Sunday, 4 March 2012

Lent Week 2 Sunday B -- 4 March 2012

Readings: Genesis 22:1-2a, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Psalm 115; Romans 8:31b-34; Mark 9:2-20

There are three key moments in the career of Jesus according to Saint Mark: one is the baptism where the Father’s voice reassures him that he is his beloved Son, another is the transfiguration where the Father’s voice reassures the disciples that Jesus is his beloved Son, and the third is the agony where Jesus prays in great anguish, the disciples sleep, and the Father is silent.

Fra Angelico’s painting of the ‘Transfiguration’ in the priory of San Marco in Florence is a crowded scene: Jesus and the three disciples, Peter, James and John, the heads of Moses and Elijah appearing out of the background, Our Lady and Saint Dominic standing on either side looking on in silent attentiveness.

And of course you and I are looking at the scene also. If you imagine it as having three dimensions then the egg-shaped glory behind Jesus is coming from some far distant place, the heads of Moses and Elijah may be behind him, and Our Lady, Dominic, Peter, James, John, you, and I are all in front of Jesus.

There is a mixture of agitation and serenity in the painting. Peter, on the left, appears quite thrown by the whole thing and looks away. James, in the middle, seems disturbed but manages to watch. John, on the right, watches but is tense and fearful. Mary and Dominic are different kinds of witnesses, their presence here being, of course, a matter of artistic licence.

The transfiguration is a moment in which the glory of Jesus as the Son of the Heavenly Father is briefly revealed, a veil is drawn back, and he and his disciples are strengthened for what lies ahead. Some suggest that the transfiguration is a post-resurrection story out of place, in other words it records an appearance of the risen Lord to Peter, James, and John. In the handing on of the traditions about him this story, so it is suggested, moved from the end of the gospel to the centre.

There is no doubt that it is an event full of theological meaning. The Law and the Prophets bear witness to Jesus and so too does the Heavenly Father. The course on which he is travelling — the way through suffering to glory — is endorsed by heaven itself. The scene echoes Daniel 7 where a figure ‘like a human being’ comes into the presence of the Eternal Father and is given everlasting sovereignty at the head of God’s people. Jesus spoke of himself in these terms whenever he spoke about his return at the end of time. So perhaps the transfiguration is a glimpse, for us too, of the return of the Lord in glory when we hope we will be ‘ready to greet him’.

The serenity of Jesus in this moment contrasts with the agitation of the disciples and with the agitation he experienced later in Gethsemane. There he cried out to the Father but was not heard — or so it seems. We are not told in Saint Mark’s gospel that there was any re-assuring voice then, either for Jesus himself, for his disciples, or for us. Something kept Jesus going through the dark hours of his suffering and death. And something keeps his disciples going also. The life of faith and prayer is often a difficult struggle with the silence of God. But we have the words of the prophets and apostles, as well as moments when we have, mysteriously, ‘seen his majesty for ourselves’.

In the prayer of Saint Dominic we see the movement between serenity and agitation. His experiences in prayer are described for us in an early Dominican manuscript called the ‘Nine Ways of Prayer of Saint Dominic’. In Fra Angelico’s painting Dominic stands in quiet meditation. But in some of his ways of praying there is great anxiety, agitation, and distress. In the first three ways, for example, Dominic is deeply aware of himself as a creature and a sinner. He lies helplessly before God, seeking forgiveness and help. But in others of his ways of prayer he is serene and peaceful, calm and attentive. His posture in this painting is most like the one he takes up in the fifth way of prayer.

Following Christ brings difficulty and consolation. Faith means — to adapt Daniel’s paradoxical words — gazing into ‘visions of the night’. The words of prophets and teachers help us to understand what is happening to us when we are puzzled at where God leads us. Such words light a way through the dark until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in our minds (2 Peter 1.19). Dominic, ‘man of the Lord’, followed this Christian way, being ‘transfigured from one degree to glory to the next’ (2 Corinthians 3.18). And so must anybody who seeks to be a man or woman of the Lord, to see one day his glory.

This homily was first published in the newsletter of St Dominic's Priory, London

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