Sunday, March 1, 2015

Putting Jesus in a Box

This event we just heard we call the Transfiguration, because Jesus’ appearance, his figure, was temporarily transformed in front of his disciples. Every year we hear the story of the Transfiguration on the second Sunday of Lent. So let's set the context. Every year on the first Sunday of Lent we hear the story of the temptation in the desert, and then every year on the second Sunday we hear the story of Jesus going up the mountain and being transfigured. The two readings stand in contrast to each other. On the one hand, in the desert Jesus is presented as one so like us that he is even tempted by the Devil like us, except he resisted. And then on the other hand, at the Transfiguration Jesus is presented to us in all his divine glory, as someone totally other, someone completely unlike us.

This image of Jesus today is an important one for us to consider because it helps to remind us that Jesus isn't just a guy who happens to be really holy. At the Transfiguration, a bit of the veil was lifted, and these chosen apostles got to see who he really is. They got to see his divinity. So we don't want to downplay what happened here. The apostles got to see Jesus in all his divine glory, or at least as much as their sinful humanity could bear. Whatever it means to see Jesus in his glory, they got to see it, and even afterwards when this gospel was being written, words failed them. They couldn't adequately describe what they had seen, so they settled on explaining that his clothes became whiter than bleach, whiter than anything.

What they witnessed was beautiful. It was terrifying, but it was beautiful. And because it was so beautiful, it put their ugliness, their sinfulness, in stark contrast. And yet, even though this beauty was terrifying, and even though it made them keenly aware of their sins, it was not repellent. The words of Peter indicate that he never wanted to leave, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” His reference to tents can also be translated as booths or tabernacles, basically, “dwelling places,” and it seems to be a reference to the Jewish feast of booths. At the feast of booths the Jews would live in simple structures for eight days as a way to remember their time in the desert and to rejoice in God’s blessings. So Peter wanted to stay in this moment of blessing, to stay at this mountaintop experience of Jesus’ Transfiguration.

Peter wanted to stay here because he knew he was experiencing something good. Not the way we throw around the word good (“How ya doing?” “I’m good.”), but he was experiencing goodness itself. In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, one character is describing Aslan the Lion, who is a Christ-figure in the story, and he says, “Safe? … Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn't safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

This king of ours, Jesus Christ, isn't safe for us either, but he’s good, he’s the source of all goodness. If we have settled for a mediocre life, for a mediocre Christianity, if we’re content with wallowing in our sins, then Jesus isn't safe at all because he calls us to greatness. Many of us settle for a “good enough” sort of Christianity, where we think “I’m good enough to get to heaven,” and so we think that absolves us from having to work on our sins or having to work on following Jesus closer. That’s the kind of Christianity that a real encounter with Jesus is threatening to, so we try to put Jesus into a box. Maybe we put him into our Sunday box, and we pull him out for once a week on Sunday to talk, but then we put him away again so he doesn't intrude on the rest of our lives. Basically, we try to conceive of him in terms we can understand, in terms we can grasp. But we can’t approach Jesus like that.

If we worship a Jesus we can understand and contain, if we worship a Jesus that is safe, then we’re not actually worshiping Jesus. What we’re doing is taking our ideas of what he should be: nice, gentle, non-challenging, non-threatening, and we’re worshiping that. We’re not worshiping Jesus; we’re worshiping our own ideas. In that case, we've turned our own ideas into an idol, and we’re worshiping that.

But the thing about Jesus is that he is his own person, independent of our ideas about him. The question, “Who is Jesus to me?” kind of misses the point. So at another point in the gospel when Jesus asks the apostles, “Who do you say that I am,” he wasn't taking a public opinion poll. He was looking for that one right answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But asking, “Who is Jesus to me?” would be like asking, “Who is Father Brian’s mom to me?” (just roll with it). There would be a lot of ways to answer that question wrongly, and  if you get it wrong I'm going to be upset. But there are very few ways to get it right, because my mother is her own person (a delightful woman), independent of your or my ideas about her. To get it right, you either need to meet her and get to know her, or hear about her from someone who knows her. But just to try to think your way to what my mother is like would undoubtedly lead you to a wrong conclusion. Same with Jesus, he is his own person, independent of what we think about him, so our job is to get to know the real Jesus and not to get caught up in our own ideas about him.

And we get to know him through the Scriptures and through the Church that he established. So this Lent, I would highly recommend you dust off your Bible, pick a gospel, you've got four options, and just read it. And meet Jesus through the Sacraments, especially Confession and the Eucharist. Through them, we meet the real Jesus, the one who both forgives our sins and calls us to not sin anymore. Jesus showed the apostles his glory unveiled at the Transfiguration. That same glory of the real Jesus is present to us, veiled in the Eucharist and all the other Sacraments. As we prepare to celebrate the mystery of our redemption at Easter, pray to Jesus that he might break through the safe walls we've built around him and show us who he really is.

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