Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tabor and Olives: The Agony and the Ecstasy


Tonight, of course, are the Oscars and this is a great year for film.  With movies like Lincoln, Les Mis, Argo, Silver Linings Playbook  and Zero, Dark, Thirty all up for Best Picture, it is one of the most competitive years in memory.  I think Argo will probably take the award for best picture tonight, even though I’d personally rather see Lincoln win.  

But, as I was reflecting on our Gospel today, I was thinking about another Oscar-nominated film from many years ago that you might recall called Mask.  It came out in the mid-1980s starring Cher and Eric Stoltz based on the true story of 16-year-old Rocky Dennis.  Rocky had a rare disease that caused his skull and the bones of his face to grow larger than they should resulting in a terribly disfigured face.  His grotesque appearance caused people to shy away from him and others to even mock and laugh at him.

Through it all, Rocky never pitied himself or gave into anger.  He had the courageous ability to simply accepted his appearance as part of his life.  There is a poignant scene in the  movie where one day, he and some of his friends visited an amusement park and went into the “house of mirrors.”  As they walk through they begin to laugh at how distorted their bodies and faces look.  But, suddenly, Rocky sees something that startles him.  One mirror distorts his misshapen face in such a way that it appears normal – and even strikingly handsome.  For the first time, Rocky’s friends see him in a whole new way – they see from the outside what he is on the inside: a truly beautiful person.

I think something like this happens to Jesus in our Gospel today.  During His Transfiguration, the disciples also saw Jesus in a whole new way.  And just like Rocky’s friends, for the first time, they saw from the outside, what Jesus is on the inside: the glorious and beautiful Son of God.  And this raises a question for us.  Why is the Transfiguration of Jesus placed among our Lenten readings which are usually somber; instead of being placed among our Easter readings which more typically deal with the glory of Jesus?

The answer lies in the context in which the Transfiguration unfolds.  It occurs right after Jesus tells the disciples that He must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die.  When Peter heard that news, he cried out, “God forbid Lord!  No such thing shall ever happen to you.”  That news seemed too much for the disciples to bear and Peter, James and John were probably in need of a spiritual shot in the arm after that shocking news.  And maybe this is why the Church gives us the Transfiguration in the midst of Lent, too.  We too can use a spiritual shot in the arm before we begin to turn our attention to the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday.

But, I think there’s also another reason why the Transfiguration is placed here in the midst of Lent.  It’s because the Transfiguration bears a striking similarity to another moment - the Agony in the garden.  Let’s look at how these moments are alike.  First, both take place on mountains – the Agony on the Mount of Olives; the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.  They are both witnessed by the same three disciples: Peter, James and John.   They both take place at night.  And, in both instances, while Jesus remains awake and in prayer; the disciples fall asleep.  

That’s how they are alike.  But, in the ways that each encounter is different are ways that ultimately complement each other.  You see, on Mount Tabor the disciples saw Jesus in a moment of ecstasy, when His divinity shone through in a way that it had never done before.  But, on the Mount of Olives, they saw Jesus in a moment of Agony, when His humanity shone through in a way that it had never done before.  Mount Tabor and the Mount of Olives reveal in striking contrast both the humanity and the divinity of Jesus.  These two mountain events are the inseparable sides of the same coin.  They together show us the total Jesus in a total way: His humanity and His divinity; fully God and fully man.

And it is right here that these two mountain events contain an important message for all of us. Like Jesus, we also have a twofold dimension.  There is in each one of us something that is human and something that is divine. There is in each one of us through our birth a spark of Adam and through the grace of our baptism a spark of God. Like Jesus on Mount Tabor, we too experience moments of ecstasy, when the spark of God shines through us so brightly it almost blinds us. We can feel so close to God that it feel as though we can reach out and touch Him – how often the Eucharist is the very pinnacle of these moment.  During these moments, we marvel at how beautiful life is, we love everyone, we hug our friends and family and have the grace to forgive even our enemies. 

On the other hand, like Jesus on the Mount of Olives, we also experience moments of Agony. During these moments, the spark of Adam surfaces so sharply in us that the spark of God can feel like it is flickering out.  During these moments, life can feel miserable, like no one loves or cares for us, we find fault with our friends and we curse our enemies.  We sometimes can even doubt if God is there; we can doubt that He hears us; we can wonder if we’ll ever feel His presence again. 

When these moments of Agony and ecstasy come, it is good to recall these two mountains: Tabor and Olives.  We should recall that Jesus also experienced these same highs and lows in his life.  And we should remember something more important – that on both occasions, during His ecstasy on Tabor and in the midst of His Agony on Olives, Jesus prayed.  Prayer was the way He responded to the heights of glory with the Father. Prayer was the way He responded to the depths of Agony that lay before Him.  And if this was how Jesus responded, it should be the way we respond too.  And, if we pray, like Jesus during His Transfiguration, we too will hear our Father say to us, “This is my Chose One.”  And, if we pray, like Jesus during His Agony, we too will experience the touch of our Father’s healing presence in the midst of our sorrow and distress; comforting us, caring for us, letting us know that it will be alright; that this too shall pass.

My friends, may our loving and compassionate God be with us in glory, as well as in sorrow and may our Lenten journey be constantly making us a people who turn to Him always and especially in prayer.  

May the Lord give you peace.

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