August 6, 2017
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent (Year A) on March 16, 2014 at then-Blessed John XXIII Parish in Knoxville, TN. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 33; 2 Timothy 1:8b-10; and Matthew 17:1-9. That same gospel passage is proclaimed every year on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.
Every year on the Second Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. This story is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but I think it takes on an additional dimension in Matthew.
Maybe you haven’t noticed it, but Matthew’s Jesus, while being quite Jewish, would also feel quite at home in East Tennessee. Jesus goes up on mountains a lot in this gospel. Jesus’ most famous preaching – chapters 5-7 of Matthew – is the Sermon on the Mount.
Why the significance of mountains? Because Jesus is the new Moses. Moses received the 10 Commandments at the top of Mt. Sinai. There are also echoes of Elijah climbing Mt. Horeb to speak with God. And today, Jesus goes up the mountain to converse with both Moses and Elijah.
Mountains are special places. They can be what the Irish call “thin places,” places where we seem to get closer to God, both physically and spiritually. Let us come closer to God by acknowledging what has kept us distant from God and asking him for forgiveness.
For millennia, people have seen mountains as special places. It takes effort to climb them. Once we get to the mountaintop, we can look back on where we’ve been, with a sense of accomplishment. It’s a moment to take stock, to reflect on what has happened, and where we have been in our lives.
In the past week, Fr. Charlie, Dr. Ruth, Dan, Andrea, and I had something of a mountaintop experience. The Paulist Fathers, along with our seminarians, novices, collaborators, and Associates, gathered for three days to pray and prepare for the upcoming General Assembly. It was a time to head to a “thin place,” to be closer to God, to look back on what has transpired in the past four years since our last General Assembly. (For example, the opening Mass was concelebrated by my two ordination classmates and me – and this was a big deal, since many of the people gathered who had known us as seminarians had never actually seen us in our presbyteral role.)
Now, it’s a little bit embarrassing to say this, but because of the availability of cheap hotel rooms, an abundance of meeting facilities, and low airfares, our “thin place” this week was the Palace Station Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Yeah, the irony wasn’t lost on us, either.
The view from the mountaintop is exhilarating. The last few years in the Paulist Fathers have featured the joy of the ordination of Tom, René, and me – the largest ordination class in roughly 15 years – and the ordination of Dat Tran the year before that, and the preparation for Jimmy Hsu’s ordination this May. Our national ministry to young adults, Busted Halo, continues to thrive. Paulist Productions had a trifecta of successes this past year, most notably with producing a Christmas lessons and carols program broadcast on CBS television this past Christmas Eve.
But the view from the mountaintop also comes at a cost. Sore muscles, lost breath, perhaps some scratches and sprains. And for the Paulists, there has been a lot of strain in the past four years. Four years ago, our administration was charged with clarifying our financial situation. They have done an excellent job, but it is now painfully clear that we are at a critical moment in sustaining our long term financial viability. Our election process this time around was painful. While 5 men will have been ordained to the Paulist priesthood in this administration, more men than that have died, retired, or left the community. For the foreseeable future, we will be significantly smaller than we are now.
But for most of us, we can’t stay on the mountaintop. Peter seems silly for wanting to stay there. Yes, it is powerful and reassuring to see Jesus transfigured, but Jesus didn’t come to the Holy Land to hang out with Moses and Elijah on top of a mountain. He came to walk among the people. And Peter, James, and John have signed up to walk with Jesus.
In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis condemns those who want to stay on the mountaintop. He says, “Spiritual worldliness… consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being…. We indulge in endless fantasies and we lose contact with the real lives and difficulties of our people. Those who have fallen into this worldliness look on from above and afar.” (EG, #93-97)
Peter can’t stay on the mountaintop. He has to carry out the mission that he’s been given by Jesus. You can’t stay on mountaintop in your personal life. You have to carry out the mission that you’ve been given by Jesus. And the Paulists and all of our collaborators – and that includes all of you in this room – WE can’t stay on mountaintop, either. We must carry out our mission.
But what is our mission as the Paulist family? It’s not exactly clear. As the president of Paulist Press, Mark-David Janus, pointed out, religious communities within the Catholic Church are supposed to have unique gifts to share with the Church. We have specialized in evangelization for decades and decades, but now, Pope Francis has declared that all Catholics throughout the world are supposed to be evangelizers. He’s even talked about the power of evangelization through our specialties of reconciliation, ecumenism, and interreligious dialogue.
All of us have mountaintop experiences, but are we willing to be changed by them? Do we learn from the experiences and the scars of the past to live a different future? Do we allow ourselves to be transfigured? Or do we just watch in fascination as someone else is transfigured? As many of us have heard it said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Mountaintop experiences allow us not only to look back on the past, but also to look forward to the future. Are we willing to let what happened in Vegas NOT stay in Vegas? If we want to grow from our mountaintop experiences, we must allow the Holy Spirit to transfigure us.
Going to a “thin place” can be a scary experience – acknowledging what has been – but it can also be exhilarating. When we leave the mountaintop, we have a choice, like a drop of rain that falls on the crest of the watershed. Do we return the way we came, or do we choose to descend the mountain by another path?
Peter came down off the mountaintop, and eventually the Holy Spirit gave him the grace to follow Christ far away from his homeland. This Lent, each of us has the opportunity to be like Abraham, willing to follow God in a new direction, without knowing the final destination. Likewise, all of us in the Paulist family can choose to trust in the Holy Spirit in a more radical way. We can work to see ourselves as part of something much larger than Blessed John XXIII Parish. We can become Paulist Associates. We can foster a culture of religious vocations within our circles of influence. We pray for our 10 wonderful seminarians and novices every day. We can support the Paulist Appeal. We can believe that the Holy Spirit knows what she’s doing within the Paulist family, even if she asks either Fr. Charlie or me to move this summer to another assignment.
Our God is a god of the future, always inviting us forward to an exciting, unknown destiny. But if we don’t let go of the wheel, God can’t steer the boat. It’s scary. It’s risky. But in taking such risks to step away from our spiritual worldliness, comes the opportunity for new experiences, new insights, new growth in our relationship with God.
Selected lyrics from “Watershed” by Emily Saliers
Thought I knew my mind like the back of my hand:
The gold and the rainbow, but nothing panned out as I planned.
The say that only milk and honey’s gonna make your soul satisfied.
Well, I better learn how to swim, ‘cause the crossing is chilly and wide.
Up on the watershed, standing at the fork in the road,
You can stand there and agonize till your agony’s your heaviest load.
You’ll never fly as the crow flies; get used to a country mile.
When you’re learning to face the path at your pace, every choice is worth your while.
The Indigo Girls’ original studio recording of “Watershed”: