If a newspaper theatre critic, reporting on the previous night’s opening of a play and the entrance of its leading male actor, wrote, “Suddenly the audience came to life as a roaring lion burst upon the stage…” we know right away that he is referring, not to a four-legged, ferocious beast, but to the seasoned actor the crowds had come to see & hear.
If we accept as perfectly appropriate such liberty in the use of human speech, on what grounds would we deny the authors of the bible the same literary freedom? Well, we don’t anymore. Instead we’ve learned that very often in the Scriptures – Old and New Testaments – we find the meaning of a passage, not in the dictionary definition of the individual words, but in the total picture that the words create. So, when we hear or read, as we did in today’s gospel excerpt, “His clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them,” what are we to understand really happened? That there was a radical, amazing change in the appearance of Jesus’ clothing? Not at all, because that word picture was a colorful, dramatic way of saying that the presence of God was so apparent in Jesus that one would have to have been blind to miss it.
While I was preparing this homily, I thought of an intellectually curious nephew of mine with whom I had had a conversation about a good priest who, as we were speaking, was dying of a liver disease rooted in his more than 30 years of missionary work in third world countries. My nephew was asking, where is God in such a situation – an incurable disease contracted so innocently and heroically and now about to end a man’s life prematurely and so sadly? I answered that God neither controls nor alters our lives. I said that things happen because they happen – period. I added that the world is full of accidents, disease, and violence, which hurt and kill good people as well as bad. And finally I tried: not even the totally innocent Jesus was spared the injustice of undeserved execution.
But where do such reflections leave us? They place us in the company of the Apostles and the earliest Christians, who believed that God was actually present to them in their enormous struggles and potentially paralyzing fears. Our agonizing expressions of faith leave us with the same support that they had: glimpses of the presence of God throughout our lives of faith.
We may not be able to share those epiphanies convincingly with others or explain them adequately even to ourselves, but whatever the experience of the divine presence may be, no one will ever convince us that we are mistaken or deluded. The celebrated monk Thomas Merton said that we Christians must not think it is inappropriate to worry at times, as if worrying indicates a lack of faith in God. He said that worry is inevitable and that God never asks us not to worry, but instead to trust God no matter how things are going and how we are feeling.
I have had assurances of God’s active and loving presence many times in my life; so have you. I cannot speak of them any better than you can; they are so deeply personal. But I am convinced, as I suspect you are, that God does somehow make God’s presence known to us.
I believe that that is what the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is really saying: that with all the trials that would befall his followers, they could rely for strength and endurance on the evidences of God’s presence they had in times past — and would have again and again. We know from their heroic lives and their martyrs’ deaths that those glimpses were enough for them. We can conclude only that they are sufficient for us, too.