Sunday reflection: Matthew 17:1-9
posted at 9:31 am on March 16, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection only represents my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. For previous entries, click here.
Today’s Gospel reading is Matthew 17:1–9:
Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Peter’s reaction to the Transfiguration reminds me of an old joke. A young parish priest walks into the worship space of his church to see Jesus Himself praying at the altar. He alerts the pastor, who alerts the bishop. The bishop tells the pastor that he must consult with the Pope at the Vatican on this, and he will call him right back. The phone rings shortly afterward, and the pastor asks what the Pope advised. The bishop replies, “The Pope says — look busy!”
That seems to be Peter’s first impulse at the Transfiguration, which is so awesome and powerful a vision that Peter … wants to do anything else but deal with it. Here he has Jesus, Moses, and Elijah conversing, and rather than do homage or just experience this unique pre-Resurrection theophany, Peter offers to go somewhere else to get materials for construction. He feels he must do something in response to this event, and anything but what the moment should call him to do.
This passage becomes even more remarkable when one has visited Mount Tabor, where the Transfiguration took place. It’s a high peak, one that take considerable time and effort to reach the summit in any age. When we went to the Franciscan church at the top on our pilgrimage last November, we went in a van driven by a young man who tried setting speed records up the mountain. When we got to the top, I had no desire to go back down … like, ever, especially with the same driver. Had we hiked up the mountain, I’d probably have felt the same way out of exhaustion. Yet here is Peter, volunteering to go down at least partway to find materials for tents and to haul them back up to the top, rather than embrace the moment and the revelation playing out in front of him.
Why does this passage speak to us? I know that I struggle with the same impulse — to find something to do that takes me away from baring my soul to God. My life as a professional writer in the blogosphere has many blessings, but a distraction-free environment is not one of them. In attempting to build a regular prayer life, I find myself being distracted by the impulse to do whenever I draw closer to the Holy Spirit, rather than just be, and experience that closeness and love. I often find my life filled with busy-ness as well as business, wasting time better spent in prayer and reflection on nothing of much value at all, not even amusement or entertainment. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a weird kind of defense mechanism; we look for ways to avoid that total intimacy with God, when we think and say that we desire nothing more.
C. S. Lewis noted this same impulse in his marvelous book The Screwtape Letters. In Letter 4, Screwtape advises Wormwood that humans fail to achieve efficacious prayer because they have an impulse to flee from the divine. “In avoiding this situation—this real nakedness of the soul in prayer—you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose,” Lewis writes. “There’s such a thing as getting more than they bargained for!”
Peter certainly got more than he bargained for in the Transfiguration, as do we all when encountering the true nature of Christ and His sacrifice. Efficacious communion with God involves intimacy, a true nakedness of the soul. Adam and Eve rejected this in Genesis and instead desired to usurp God, which is why Jesus’ redemption became necessary for all humanity. Even Peter cannot at this point embrace such nakedness, even though he had already proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God before (Matthew 16:16-20). When God’s voice speaks after Peter’s suggestion, Peter and the apostles finally are forced to deal with the reality of what they are experiencing — that soul-nakedness — and react in fright. Jesus intercedes to calm them, and when they recover, Jesus stands alone with them once again — making him the center of their faith.
Peter’s impulse to look for something to do isn’t to say that all work is bad, of course. We are called to support ourselves and our families, and to put our gifts to use in strengthening the Christian community. Building churches and feeding the poor are works, as are evangelizing and worshiping, and all sorts of activities to which Christians are called by Scripture and in faith. Paul certainly exhorted the communities he converted to Christianity to an active faith; he spends a great deal of time in 1 Corinthians discussing the uses of baptismal charisms (gifts of the Holy Spirit) in works to build the Church and the Body of Christ, with special emphasis on those uses in worship, for instance. But Paul notes in today’s second reading (2 Timothy 1:8-10) that works by themselves don’t mean much without the “holy life” enabled by the grace of Jesus Christ, a call which has “brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.”
We get a taste of that holy life and immortality through efficacious prayer. In fact, that’s what the Transfiguration demonstrated to the apostles, and to us — the fellowship of saints in the kingdom of God with God through Jesus Christ. The extent to which we cringe from that reminds us of our shame at sinfulness, and how much we need Jesus’ intervention to embrace it. We should earnestly desire to enter into that communion and find delight in it. At times we substitute “looking busy” for efficacious prayer, or use the busy-ness of our lives to avoid prayer. That builds walls of fear and anxiety between us and God, leading us to rely on material goods instead of His love, which eventually leads us into sin. Only through prayer can we form ourselves to communion with God, and when we seek Him in earnest, we should not flee in fright when He finds us.
In other words, when the Lord speaks to you, don’t just do something … stand there. And listen.
Note: We will be winding down the Green Room, and this feature will be on the main Hot Air page every Sunday from now on. The Green Room archives will remain, though, and links will still be active.
Update: As I mentioned, I’ve been to Mount Tabor, and I took a couple of pictures after surviving the shuttle-van service to the top. The best of them are in the final three shots in this Facebook album, but I’ll post the photo here of the altar in the Church of the Transfiguration: