning bush, do you perceive it? Take off your shoes.

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Art: Kristen Gilje, Burning Bush, hand painted silk, 9ft. x 55 in., 2005

[1] Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and James D. Whitehead, Christian Life Patterns: The Psychological Challenges and Religious Invitations of Adult Life, Crossroad, New York. 1979. 152. The phrase, “leaving an afterwards” describes the selfless quality of intentionally devoting one’s life to something which we will not live to see completed. This ability to see beyond one’s own pleasure to the consequences future generations will face is dearly lacking in today’s socio-political climate. What kind of “afterwards” are we leaving?

Night Skies, Mountaintops, Prayer, Transfiguration, and all the Theophanies Therein

2nd Sunday of Lent (C)

There are pivotal moments, for those who are attentive to them, when God’s presence is indisputable. For many, simply being in a natural setting is enough to attune the senses to a greater awareness of God, and God’s desire for us. Awe opens our hearts to listening and transformation. Prayer takes us there. The readings for the Second week of Lent speak to two of these moments.

First, for those unfamiliar with the word Theophany, it refers to those times in the bible, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures when God makes Godself unmistakably present to human beings, and this divine manifestation leads to callings, covenants, commands, and missions. Modern day people do not experience Theophanies in the same way Scripture tells us Abram, or Moses, or Elijah did. In fact, we get really nervous around people who claim that God literally speaks to them. But, we do experience moments of God’s presence and grace during prayer, in human relationships, and our interactions with nature. Many times these experiences simply affirm our faith, others are transformative and steer us toward making difficult changes or decisions.

The story of Abram’s deepening trust and growing relationship with God leads to a covenant between God and all of Abram’s descendants. Standing in awe beneath the canopy of stars, the elderly and childless Abram puts his trust in God’s promise to bless him with descendants greater in number than the uncountable stars overhead. This remarkable relationship between Abram and God is sealed with a ceremonial pact, like that between friends. God instructs Abram to bring a variety of animals and birds to the ceremony, but the symbolism recedes against the do-or-die oath to which both Abram and God agreed.

Abram’s star-gazing reminds me of the summer of my sixteenth year when I spent a week with my best friend and her family at their lake house on Sodus Bay, NY. We sunbathed, boy-watched, and sailed, but the nights were the best by far. On more than one occasion we ignored the closed gates of the public beach, spread our blankets on the still warm sand and lay beneath the stars, our conversations revolving at first around the things 16 year old girls talk about, but later taking a philosophical turn.

Light pollution did not exist in those days; the grand homes along the shore were discretely illuminated, unlike the runway lighting that seems to be used today. The beach was dark, optimal for star gazing. As our eyes adjusted we entered the vastness of space. My sight went beyond the sprinkling of the brightest stars, recognizable constellations and occasional meteor shower, through the gossamer folds of the Milky Way, going farther, visually dissecting the darkness in search of the most distant galaxies. More than I could fathom, far more than even young eyes could take in, the light of countless stars surpassed the darkness. Space, my view of infinity and all that was known and yet to be known was radiant, diaphanous, yet somehow opaque. It was like a prayer. It was a prayer. My God! My small, young life lay like a single grain of sand beneath the vastness of the universe and the history of the world. Uncountable. Uncounted, except by my creator, whose illusive existence was gradually concretizing for me. Theophany? Probably not. Grace? Absolutely.

What about Peter, James and John, who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop? Is Luke’s gospel account the story of Jesus’ definitive prayer experience, or the disciples’ comprehension of Jesus’ true identity? Was Jesus the only one who was transfigured?

Jesus went to the mountain to pray; he needed to discern the timing of his final mission. Should he leave Galilee when there was still so much more to do, or should he face the inevitable, prepare his disciples for his departure, and start his death march to Jerusalem? Did Jesus’ decision include turning to his knowledge of the Law and Prophets? The appearance of Moses and Elijah with him on the mountain tells us so.

Both Moses and Elijah experienced theophanies on mountaintops, in fact the same mountain: Mt. Horeb. God spoke to Moses from within thick cloud [Exodus 19:9]; Elijah heard the Lord’s voice in a whisper [1 Kings 19:8-13]. Both men received instructions from God as to what they were to do.

And “while he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” The result of Jesus’ intense prayer was visible clarity.

Peter, James and John, asleep as usual, woke up just in time to witness Jesus’ glory. Groggy but still able to comprehend the magnitude of what was happening Peter tried to make the moment last. But a cloud descended on the mountain, enveloping everyone, Jesus, Moses, Elijah and the terrified Peter, James and John. And God spoke “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

While not in the same league as The Transfiguration of Jesus, there is always something sacred about our literal mountain top experiences. There are certain things that can be seen and understood from the top that cannot be grasped from below.

My husband and I have completed many challenging day hikes in New York State, Vermont, California, and Utah, to name a few locations. And I have had a few of what I might call moments of clarity upon reaching the summits. One memorable example occurred on a perfectly clear summer day at the top of Black Mountain, a modest peak amidst the mighty Adirondacks, but a perfect climb for a young family like ours. If you are familiar with this hike you will recall the moment when at the highest point the trail opens near a fire tower to the north, with a spectacular view of all of Lake George and surrounding mountains up to the southernmost part of Lake Champlain. I remember standing at the summit with my family, my heart pounding, my eyes flooding with tears, a great lump forming in my throat, and the only words I could form were ones of gratitude for the abundant glory of creation and my ability to experience it with my husband and daughters.

God speaks. God is present.