Sunday, March 4, 2012

Transfiguration: terror, terrified, terrific

Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified (Mark 9:2-6).

Terror is an element that is palpably present in our readings for this Second Sunday of Lent. Abraham, while walking along with his son Isaac towards Mount Moriah, must have felt terror as he puzzled over the incomprehensible command that Lord God had given him and which, with great trust in God, he set out to faithfully fulfill. St. Paul, in our second reading, writes what we can take to be reassuring words either in a sentimental way or in a meaningful way. When taken sentimentally, we must take his words, "If God is for us, who can be against us," out of context and take it to be true only insofar as everything in life is going our way, those days when we can sing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah from our hearts. In context the apostle's words have deep meaning. The context is similar to the context of our first reading. God shows us the He is for us by not sparing "his own Son but hand[ing] him over for us all." In short, we can only know that God for us by way of experience, painful experience. After all, it is a few verses earlier in the eighth chapter of his Letter to the Romans that St. Paul tells us: "We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

On the holy mountain, Peter, James, and John were not transported out of the world, as it were, but were allowed to see things as they really are, to behold reality in all God's glory. They were changed precisely because they were terrified. The Greek word that is the last word of verse six is ekpfoboi, which is the plural of ekfobos, meaning stricken with fear or terror, exceedingly frightened, terrified. In the King James Version this word is translated, "they were sore afraid." After all, "terrified" and "terrific" are closely related, both linguistically and existentially, like "awesome" and "awful." Like Jesus' three disciples, we are to be transfigured, transformed, changed, converted evermore into the likeness of Christ in and through experience, not over and above it.

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