Pentecost: Vision Restored

Isn’t it amazing that, except when Jesus came to them in the upper room, the disciples were unable to recognize Jesus after his Resurrection?

Mary Magdalene, the first one to see him near the tomb, didn’t know him until he broke through her tears to call her name.

The disciples on the way to Emmaus walked with him, talked and listened to him, yet he remained a stranger until he stayed to eat with them. Then they realized how their hearts had burned within them to hear how he described the Messiah.

When the apostles went to the Sea of Galilee to meet the Lord as he had directed, they didn’t recognize him on the shore until he allowed them to make a miraculous catch of fish. 

Luke opens his post-Gospel Acts by telling of Jesus’ farewell. As he ascends into heaven, “a cloud took him from their sight.

In his account of the last judgment, Matthew describes Christ’s followers as unaware even of having kept his commands: Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? (Mt. 25:37)

Veils. Clouds. Except for those visits in the upper room, the disciples’ eyes remained veiled. Their Master remained hidden by a cloud. Did they remember what their Master had told them before his arrest? That it was necessary that he leave them; that he would not leave them orphans but would send them an Advocate, a defender, a power that would enable them to spread the news of the Kingdom.

So they (and we) were given the Spirit as they crouched fearfully in that upper room. The Spirit arrived like a powerful wind, as tongues of fire, images of powerfully persuasive speech to win the hearts and minds of people the world over. 

Yet even with the Spirit as guide, God remains a mystery for the greatest of minds. Though the human intellect finds a cloud concealing his full essence, the Spirit gives us a more certain way to approach the “throne of grace.”  This is through the fire of God’s infinite love as exemplified by Christ and as we practice it today.

The saints understood why Jesus insisted on withdrawing (physically) from us: that we might understand the need to seek him, to look for Him everywhere. 

Mother Teresa saw him in the “disguise” of the poor and the dying. 

St. Francis saw him in the beauty of the natural world. 

St. Ignatius Loyola saw him in everything, even in the everyday events of life.  

The Lord answers our desire to see, but often in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Such super-vision is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift to us from the Father and the Son, and it is available to all who merely ask for it. 

I tell you, ask and you will receive… Everyone who seeks, finds. . . Who among you would hand his child a snake when he asks for a fish? . . . If you then, who are wicked know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him? (Luke 11:9-13)

After three years of intimate friendship with Jesus, the Apostles had to bear the sorrow of his absence. For the last several weeks, complying with the rules surrounding the pandemic, we have had to bear the absence of our Sacramental Lord. Being without Communion has perhaps had the good effect of showing us how empty we are without its consoling presence.

Thus, like the Apostles, for our spirit to grow, we need to learn how to rely on the invisible Holy Spirit. Even St. Paul, blinded as he zealously sought the persecution of Jesus’ followers, — even he was changed, his life turned upside-down. He wrote to the Corinthians how the gift of the Spirit in Christ changed his life forever, and how it can change ours: 

Whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. . . All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory as from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:15b – 18)

Continually desiring and receiving the Spirit brings us closer to our divinisation, the end for which we’ve been created.

Pentecost celebrates the first arrival of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but even better — the Spirit’s unfailing presence within Christians, giving them voices of fire and passion as we also teach and model the Gospel of Christ. We ask the Spirit to come, even though through the life, death and teachings of Christ, the Spirit is already here in us. The seed is there. Through a continuing awareness of God’s presence within us, we are transformed into other Christs, present in this world and participating in his work of salvation.

Transfiguration of Christ; Transformation of Christians

This post was first published on this feast day in 2017.

For me, the narrative of the Transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most mysterious in the Gospels.

At the top of Mount Tabor, Peter, James and John were allowed a vision of Jesus in the company of major Old Testament prophets, Moses and Elijah. His position at their center, along with the command of the Father to listen to him, emphasized Jesus’ authority and supreme holiness. No wonder the apostles were astonished and wanted to stay there indefinitely! They had already, through Peter, announced their belief that Jesus was the promised one of God, the Messiah. The Transfiguration vision cemented that belief.

But there is another aspect to this vision that touches us personally.

Jesus, fully human and fully divine, allowed his apostles to observe his divinity. What they were also observing (but weren’t yet ready to understand) was their own eventual transformation into the very image of the divine, since through Christ we are made children and heirs of the Father.

Why did Jesus tell the Apostles to say nothing about this event until after his Resurrection? Could it be because they were far from understanding or accepting so bold a concept as our own divinization? We needed the spiritual strength and insight that would be offered to us only after the Resurrection and the Pentecost.

Are we ready even now?

The late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner said, “[t]he Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he will not exist at all.” Mysticism, he wrote, is “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.”

The Transfiguration tells us that our faith must transcend robotic habits. We aren’t meant to spend our earth-years with our eyes half-shut, stumbling through what appears to be a hopeless world. There’s too much that we’re missing if we do not open our hearts to the experience of God of which Rahner speaks.

A constant and growing search for deeper intimacy with Christ and his teachings is what will bring about our transformation into the divine, as Christ showed us and his disciples at the Transfiguration.

