The First Sunday of Advent brings a direct command from the Lord: “Stay awake! For you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (Mt 24:42) Our eyes are to be open. Our hearts are to be hopeful. Our hands and feet are to be active in preparing for the Lord’s coming. In the face of all of the anger, pain, violence, and darkness in the world around us, we are to be people of hope who “put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12). Rather than being a people overwhelmed by darkness, we are to focus on the power of hope and light.
Stay Awake! Look to the Lord’s mountain. Listen to the Lord’s words. Learn the Lord’s ways. Walk in his paths. Become a people who turn swords and spears into useful tools for providing food and shelter for all, including the weakest and most vulnerable. Be a people who respect each other, refusing to exploit children or women for our own pleasure. Be a people who treasure differences in learning styles, abilities, talents, intelligence, gender identification, cultures, physical abilities. Seek out the lonely; learn how to be present in the moment; notice the gifts of the people the Lord sends into your life.
We sing, “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel.” Will we be awake when He comes? Will we see Him? Will we recognize Him? As we go rejoicing on our way up to the house of the Lord, see the little ones on the city streets who travel with us. See the those who hunger for physical food. See the people on the street who hunger for someone to talk with them or simply smile a greeting to them. See the old man or woman who longs for the touch of a gentle hand or a patient ear to hear a story for the umpteenth time. See the one who needs health care. See the one who needs help to learn how to read. See the one who struggles to walk. See the Lord, present in His most desperate reality. Reach out and welcome Him. Lend Him your hands, feet, and voice, so together we may see the power of hope transform our world.
What is the most fundamental question in my life? For what personal “ultimate concern” does the statement “Jesus is the Christ” provide the answer? Is this concern peculiar to me or can it be generalized to others? Do we ask this question about Christ differently today than people have asked it in the past because of any elements of our present situation?
These questions, asked as part of a class in Christology, bring to mind a novel by Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In one part of the story, Adams tells of an ancient people who decide to create a computer that will give them the answer to the question of “life, the universe and everything.” The computer, known as Deep Thought, takes millions of years to ponder the question, finally coming up with the answer: forty-two. When challenged by descendants of the people who had commissioned the work to explain why the answer was simply a number, Deep Thought explains that the problem is that perhaps they don’t really know what the question is.
“Jesus is the Christ”
In order to identify an ultimate concern for which this statement would be the best answer, the first question that must be addressed is what is meant by “the Christ.” As in Deep Thought’s response, to a very real degree, the meaning of “the Christ” depends on what concern is being addressed. Literally and historically, the term “Christ” refers to the one who is anointed with oil: a ruler, an athlete, or a messiah/savior. The anointing sets the individual aside for a special role. Yet today, in industrialized societies, this meaning is generally not understood. “Christ” is all too often used as if it were the surname of Jesus rather than the title that explains who he is for us. The simple notion that the Christ will come and restore an earthly monarchy or re-establish a people in a powerful and independent homeland is not particularly relevant to most of us today. The notion that the Christ will come at the end of time to punish sinners and reward the good offers only slight consolation to those who are suffering from today’s injustice. While this vision may seem to fit with the story of the Last Judgment – Jesus was very clear in teaching that the criterion for admittance to the presence of the Father was having cared for the least of his brothers and sisters – the implication remains that something more than simply waiting for the end of time and space is at stake here. Even the notion of “savior from our sins” does not move many contemporary hearts – hearts that demand to know how a god who is supposed to be a loving parent could demand the bloody sacrifice of an innocent victim to make up for the sins of others.
“Where have you been, Lord?”
The question of ultimate concern in my life that is answered by the question, “Jesus is the Christ,” is this one: “Where have you been, Lord?” Coming from a Catholic family, nurtured in faith in the traditions of that family, and having experienced the presence of God in my life from a very early age, I still found myself asking God that question with great sadness and not a little anger one night following the loss of a long-desired pregnancy.
The response came immediately. My mind was flooded with images of the care-givers who had been so kind to me as they told me of the baby’s death; the woman at the local family planning clinic who made the appointment for me to have a D&C; the nurses and doctors at Kaiser who ended up performing the D&C when I began bleeding a few days before my clinic appointment; the nurse who reassured me that losing this child did not mean we would never have another because she too had miscarried but later had a successful pregnancy; my mother who sent flowers (she rarely ever does that); the babysitter who stayed with us and helped take down the Christmas tree that first awful day when I knew I was carrying a dead child; the friends who remained after our son’s birthday party so we wouldn’t be alone with our pain; another child’s teacher (a young widow) who dropped by one afternoon to share a cup of tea and be with me; the husband who held my hand through it all and matter-of-factly cleaned up the blood that splashed on the floor when I stood up to dress to go home from the hospital; the friends who had cared for our children after school; and so many others who had cried with me and supported me in that first week. I understood then where the Lord had been. He had been with me in all of those people – his Body here and now. It was not any easier to have lost that child, but I knew I was not alone. And perhaps more importantly, I knew that God cries with us in such moments and wants nothing more than to hold us close, as a parent holds and comforts an injured child.
How does this relate to Jesus as the Christ?
Through the incarnation, God became truly one of us. As a result of the incarnation, Jesus is the most human of all human beings who have ever lived or will ever live. Jesus’ life is the most authentically human life ever lived. Because God entered totally into human existence and experience through the life of Jesus, our human experiences have become part of God’s being in a very real way. God did not demand that we suffer or that Jesus suffer in order to bring us back to the unity of love overflowing from which all of creation sprang in the first instant of creation. Suffering can bring us to the point of noticing that we do not really control much in our lives and that we need to be part of a greater reality, but in and of itself, suffering is not what God wants for us. Sometimes suffering comes as a result of our own choices, but often it comes because of forces outside our control. Sometimes suffering even comes because we choose to remain authentic to who we are and what we are called to bring to the world. In the case of Jesus and many other good men and women through the ages, that choice resulted in death – a death that was/is the entry into eternity and a different degree of life. Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, is the Christ, the one “anointed” or called and set aside by God to open our eyes to this wondrous reality of a God who is Love and who cannot be anything other than Love. In this, he is our savior from the more common notion of a deity that is angry, vengeful, rejoicing in the misfortune of its subjects, and eager to punish them severely. His coming, and the sharing of his experience, is truly good news for the world. He is the one through whom Love enters directly into our lives, including the times of pain and suffering. He is the one who reaches out through each of us to ease the pain and suffering of others. He is the one who turns tears into dancing as healing comes to battered hearts at his touch.
Does our present situation change how we ask this ultimate question?
To the extent that we are more aware of the suffering of people around us and around the world, we may find ourselves asking this ultimate question more frequently than did people of past ages or people in non-industrialized communities. Why do children get killed at school by a person who should never have had access to guns? Why do people get blown up by suicide bombers? Why do humans so quickly resort to wars, both with physical weapons and with words and actions in our homes and workplaces? Why do bad things happen to good people? Shouldn’t becoming a Christian mean that everything should be fine and dandy from here on out? How can good Christian people lose their homes and savings and livelihoods as a result of bad decisions by investment bankers or real estate speculators?
Our access to news and information on a 24/7 basis is a blessing and a curse. We hear far too much of the suffering humans inflict on each other, whether directly or indirectly. We also hear too much about the suffering that results from natural disasters. The simple formula that promises happiness once they have died to those who suffer (“Life is hard and then you die”) rings hollow. We become numb to the suffering of those in other lands or those whose experience of life and faith even in our own nation is different than ours. We still cry out in sadness, anger, fear: Where have you been, Lord? How can a loving God let such things happen?
Into this reality, Jesus continues to come as the Christ, the anointed one. Jesus is the one who understands the pain of human life from the inside. Through the incarnation, through Jesus’ life, God too understands the pain of human life, as well as the joys and wonders of it. In Jesus, God reaches out and touches each of us and all of creation in a new, deeply intimate way. The everlasting, ever-living, all-powerful One can touch and raise up the created ones to share in the divine life of Love, to become fully human. The light of Love shines in the darkness, a darkness that cannot overcome it. So for this age and the ages to come, “Jesus is the Christ” still answers the ultimate question(s) of human existence.
Image from Annunciation Melkite Catholic Cathedral
On the first two days of November, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls. Many traditions for celebrating these feasts are found around the world. One of them is the making, giving, and eating of Soul Cakes.
Soul Cakes are small cake-like pastries. Typically they are made with spices including ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, and/or cloves. They may have raisins or currents baked into them. They may be frosted or sprinkled with powdered sugar. They may also be made of sweet dough like a sweet roll.
