07 August 2017
Homily on Transfiguration 2017
When I was ordained to the priesthood, someone told me a saying I often think about. It goes like this: “For the first year after ordination, the priest is afraid of the altar. After that, the altar is afraid of the priest.” The newly ordained priest is aware of taking on a new role: saying things he’s never said, doing things he’s never done. He’s very aware of the people, watching what he does. But more than anything, he is very, very aware of the awesome mystery which takes place through his hands and voice. The King of all comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts.
After a year or so, it can become familiar, comfortable…routine. He will be tempted to change little things, to become perfunctory in his performance. And so the altar grows afraid of him. Every so often, when he least expects it, he remembers the hidden reality. You will know those times, when you see him weep a little.
I thought of that saying when I read today’s Gospel lesson, the account of the Transfiguration of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. After the radiance, after Moses and Elijah speak with Christ, after the luminous cloud, after the voice of the Father saying, “This is my beloved Son—listen to him!”—after all that, Peter, James, and John fell to the ground. Then it was that Christ touched them and said, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”
Now we misread Christ’s words if we think they mean that fear isn’t part of our faith. In a few minutes you will hear the priest say, “With the fear of God, in faith and love draw near.” St. Paul wrote, “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.” Every single time, throughout the holy Scriptures, when someone encounters the living God his first reaction is to be afraid. Solomon tells us “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and even the wise thief on the cross asked his companion who reviled Christ, “Don’t you fear God?” It is ours to fear; it is God’s to tell us, “Don’t be afraid.” When Christ’s words “Don’t be afraid” become unnecessary, there is something seriously wrong.
Well might the three disciples fear. For in this life, and before the Resurrection, they beheld the hidden glory of Christ made manifest. They saw and heard Moses and Elijah. They entered the bright cloud and heard the voice of the Father. Say what you want about Veggie Tales, but when Christianity becomes all about tomatoes and cucumbers telling us to be good people, it’s no longer Christianity. God did not become man to make us good; he became man to make us God—to share his own divine splendor. And at Christ’s return, he will not take us to some immaterial place. This world will be transfigured in the radiant cloud of the Spirit, and the voice of the Father will direct us to his Son.
The disciples had reason to fear, too, because of what lay ahead. When they came down from the mountain, they were heading toward Jerusalem and the cross. There they would see this radiant Lord naked, bloodied and bruised, pierced by nails and a spear. Instead of a bright cloud, there would be thick darkness. Instead of the Father’s voice, there would be silence. Instead of life, there would be death. When they beheld Christ’s suffering, they would understand that the one being crucified was the Lord of Glory.
We mark the Transfiguration of Christ today because today is forty days before the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross. For us, the rest of summer is marked by remembrance of Christ’s suffering for us.
And today is a big day in the life of Holy Cross. After liturgy, we will take a vote on whether to move from these cramped but comfy surroundings to a new place, with a new set of challenges. As the priest who started out this journey with some of you at a Lutheran church, and others of you at a school, and still others in these four walls, I want to tell you two things: First, be afraid. And second, don’t be afraid.
Fear God. It doesn’t matter what you want, or what I want. It matters what his will is. We don’t pray, “My plans be done,” but “Thy will be done.” Churches get off the rails when they try to tell God how to do his business. Learn from the Theotokos. When she said, “Whatever he says, do it,” to the servants at Cana, she was speaking from experience and teaching us how to live.
Don’t fear anything else. Don’t fear the distance, if we move. The drive would be longer for some, but we are united in love for God and each other. No one will be left behind. Distance is but an opportunity to show our love for those most affected. Don’t fear the future, if we stay. He who makes all things out of nothing, knows our needs more than we do. He will provide.
Following Christ means carrying a cross. So let us heed Moses and Elijah. Let us listen to the Father as he says, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” Listen to him in fear as he tells you, “Don’t be afraid.” He will never fail us. He will never forsake us.