Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Peeling away the Veil of Darkness

Second Sunday of Lent Year A

One of the most stunning and exquisite masterpieces of Italian Renaissance art is indisputably Michelangelo’s Last Judgment which occupies the entire altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. It is a depiction of the Second Coming of Christ and the final and eternal judgment by God of all humanity. Due to the monumental scale of the work, it took four years to complete.  After the death of Michelangelo in 1564, and as a consequence of the Council of Trent condemning nudity in religious art, the genitalia in the fresco, referred to as 'objectionable,' were painted over with drapery. For centuries, the original work of art remained hidden under layers of soot, dirt, grime and the censor’s concealing paint until the commencement of restoration works in the 20th century. After the cleanup, both the restorers and the world were surprised by the discoveries of what lay beneath. The metamorphosis (the Greek word for Transfiguration) of this work of art, now unveiled its true beauty to an admiring world.

On this Second Sunday of Lent, the Church’s liturgy uses the scene of the Transfiguration to peel away at the mystery which she hopes to celebrate at the end of this Holy Season – the Passion of Christ. On the mount of Transfiguration, we have a glimpse of the true glorious nature of the scene that took place on another hill, Calvary. It’s hard to make out the innate beauty and true nature of the crucifixion, especially when it is covered by all the blood, gore and horror of the event. The Transfiguration, however, allows us to see what really took place. The gospels attempt to do this by making striking similarities between the account of the transfiguration and the story of the cross: Both these scenes would have constituted an extraordinarily powerful diptych representing the high and low points of Jesus' life.

Jesus takes Peter, James and John, his inner circle, with him up the Mount of transfiguration today. He will lead the same threesome to Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives to witness his passion. History repeats itself - the three disciples fall asleep on the Mount of Transfiguration as they did in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is transfigured on a mountain, and crucified on another. Just as Jesus is flanked by his heavenly courtiers, Moses and Elijah, at the Transfiguration, he is placed between two thieves at His crucifixion. Although the disciples were enveloped with light on the Mount of Transfiguration, the whole land was covered in darkness at the Crucifixion. It is as if glory and suffering somehow belong together, two sides of the same coin. In the context of the deepest humiliation, pain and suffering, the true glory of Christ is revealed. It is as if human suffering is somehow itself transfigured by the God who came to redeem it; that somehow, the destiny of the Son of God fulfils the destiny of the human race; only through the suffering of death can we enter into glory.

The Gospel of John also describes Jesus’ passion and the crucifixion as the hour of glory. But this means of glorification is troubling; how could Jesus’ ascent to the cross, a symbol of humiliation, be seen as a moment of glory? The answer lies in today’s scene of the transfiguration. What is hidden to the eyes of those who witnessed the scene of the crucifixion is now revealed to the Three Apostles and to all of us in the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration helps us to understand the Cross and Calvary would not be Jesus’ Alamo, the event commemorating his great defeat. No! The Transfiguration reveals to us what really happened on Calvary. Lifted up on a mountain, lifted up on a cross, lifted up as universal Saviour, Jesus truly ascended his throne of glory. The transfiguration indeed reveals the true divine glory of Christ.  Its purpose is to reveal to his disciples who Jesus is, and so to prepare them for the cross; in fact, the transfiguration can be seen to anticipate Easter. 

The Lord not only preached His Gospel to the people, but also educated and enlightened His disciples. And gradually He revealed Himself to them as the Messiah not only of Israel, but of all mankind, as the King of the eternal spiritual kingdom. The Messiah’s words that He would be tortured in Jerusalem would have deeply troubled His disciples. A vision of the crucifixion might have evoked the feeling of despair in Christ’s disciples, the thought that everything was irrevocably lost. It would have shaken their faith to the core. The mystery of redemption could have appeared to them as a defeat and the Messiah powerless. At a time of despondency and doubt, the three apostles’ witness to the Transfiguration was to strengthen the faith of the other disciples. And so we finally come to the heart of this deliberate juxtaposition of the two scenes. No amount of intellectual explanation would have sufficed to explain the scandal of the cross and the suffering of Christ. God had to demonstrate it. And this is what constitutes the mystery of Christianity - It attracts people not so much by its delicate and sophisticated intellectualism, nor by the brilliant oratory of its preachers, nor yet by the beauty of its rites. Christianity revealed to the human soul a new world, an eternal world, a world of divine light – that which not a single religion or philosophical system could give. It reveals to the world the beauty and sweetness of the divine mystery of its Saviour albeit hidden in human flesh and adorned with the tattered flesh of broken humanity.

Here then is the greatest paradox of all - the glory of God revealed in Jesus, and especially in that which seems to be most inglorious. To the outward eye this was the uttermost in degradation, the death of a criminal. To the eye of faith it was (and still is) the supreme glory’.

There is a point to this beautiful link between the Passion and the Transfiguration. It is seen in the manner Christianity helps its members understand suffering. Recently we concluded our parish novena with a communal anointing of the sick. The many who came had their own particular passion narrative to tell. The Sacrament which was celebrated was a sort of Transfiguration, a metamorphoses, not a physical one but a spiritual transformation. The sick and elderly, though on the outside seemed imprisoned in frail bodies wrecked with pain and infirmity, were really carriers of a much greater truth – hidden beneath the mortal fa├žade was the glory of being the beloved children of God, and they were moving quickly towards glory; to that healing re-creation that is at the heart of the Christian gospel. And so they received the Sacrament of Anointing and the Eucharist, they received healing and wholeness from the one same Christ, who chose to share our mortality that we might share his glory. 

The Transfiguration of our Saviour revealed his true identity to us as the Beloved Son of God, Light from Light, True God from True God. But this momentous event reveals something more! It reveals what is to become of us. The Transfiguration peels away the seemingly impenetrable veil that separates the world of the Invisible from our realm of the Visible. As we encounter the toils of our existence, the many tragedies that life brings, we need the light of the Transfiguration to keep us focused, strengthened, and faithful to the journey with Christ into the wilderness and along the Via Dolorosa of his Passion. We need to have before us the Transfiguration so that we may have a glimpse of the end of the story, the dawning glory of Easter, in order to be sustained in the midst the darkness, pain and isolation that we must endure not just in the remainder of these forty days but also throughout our life long Lent. In the Transfiguration we taste the sweetness often hidden in the bitterness of failure, suffering and pain. In the Transfiguration we behold the beauty and glory often covered beneath layers of soot and the grime, concealed by the awful and scandalous experience of humanity’s suffering! In the Transfiguration, we finally receive the answer to the inexplicable mysteries concealed by death, an answer that can only be found in the Resurrection!

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