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“The days which begin on the feast of the Lord’s transfiguration and end on the threshold of Our Lady’s glorification provide an opportunity for the Christian faithful to reflect on God’s transforming grace at work in their lives, and to seek from the Lord whatever they need to deepen that grace not only in themselves, but indeed in the Church and world.”

These are the opening words of a Transfiguration Novena provided by Father John Colacino of Rochester. If you would like to pray this Novena starting on the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) and ending on the eve of the Assumption (August 14), contact me at rosaliekrajci@gmail.com

Presence

A friend asked me why I hadn’t posted anything in a while. I squarely put the blame on an absent Muse. I’ve certainly been trying! So she (the Muse) decided to show up today, suggesting a topic that we’ve written about before: Presence.

It all started when a fellow blogger linked his readers to a talk on YouTube given by Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now. When I checked my book-case, that book was still there, but only half read.

I watched a number of Tolle’s brief but substantive talks, covering topics that plague virtually all of us: depression, negativity, anxiety, anger, etc. Difficulties arise when the mind – frequently our own worst enemy – dwells on past hurts, issues, events that disturb our peace. We keep replaying these old news reels, thus keeping them alive to hurt us over and over again. Thoughts about the future can be a joyful exercise but are problematic when they produce anxiety or fear. Tolle proposes that these negative states can be tamed by learning to live in the NOW. The NOW, after all, is the only thing we have: the past is gone; the future is unknowable.Tolle definitely has made a new fan of me.

However, after seeing the Mass readings for today (16th Sunday of Ordinary Time), the reality dawned on me that what Tolle teaches is most helpful, but not really new. This is not to denigrate either Tolle or what he teaches, because we all need to hear the same thing repeated at different times, in different words, to different audiences in different eras. This morning, for example, we heard the stunning passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. He imparts the “mystery hidden from all ages, now, finally revealed to all. This is the mystery of Christ in you.” Christ’s miraculous presence in us.

This is the work of our divinization as we take on the mind and attitude of Christ.

 This is the Presence of grace. Even better: the divine Presence of the Divine Christ.

Some are fortunate to have found this ongoing presence of Christ within, so that everything they do, say, hear, teach, comes from that Presence. Here are just three persons who were given the grace to exemplify what it means to live in the Presence, with Christ in them:

  • St. Ignatius: Ignatian spirituality is rooted in the conviction that God is active, personal, and—above all—present to us. We don’t have to withdraw from the world into a quiet place in order to find God. God’s footprints can be found everywhere—in our work and our relationships, in our family and friends, in our sorrows and joys, in the sublime beauty of nature and in the mundane details of our daily lives. It’s often said that Ignatian spirituality trains us to “find God in all things.”
  • Brother Lawrence, Carmelite monk, Practitioner of God’s presence: “It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”
  • J.P. deCaussade, S.J.: Author of Sacrament of the Present Moment (also known as Abandonment to Divine Providence), and spiritual director to nuns of the Visitation. He counseled them that the smallest deeds, even outside of prayer, were transformative when performed in union with Christ.

Jesus, of course, lets us know how to find peace in all that we do. In today’s Gospel, he tells Martha that her anxiety, not her chores, is what keeps her from finding joy in Christ. Mary, sitting quietly at the feet of her guest, is fully and peacefully connected with him. They are both present to each other. — How easy!

The Wedding Feast at Cana

Jesus has been baptized and has recruited the first of his Apostles. They are with Mary at a wedding feast.

Isn’t it puzzling that none of the other Evangelists even mention this miracle at Cana? Yet John’s Gospel places it right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Compared with later miracles — healing a leper or a man born blind, or even resurrecting a dead person — this seems a rather trifling matter. Jesus himself felt that the time was not right. It was only a private party, after all, and the many signs that came later not only demonstrated his compassion, but also boosted his credibility. Even turning stones into loaves of bread after forty days of hunger in the desert seems much more relevant.

Is it possible that John, the most mystical of the Evangelists, has presented this narrative as a brilliant overture introducing (allegorically?) Jesus’ mission to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom? Let us explore the riches of the Cana event.

The Wedding Feast
Jesus repeatedly used the image of feast to represent the Kingdom of God, now readily at hand for all who wanted it. The wedding feast especially was the most joyful kind and lasted several days. It celebrated the union of disparate parts: union of a loving couple, union of their family and friends — perhaps much more important back then than now.

The Guests
Among others not named are Jesus himself, his mother, and his new disciples.

Wine
A metaphor for holiness and joy, it’s at low ebb in a world of strife and materialism. It also represents the Redeemer’s sacred blood, shed that all may find fulfillment in God, freed from the old law with its scrupulosity and fear of punishment.

“They have no wine.”
The old law is insufficient to feed the deep and thirst of God’s people. Jesus has come to renew the “wine of gladness.” He has come to fulfill, not destroy the law with its over-emphasis on externals. Jesus taught that the heart of the law was God’s love for us and ours for God and one another.
I desire mercy, not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13)
This is the wine of spiritual inebriation.

The Request
How delicately made! This scene is not without humor. Leave it to a woman to notice a potential social disaster: running out of wine, a staple for a successful party! Mary merely brings it to her son’s attention, since he and “the guys” are clueless. Jesus doesn’t even want to get involved. This is not in his Plan, the time isn’t right, it’s a private party, etc., etc.
What a message for us when we think our wants — or even our needs — are not worthwhile for presenting to the Lord.  But God is always ready to hear our prayers. Every contact with God is important.

Role of the Servants
Many of Jesus’ miracles took place with the help of friends or even strangers, such as the group who opened a space in the roof to lower their paralyzed friend into Jesus’ presence. Or the anonymous members of the crowd who encouraged the blind man to approach Jesus. At this wedding party, the servants play an important role, just as we do as disciples/servants of the Kingdom. This is an essential part of Christ’s teaching:  giving help freely to others, even strangers.
Mary gives them a gentle order: Do whatever he tells you. In other words, You may not see the sense of accepting his will, but you’ll see how it will all work together  unto good.

The Jars of Water
These serve a mundane but necessary purpose for “Jewish ceremonial washing.” We are reminded of St. Paul’s words: We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.  (2 Corinthians 4:7) Whatever good we do comes from collaboration with God himself. Neither we nor our deeds need be extraordinary. The lowly — and even sinners (which we all are) — can become precious channels of grace for others.

New Wine, Transformed
Finally, we arrive at the fruitful completion of the miracle. The water destined for ceremonial washing is our Baptismal water, cleansing us to make us ready for an outpouring of spiritual wealth given us through Christ. John the Baptist humbly downgrades his ministry and tells his questioners (John 1:26) that what he has done is nothing compared to what “another” will do. John’s baptism is merely with water,  nothing compared to Jesus’ baptism of the spirit. Through this, we are born again, transformed into true children of our Heavenly Father. Moreover, John the Evangelist writes:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

(1 John 3:2)

 

“You are gods . . .”

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
John 1:14a

“The Son of God became human so that we might become God.”
St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation.

“The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made human, might make us gods.”
(St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusc., 57:1-4)

The feast of the Incarnation coincides with Palm Sunday this year. Because it’s such an important feast, I’ve chosen to explore and celebrate it in this post.

Even as a very young person, the Incarnation struck me as a most alluring miracle. Back then, I didn’t know about the astonishing comments from Saints Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas, quoted above. Somehow, for many of us, the truth that Christ first existed as God and then became man, existing in time in a specific place, living and dying as a human being in every way – somehow this half of the truth is much more acceptable than the second half. After all, God can do all things, so becoming a human being is certainly not out of reach. That half of St. Athanasius’ statement is credible.

But the rest of the statement – so that we might become God – may sound as blasphemous to our ears as it was to the unbelieving Jews in the Gospel of John, recently read at a Lenten Mass. (Ch. 10:31-41) In this passage, the danger surrounding Jesus has come to a head as the incredulous crowd takes up rocks to stone him. Jesus says:

“I have shown you many good works from my Father. For which of these are you trying to stone me?” The Jews answered him, “We are not stoning you for a good work but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God.”

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’? If it calls them gods to whom the word of God came, and scripture cannot be set aside, can you say that the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world blasphemes because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’”?

An indisputable line of reasoning which Jesus’ enemies refuse to accept.

Jesus repeatedly referred to God as his Father, to being sent by God, and to being obedient to everything he hears from God. Furthermore, in many passages from the Gospels, he frequently refers to God as our Father. Every time we repeat the Lord’s Prayer, we refer to God as Father. Are we too blasphemous?

We commonly believe that certain qualities that apply to Christ cannot possibly refer to us. Especially divinity. And this is where we come to the second half of Athanasius’ outrageous statement.

I think it’s safe to say that part of Christ’s mission on earth was to teach us how to live as children of God.

In his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) Jesus teaches us how to imitate God the Father, how to take on godlike habits and attitudes. He points out the basic teachings of the law, but then calls his followers to go beyond them. Difficult as those commands are (and have been for millennia already), Jesus calls us to an even higher standard. But it’s impossible for us to go higher on our own until we have received the teaching and example of Christ, along with his strength through the Holy Spirit, i.e. grace.

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill”; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, “Raqa,” will be answerable to the Sanhedrin. . . So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

The message and teachings of Christ call us to go beyond what is humanly good in order to achieve what is supernaturally holy – in other words, to become God-like. The second Vatican Council confirmed that we are ALL called to this holiness, which is the same as what Athanasius and Thomas meant by saying we are all called to be gods. The God we are called to imitate, and whose children we are, is the God who has total and infinite love for all humanity – the just as well as the unjust.

The purpose, then, of the Incarnation and why God became man, was to redeem us, to show us what divine love is, to model holiness, and to receive through Christ the ability to partake in his divine nature.

At every Mass we repeat God’s invitation to transformation, to holiness. As the priest mingles the sacramental water and wine, he says, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

If this were an impossible ideal, we would not have had so many urgings from Christ to dare follow him into the imitation of God. In doing so, we are divinized; we become God’s children, and become the face of Christ in this, our life on earth.