The scripture readings for Lenten Masses are well chosen and effective. They are listed in the parish bulletin and I suggest that you read them beforehand. This is a wonderful way to enrich your experience of Mass. The prayers, however, are also beautiful and can teach us a great deal. Today in the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer, that is the prayer said immediately before the Holy, Holy, Holy, we will hear: ‘for after he had told his disciples of his coming death, on the holy mountain he manifested himself to them in his glory… to show that the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection”. This refers to the passage before today’s selection. They are connected by a common theme, the same characters but also by the experience of fear. Let us look at the last item.
We come upon Jesus and the disciples at a rather frustrating time for Jesus. He has been preaching to large crowds, but they have failed to understand his message. This is understandable. I doubt I would have understood Him in their place. Jesus was self-consciously fulfilling all the requirements of the Messiah but in completely unexpected and for most people incomprehensible ways. It is therefore remarkable that when he asked the disciples who they thought He was Peter, always the spokesman, responded “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” Jesus recognized that this insight came from the Father and told his disciples that he “must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised”. (Mt 16: 21)
Peter, again speaking for the other disciples, said in horror: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” (Mt 16: 22) We can smell the fear. He may not have even heard the phrase about being raised but certainly heard about being killed. He knew that he was in danger.
Jesus understood this fear and we might expect him, who was kindness made flesh, to reach out to his suffering friends. His comment however was: Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Mt 16: 23)
To reinforce his anger he immediately added “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. (Mt 16: 24) The Cross was never mentioned in Roman society. It was considered too horrible a fate. Yet, Jesus could not be stronger or more uncompromising in his language. Being His disciple did not mean learning His teachings and becoming rabbis, but in saving their lives by losing them in and for Him, a terrifying future. (Mt 16:25) Nonetheless, He does not comfort them nor even acknowledge that He understood their fear.
The events of today’s gospel occur 6 days after this. The most important reality is not stated. Peter and the Apostles still followed Jesus. I wonder if I would have after being told that the best description of what I was called to do was the possibility which scared me more than all others. Far from criticizing the disciples we should admire their faith and their courage.
He brings Peter, James and John up to a mountain. Here “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” (Mt 17:2) Note the references to Moses. Moses went up the mountain to meet the Lord and his face was also ablaze with light. However, there is a significant difference. Moses reflected the light of God; Jesus possesses it on his own. He is revealing to the disciples who he is. This revelation however was only possible because the disciples began to follow the Jesus they knew was to die. Knowledge of the Cross is the gateway to the Resurrection.
They however have a way to go. Moses and Elijah both appear to them and stand with Jesus. They are the two great figures of the Jewish people who were thought to return when the Messiah arose. (Elijah: Mal4:5-6) and Moses: (Dt 18:15-18). Peter assumed correctly that their appearance meant that the kingdom has come but he has not fully understood what kind of King Jesus is and what he will bring. Peter and the others did not think of this as the end of the world but its transformation. The Messiah would come and restore Israel to its proper place in the world. There were many interpretations of this but in all the Jews will be an important part of this world.
When Peter asked to build tents, he assumed that the angelic army was coming to install Jesus as King and they would wait with him for the inevitable victory. That is brought to a swift end with the Father calling out of a cloud that Jesus is indeed his son and that they must listen to him (Mt 17:5) The Lord appeared in a cloud to Moses and indeed throughout Jewish history whenever he commanded something difficult (e.g. Ex 40:35).They had every reason to be “very much afraid”.
Yet this time Jesus “came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” (Mt 17:7) Note he not only had words of comfort but “He touched them”. How beautiful and intimate. What is the difference between this and the call to the cross?
There is no way to make the decision to follow Jesus any less difficult or terrible. Because of its totality the commitment to Jesus is real only when it is terrifying. It is a decision and a journey we must all make before anything else. We are comforted by an authentic experience of the risen Lord. That too, if is real, will often be terrifying. Perhaps more a sense of awe than what we usually call fear but nonetheless terrifying.
We can expect to be comforted by Jesus’s touch as we join him in his mission. The reason why the tents were not built was that the world was not to be transformed by armies of angels, but by us. The Messiah has come, and the kingdom is being built through our cooperation with Jesus. As we see today it is the experience of the Lord which allows us to dispel the fears that come from taking up our cross, following him and facing the consequences in the world.
The spread of the coronavirus will be an interesting case for us. Pandemics and other outbreaks of disease often reveal the fissures in societies. Whether by blaming Jews and witches for the black plague or immigrants for the Great Flu of 1918, outsiders and aliens may find themselves persecuted in times of stress. We should be aware of this danger and ask not only how we can protect ourselves from the virus but also how we can protect our society from an infestation of racial, class and national prejudices as well as sexual and intellectual minorities.
If we have truly experienced Jesus, we have the answer. We know that He is more powerful than anything in this world that can cause us to fear and we need to put our trust in Him. This trust, however, will be measured not by how we feel, but by what we do and for whom we do it. The awe of God is more powerful than human fear.