During the Middle Ages, especially in northern Europe, England and Ireland, soul cakes were baked and shared as part of the celebration of All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Each cake was marked with a cross. People called “soulers” went from house to house, offering songs and prayers for the dead. They received these cakes as gifts and ate them. Each cake eaten was believed to represent a soul released from Purgatory.
Today, the custom of giving and receiving soul cakes, especially as a way of freeing souls from Purgatory, has fallen by the way. Nevertheless, making and eating soul cakes is an enjoyable way to mark these feasts and celebrate them in family or community.
The recipe for Soul Cakes here is one I have developed from several basic cookie recipes. I like it because it is easy to make and includes pumpkin, for a special seasonal flavor. It doesn’t include raisins or currants, but a handful of either could be added to the dough if you like. Nuts could also be added, but they are not essential.
Pumpkin Soul Cakes
Cream shortening and sugar. Add pumpkin and egg and mix together well. Combine dry ingredients then add gradually to the wet ones, stirring well.
This dough can be chilled and rolled out for cut cookies or it can be baked as drop-cookies. I make them as drop cookies using a teaspoon to scoop about a tablespoon of the dough from the pan and drop it onto a greased baking sheet. Flatten them slightly before baking if you want to put a cross on the top of them.
Bake at 350º for 10-12 minutes.
When cool, frost with a powdered sugar or other icing in the shape of a cross. A little bit of vanilla in the icing adds a nice flavor.
(If not planning to use the cookies as soul cakes, swirl the frosting over the top with a knife or leave them unfrosted. They’re good either way.)
Enjoy with friends and family — and remember to offer a prayer for those who have gone before us.
Finding Peace and Freedom
We cannot find peace if we are arguing with God in whatever form we perceive the sacred. The Divine Reality loves us without reservation. We cannot find happiness and peace in any other place. Even non-believers will only find peace in the Reality that has created the universe and encloses all of it within Itself. God has given everything in the universe love and freedom. God’s love is total. It encompasses everything that promotes our growth and transformation. We have been created for union with this sacred reality, so we learn and experience during all our lives ways to be like God: to be knowing, understanding, wise, discerning, reverent, courageous and in awe of the transcendent. Everything in the universe has degrees of freedom. The nature of everything determines the degrees of freedom. I cannot flap wings and fly. I cannot breathe under water just as I am. I will always be a middle child. But, there are many ways in which I can determine my course in life, work with limitations or with strengths.
As I live my life I have many possibilities before me. I also have a certain amount of freedom. If I believe in the reality of God, I see myself in a relationship with God, a God who is close or distant. All religious and spiritual traditions have concepts of the relationship of human powers and divine powers. These relationships involve change, improvement, decision, freedom, human failure, consequences and divine intervention. The theological terms often used for these phenomena are: conscience or consciousness, grace, nature, discernment, acts, harm or sin and moral good, and judgment or karma. If I am thinking about getting more money I have a number of reasons as to why I want more money, what I possibly want to do to get money, and what the pros and cons are with various options. I can look at the decision from many angles. I can line up my ideas and come up with what I think will work the best. I can talk to others or read various sources. I can also present this to God in prayer and say: “Please tell me what You see as best for me.”
This is not easy to do because most people feel that God does not think of my little side to things; God is only interested in the Bigger Picture and saints or martyrs. In fact, God is very interested in individuals. God as most Westerners conceive of God is a personal Reality who sees us fully and knows exactly what would make us happy. We are still not too sure about that because it sounds too mature for us. Attending to our health and saving money may sound difficult, so long term happiness planning may seem very hard. I am the first to say that buying something new sounds like fun. But, wanting to surrender to God as our source of wisdom and a guide is the only way to have peace. We are also very rational in the West and often think God is so intangible or un-provable as to be neither reliable nor a reality with which we can have a two-way communication.
Time for Centering
Taking time each day to practice centering in God for the direction of our day and our lives is necessary. There are many ways to do this: journaling, walking a labyrinth, and having a spiritual counseling session are ways to think and pray through where I am in my life, where I feel drawn, and what God sees in me that I might benefit from. Another way to have an experience of being counseled by God is the Ignatian Examen.
Very briefly, sit quietly and think of or imagine things you are truly grateful for. They can be big or small: Clean sheets, good food, your dog, ways you have been loved, accomplishments, a family member or friend, your house or job etc. Tell God what you are grateful for. See, if God has given you things you are grateful for: a rescue in life, money you needed, safety, a trip you took. Then think of the things in yourself or your life which you have chosen that have harmed you, undermined your well being, or side-tracked you. These can also be big or small: being resentful, feeling superior, or not being willing to do something new that you need to do. Ask God to help you with these fears or hurts that have held you away from Him. Lastly, ask God how you can spend the next part of your day or life doing what is best. You will get answers. You can surrender to what is best and see how much more peace-filled you are. I do this every day, sometimes more than once. I act on what I hear and I am much more at peace.
Image: Three Candles by Alice Birkin, public domain
Self-donation and attention to others
Self-donation is the spiritual practice of attention to others. It does not refer to any sort of self-mutilation or injury but rather to the self-control and self-knowledge that allows one person to be attentive to another person.
Attention to others can be extremely difficult. Giving up time for others can feel stressful. There are two things that strike me about these two possibilities. In my own experience I am often in the presence of another person and cannot give him or her my full attention for even 5 minutes! Secondly, my stress is often due to my creating a stressful lifestyle. If I procrastinate with doing stressful but important tasks, then I am jumpy. I have clever avoidance behaviors when faced with things at work such as updating the database (which I dislike) or writing Thank You notes (which are absolutely necessary and can quickly become a huge mountain). I have to do an Examen (an important Ignatian spiritual practice for me) every day in order to commit to a schedule for the day. I decide what time I need to go to bed that night. I set up what I want or need to accomplish that day. I work my way back to where I am in the day. I decide if I will exercise. If I do not do this I get into really negative schedules. I have a background which makes me anxious, so I have to avoid avoiding!
“Avoid avoiding” and “focus” as spiritual practices?
What has this got to do with being attentive to others? When I allow myself to avoid things I do not like or to procrastinate, I am more anxious or depressed. When I feel that way I cannot be at peace. When I feel this way I do not focus on people. I am restless. If I keep referring myself to God or Jesus (in the Examen, for example) knowing that with God’s help I am keeping my commitment, I feel pleased with life and myself. I get the things done in a day that I need to do. I do both uncomfortable and fun tasks. I get enough sleep. I do the Tai Chi, stretching or core strengthening I need that day. I eat the right things — even the Kale and Collard Greens I need for my liver and to keep my blood sugar down for my ”prevent diabetes” regime. I read a few pages from each book I want to finish. I also have time now to go to an older friend’s apartment and give her a massage that she needs. I don’t feel deprived and we enjoy the time together. I hone my acupressure skills and she feels better.
A second thing I have learned is that I often do not really attend to others even when I have the time. I have a habit of letting my mind jump around, trying to think of something clever or even attention-getting to say. I also feel the need to fix another’s situation. But, the more mature part of me just wants to affirm others. I do not have to impress them. Maybe a natural sacrifice would be to listen and support others, not have an opinion? I think others often just want someone to really listen.
Discernment in everyday experiences
Authentic self-donation or self-giving does not have to harm me. I can discern if I would enjoy it. I also can tell if I am over-scheduled and creating anxiety for myself. I can ask God in prayer to show me what he dreams for me. He may want me to buy a greeting card for someone and send it off or maybe he prefers I just draw a squiggle on a piece of paper and say I love you and I am praying for you and mail that. I feel called to give people quality attention when I am with them. For me that is a key spiritual practice.
It also can be a contemplative experience in the Ignatian sense of the term. I have discovered lately that when I am in some conversations, part of my mind can have a simultaneous conversation with God. I have said to God in abbreviated ways things such as: “Should I say ….. to her?” and I get an answer. I receive very brief images from God or feelings related to the person. Those words, images or feelings are easy to interpret and help me attend to the other and not to focus on me. I feel very loved by God when I am willing to be there for the other. It is about surrender to being loving. It is a gift to the other and a gift to me.
St. Hildegard of Bingen lived in the 12th century. A remarkable woman, she founded a Benedictine convent, served as abbess of her community, studied medicine and physiology, including the use of medicinal herbs, composed and played hauntingly beautiful religious music, wrote poetry and morality plays, produced artistic works, and was a prophetic leader and preacher within the Church of her day.
Hildegard was also a mystic, having had visions beginning around the age of three. When in her early 40s, she began writing of her visions and their meaning. These were presented in three major works: Scivias (Know the Ways of the Lord), Liber Vitae Meritorum (Book of the Rewards of Life), and Liber Divinorum Operum (The Book of Divine Works).
Many of her musical compositions have survived to the present and have been recorded by contemporary artists and orchestras. Her music goes beyond the traditional chant of her day, with a much broader range of notes in her melodies than was common at the time.
Hildegard saw humans as the thinking heart of all creation, called to work with God in shaping our world. Humans, and indeed all of creation, are “living sparks,” “rays of his splendor, just as the rays of the sun proceed from the sun itself.” She taught that our separation from God through sin brought harm to us as humans and to all of creation, but through Christ, we have the way for all to return to our original state of blessing.
In her words:
All living creatures are sparks from the radiation of God’s brilliance, and these sparks emerge from God like the rays of the sun. If God did not give off these sparks, how would the divine flame become fully visible?
Hildegard is honored as a Doctor of the Church. We celebrate her feast on September 17.
St. Hildegard, pray for us as we seek to see God’s face in each other and in all of creation.
Summer 2013 has brought a marvelous experience of the ways God creates each person as a unique individual, even twins who are nearly identical in outward appearance. Each person is a unique creation.
For about four months this year, twin boys who are ten years old have lived with us and shared our activities, including a long road trip to visit family and a short camping trip this summer. They are not from the United States and English is their second language. When we first met them in January and spent six weeks together then, they did not understand much of the family conversation. Now, after an additional 2½ months, they are able to understand much more and have spent many hours in the past two weeks composing brief stories about the many things we have done while they have been here.
The boys are very talented musically and share many interests in common. They are nearly the same height and weight. They look very much alike. Each day, their clothing matches. They play the same games and learn to play each other’s instruments. One’s face is slightly more rounded and the other’s is a bit longer. It’s much easier to know which one I am speaking with when they are together!
Yet despite all of these similarities, they are different people. One speaks more slowly and seemingly with greater difficulty. The other speaks more easily and quickly. However, when the time comes to write, the one who speaks slowly writes many pages and the one who speaks easily struggles to think what to write. One is more daring and has learned the basics of swimming. The other is still very nervous in the water and barely dog paddles. He struggles to relax enough to float. One eats quickly, the other slowly. One is quick to seek his mother’s help. The other is more independent. One tries to draw dogs while the other makes stick figures on a baseball field.
Both of these boys have one foot in younger childhood and the other firmly in middle childhood. Our family four-year-old’s tricycle is so very attractive, but all the adults keep insisting they use their own bicycles instead! One minute they are playing with a fabric ball and the next they are outside kicking a soccer ball. Chutes and Ladders is the game of choice one minute and Go is preferred the next.
Still, each is a unique individual. It surprises them to discover their differences. “He weighs more than I do!” “He isn’t writing as much as I am.” “I can swim better than he can.” “He doesn’t play this piece as well as I do.” “He doesn’t want to play this game with me.”
The boys will be returning home very soon now and our home will become a much quieter place for a while. Our families have become close, however, and I expect we’ll spend time together again in the coming years.
The time we’ve had together this summer has helped me see in ways I would not otherwise have experienced how truly creative our God is. Despite the fact that these two boys are so alike, they are separate and unique individuals. God does not create identical people, even if they happen to have the same genetic signature. No two of us are alike. We each have our own relationships with God and with each other. Each of us has our own path through life and we are blessed to share it with family and friends. Yet each of us is the unique handiwork of an infinitely creative God — a God who is love overflowing into Creation.
Insights from Conversing with an Innkeeper
Dominic Guzmán (1170-1221), a Spanish priest traveling with his bishop in southern France, spent an entire night talking with an innkeeper who was a believer in Catharism, a dualistic religious cult that originated in the East. He discovered that the man had not really rejected Catholic teachings but rather was ignorant of them. This discovery led to the founding of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans), a group dedicated to learning theology and other disciplines and communicating the beliefs of the Church to all they met, while living as beggars and travelers on the highways and byways of Europe. Many great theologians and prophets, both men and women, have served the church through the centuries as followers of Dominic and his early companions.
Moving into a Changing World
Dominic’s insight that the Gospel must be taught both with words and through the lives of the ones proclaiming it in the contemporary world with all of its challenges holds as true today as it did some eight hundred years ago. In many ways, we as a community of faith had, until recently, settled into an almost self-satisfied attitude that all of the answers to the questions of faith and moral behavior had been resolved by theologians of the Middle Ages and/or at the Council of Trent. As Tevye (of “Fiddler on the Roof”) might have expressed it, “Everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to be!”
Yet such an attitude of self-confident satisfaction with who we are and what we believed did not serve us well. The world’s people continued to discover new truths in science and new understandings of human behaviors and cultures. Industrialization brought changes in family life and opportunities. Education of both boys and girls has become a given in Western societies and increasingly this is also the case in non-industrial societies around the world as well. More strikingly, perhaps, we did not as intelligent inhabitants of this planet learn how to live together in peace, with the common good as our highest concern. Instead, we set about conquering each other, with the nations having the strongest military plundering the regions they had conquered. Somehow the old teachings no longer answered the new questions about God, life, and the reality of evil in the world.
Pope Francis and his recent predecessors have called the Church to a new focus on evangelization. The teachings of the Church, including new insights from theology, philosophy, anthropology, psychology and other disciplines, must be presented to the world and lived out joyfully by Christian believers. Pope Francis repeatedly stresses the importance of going out into our communities and meeting people where they live and work. We are to work to alleviate poverty and suffering. We are to serve without judging others whose lives and values differ from ours. We are to be true to the traditions of our community, but recognize that those traditions may need to be presented in different words and explained using different images. Some of those traditions may need to be stretched so they express the lived experience of a new generation of believers. This is the age of the Holy Spirit in salvation history and we must recognize that God is so much bigger and more amazingly wonderful than we could ever imagine, that no human formulation could ever totally express the full reality of who God is.
Like the times of Dominic Guzmán, there is a great need in today’s world for people of faith to learn about God, about our Christian beliefs and traditions, and about the newly emerging insights of our living faith community. The days when the catechism lessons of childhood sufficed for an adult life of faith are long since gone, if they ever truly existed. We are all called to continue to learn, to study Scripture, to reflect on God’s active presence in our lives, and to share what we have learned with others. And we do this not just at Church or in catechism classes, but also in our daily activities on the highways and byways of our lives. The People of God are once again called to be proclaimers of the loving presence and activity of our God.
And that innkeeper with whom Dominic spoke all night? He returned to the Catholic faith once he understood what the community really believed.
St. Dominic, Pray for us!
Image: St. Dominic by Fra Angelico, Side panel of the Altarpiece in Perugia
On the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) we celebrate the day when Jesus, having taken three of his disciples to the top of a mountain to pray with him, experienced the presence of God so dramatically that the disciples saw the glory of God shine through his very being. The disciples witnessed Moses and Elijah visiting with Jesus and offered to build three tents so Jesus could stay in his glory with these representatives of the Law and the Prophets. Then a cloud covered the mountain top and those standing on it. The disciples recognized God’s presence in the cloud and heard the Father’s voice proclaim Jesus to be his chosen Son to whom they were to listen. The next moment they were alone again with Jesus. All were left feeling speechless to describe the experience. (Lk 9:28b-36) Only later, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, were the disciples able to speak about what they had seen and experienced that day.
Did it really happen?
Looking back at the event with the perspective of nearly 2,000 years, we might wonder at the description of what happened and question how literally Jesus’ face “changed in appearance” and how his clothing could have become “dazzling white.” This is especially true because such statements are commonly used in apocalyptic literature when describing a Son of man or the Ancient One, as for example we see in the Book of Daniel 7:9-14. Was this simply a literary device to tell an audience familiar with such images that Jesus was truly the chosen one of God? Or is there some literal basis for the narration?
I have to admit that I don’t know which interpretation is factually true. I suspect, however, that what is reported in the gospels actually happened to Jesus pretty much as described. The reality of the divine is so much more vibrant, powerful, encompassing, radiant, loving, compassionate, respectful and gentle than we can imagine that, in a moment when Jesus was facing the probability that things might not go well for him in Jerusalem, the Father’s encouragement and gentle caress might well have such an effect.
Could it happen today?
Often when those who have had a “close encounter” with the divine speak of their experience, their faces shine with the joy of what they experienced. The newly baptized have a glow about them for weeks after their baptismal experience. Jesus himself told us that only those who became like little children would enter the kingdom of his father. The simple joy and wonder with which young children explore and enjoy their world, trusting that all they need will be provided for them, is the attitude presented as the ideal for the child of God. Though ordinarily most of us don’t consciously notice the radiance of the divine shining through each others’ faces and the wonders of creation, at special moments we do sometimes notice something different.
Is the radiance of divine love shining through a human face something that could happen to one who is not a divine person, not a member of the Trinity? I would argue that God’s love is to shine through each one of us. Perhaps not so obviously as it did through Jesus on the mountain top, yet even for Jesus, it was a brief moment that was followed by the return to what quickly became a very difficult reality. In the moments when we act with compassion and generosity to meet the needs of those less fortunate among us, the divine love shines through. In times when we hold the hand of one who is suffering, the divine love shines through. When we visit those who are in prison, or in the hospital, or home-bound, the divine love shines through. When we care for our children or go to our workplace or smile at a passerby, the divine love can shine through us as well. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me,” we are told.
God smiles in joy whenever love is given and received — and the glory of God shines through into our world!
Image by: JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48307 [retrieved August 7, 2013].
The readings of the Church recently have been focused on the experience of entering into the Presence of the Lord and spending time there. One way of describing the experience of spending time with God is to use the word prayer.* An ancient definition of prayer, attributed to St. Augustine, is this: “Prayer is lifting our minds and hearts to God.” On this feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, it seems fitting to spend a few moments reflecting on ways we enter into the presence of God and the results of doing so.
Jesus taught his followers to be very direct and straightforward in their prayers, asking for what they needed with confidence and persistence. They were (and we are) to ask for the coming of God’s kingdom and that God’s will be done both in heaven and on earth. Their prayer was also to include such seemingly mundane issues as requesting their daily bread and forgiveness for having hurt others, failing to live in loving ways, as well as the much more serious concern that they be spared from the soul-shaking temptations that sometimes afflict even good and holy people at difficult points during their lives. Jesus himself spoke familiarly and intimately with God, calling him Abba — a word that means Father in the sense of a loving parent, a “Dad,” or even the “Daddy” of a small child. The result of the conversation would not always be the reception of exactly what was requested or preferred (remember the Agony in the Garden and Jesus’ prayer there), but it was always frank and based in trusting love. Those who learn to rely on God for the “little” things (daily bread and forgiveness) become more able to rely on God for the big things (courage to make the hard decisions and accept the consequences of following the Lord).
Among those whose relationship with God we have seen as examples are Abraham, who spoke with God directly, pleading for the salvation of Sodom and Gomorrah if as few as ten good men could be found within their walls. Many years later, Moses met God and entered into the cloud with God for forty days, returning to the people with the gift of the Law that would guide their lives in holiness. When Moses returned to the people, his face was so radiant it was frightening to the people. He covered his face when among them and only lifted the veil when he again entered into the presence of God. Jesus’ friend Martha, who had spent many hours in easy friendship with him, did not hesitate to speak frankly to him, complaining at one point that she had been left to do all the work of entertaining the large group of people who accompanied him on his visit. But Martha also is known for her declaration of faith in Jesus: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” These and many others model for us the importance of speaking directly with God and of doing so on a regular basis.
Ignatius called his followers to contemplation in action, recognizing that the fundamental basis for a fruitful discipleship is the time spent in the company of the Lord. Out of the experience of friendship with God comes the gift of seeing how God would respond to those we meet in our lives today and the courage to act accordingly.
Entering into the presence of the Lord is not for the faint of heart. The great mystery of Love is not tame, nor is it particularly predictable. Love is a powerful force that can sweep away obstacles but can also be as gentle as a mountain stream bubbling through a meadow and washing the feet of children playing by its side. Yet as we enter regularly into the Presence, we are changed subtly and profoundly. Peace, joy, patience, gentleness, kindness, persistence, confidence, compassion, and zeal for justice become characteristic of ones who have spent much time with the Lord. Like Moses, if to a somewhat lesser degree, they become radiant with the joy of that relationship. And when at last they return to their Father and we remember them with love, sometimes we portray that radiance with a golden aura or halo surrounding their heads.
Public Domain image by Robert & Mihaela Vicol