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Seeking transfiguration amid disfiguration.

Every year, I am slightly surprised that the gospel for the second Sunday of Lent is the story of Jesus' transfiguration. I know Aug. 6 remains the Feast of the Transfiguration.

What always strikes me is the tragic irony of Aug. 6 becoming, in 1945, a day of disfiguration at Hiroshima. My image of the transfiguration is the light radiating from Jesus, infusing the apostles, at least to some degree, with new life. What a distortion that light be used to burn rather than warm, to blind rather than illuminate.

And what a different reassurance from the gentle Jesus: "Do not be afraid." The clear message in 1945 was to be afraid: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds" (Bhagavad-Gita). The light of the transfiguration was a new revelation of Jesus of Nazareth; the light in Hiroshima revealed a new power of destruction unleashed on the world.

But it may be fitting that we are reminded on the anniversary of this particular "day of infamy" that in the midst of the destruction wrought by humanity there is Jesus, still present and still suffering in innocent victims but still radiant with the transforming power of God.

According to the Synoptic writers, the event took place at the beginning of the apostles! "Lent" as the daylight of Jesus! ministry marched relentlessly toward the dark hours of the Passion. Jesus had prophesied his own death and given the condition of following him: to renounce self and take up the cross daily. Sobering words to any who listened; grim thoughts for we who live in a pleasure-oriented society that tells us we deserve the best, that pain is unthinkable and unnecessary, that relief is a pill or a shot away. Peter scolded Jesus for not thinking positively: "Heaven preserve you Lord ... this must not happen to you." Like him, we deny, or at least shy away from, the discipline of penance and the demands of repentance to which Lent invites us.

Peter, James and John also were frightened by the possibility of too much joy. For the transfiguration was an affirmation of Jesus, a hint of the unimaginable, a foreshadowing of the boundless life of the risen Lord.

They, of course, resisted the experience. Afraid of the intensity, of the unknown, of life and power so beyond their own, they backed away. On the brink of an encounter that offered them a new vision of reality, they hid their faces. Fearful of that quality of presence afforded only by silence, Peter sought distance, safety and control in hearing himself talk, interjecting his familiar, solid self.

On our own mountains of experience we are no different. The unknown frightens us, the unfamiliar discomforts us, even though they offer new life. Encountering great love or deep emotion, we fear lack of control and loss of self, so we use speech to dispel the experience and regain solid footing. We are afraid of seeing in a new way someone we have neatly classified, afraid of having our minds changed, our hearts moved, our soul turned inside out. Comfortable with our everyday, slightly despised mediocrity, we shy away from revelations of the intimate closeness of the transcendent God.

Even Jesus, completely open to God's power at work in him, may have been surprised at the exuberance of the Holy Spirit who could no longer be hidden in his humanity, who had to break forth. The God-life cannot be contained. Unaware and plodding as we are, at times of deep joy or deep love our faces can be transformed and aglow. And what are these transformations but outbursts of the same Holy Spirit of God-life within us?

We are earthen vessels. Jesus was a crystal vial. Infinitely more transparent and sensitive to the Spirit than we, he emanated the brilliant radiance of that presence. Such affirmation as a beloved Son must have served him in the moment of anguish and apparent abandonment on the cross. Deep within himself he must have remembered with the memory of the heart and spirit, so much deeper and longer-lasting than that of the intellect, that experience of God's transforming love.

This gospel reminds us of the transfigurations in our own lives. These are the moments, always pure gift, never earned and never manufactured, when we are aware of Gods presence and power, that time after a death when we know with certainty that the one we love alive, still near us and loving us; the time of prayer - given once or often in a lifetime - when God takes over our bodies and minds and souls and we know with the knowledge of experience that "it is an awful thing to fall into the hands of the living God"; the times of intimacy so intense that boundaries between two people melt and self-gift becomes self-expansion.

There are moments, too, when the world is transfigured, when it leaps rather than inches toward the omega point, and we are reminded that the Holy Spirit works powerfully in history-changing events.

Thus, we cannot remain on the mountain. The apostles didn't set up tents, despite Peter's suggestion. Luke says of the apostle's attempt to hold on to the moment, "He did not know that he was saying." They and we are given fleeting glimpses of glory, of what is possible but not yet permanent. Perhaps T.S. Eliot was right: "Human kind cannot bear very much reality" ("Four Quartets").

Jesus was again the one they knew, the hidden God, incarnate for us in daily events and dull people. Like the disciples, we cannot live on the mountain but must be ready to follow Jesus there when he invites us, for our hearts are expanded and prepared for resurrection through the small transfigurations along the way.
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Title Annotation:Starting Point
Author:Zimmerman, Paulette
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 26, 1993
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