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Second Sunday of Lent Reflection

Jesus Alone

March 21,  2011

And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

Mt 17, 8

The Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent is Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up a high mountain and there they witness Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah and then as he is “transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.”  (Mt. 17, 2)  It is for Peter, James, and John a lifting of the veil that separates their ordinary life of discipleship with Jesus from an extraordinary moment of awareness of the Divine Mystery that lies beyond.  At first Peter desires to build three tents in order to hold onto and contain this deeper awareness, but that desire is quickly replaced by fear as the Divine voice announces Jesus’ identity from the shadow of a bright cloud.  The initial awakening to Mystery that is manifest in the gathering of these messengers of God evokes a desire for possession and domestication in the disciples.  But the awe-full manifestation of Divinity itself is threatening and fearful.  “When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.” (Mt. 17, 6)  It is when “Jesus alone” touches the disciples that they are able to get up and continue their ordinary lives, present to the Mystery in the human way of faith, hope, and love.

     How is it that the disciples pass in a flash from this sense of “privileged awareness” and sense of power that would domesticate the Mystery to a sense of nothingness that has them falling to the ground in utter terror?  Their experience reflects our human capacity to forget who we are and so to magnify our own significance.  James Kugel (In the Valley of the Shadow) quotes the sociologist Max Weber as saying that the human being is an animal suspended in webs of significance that s/he her/himself has spun, or as Kugel describes it himself:  “Here we are, living on a tiny speck of a planet on the outskirts of a cosmic explosion, but that meeting next Thursday afternoon is so important.” (p. 203)  At a safe distance from the fire of the Mystery, we are warmed by it, our sense of significance and safety is enhanced.  But, if we are drawn closer and closer to it, we begin to experience its enormity and power and then fear the revelation of our vulnerability. 

     Each year during Lent we are invited to recognize more fully the self-made web of significance in which we are suspended and thus to remember our real place in the universe.  Our true significance resides not in a self-magnification of our identity but rather in the relationship to the Mystery that we are in our very God-given originality.  Peter the builder of sanctuaries must become Peter fallen to the ground in fear before Jesus can touch and raise him.  “But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’” (Mt. 17, 7)  The practice of Lent is learning to let go of every self-illusion by which we live that we might come to trust in “Jesus alone.”

     Such trust may require of us letting go even of aspects of our religious belief and practice that have afforded us comfort and strength – and significance – in the past.  In letters to her spiritual directors Mother Teresa recounts her long periods of darkness in prayer, of the loss of those consolations in the experience of God’s closeness and presence within her.  Yet, throughout she continues to do her work, encountering Jesus in the people she and her Sisters serve.

When I walk through the slums or enter the dark holes – there Our Lord is always really present. . . . In my heart there seems to be no other thing but He – no other love but His: the streets, Kalighat, slums & Sisters have become places where He lives His own life of love to the full.  Pray for me, Your Grace, that there be really “only Jesus” in me.   (Come Be My Light, p. 168)

When Mother Teresa ceases to experience God, and even God’s love, within, she never ceases to discover the Lord’s presence in the people of the slums whom she serves.  The Mystery is not a product of our own minds and imaginations; it is a Reality in the World.  We encounter that Mystery as we serve it, through the humble but significant “work of our hands” that we have been given to do.

     In the recent film “Of Gods and Men”, the magnificently told and acted story of a group of Trappist monks who were martyred under still unknown circumstances in Algeria in 1996.  At one point, some time before their final kidnapping and then murder, the monastery is invaded by a group of rebels who threaten them but leave them unharmed.  Later, as the monks are continuing to appraise whether or not to remain in Algeria, one of them points out that, after the invasion, they all went back to the ordinary acts of living their daily lives and serving the people of the village.  The scene of the final meal they share as a community before they are abducted is suffused with a sense of the Mystery of their shared life.  The deep peace and joy expressed in their faces is the fruit of the simple and ordinary self-donation which they have lived out in those simple acts of love and service that constituted their day to day lives.

     Just as the Disciples fell to the ground when confronted with the presence of God, we avoid the reality of the World and of the Mystery because before it we realize our smallness.  Yet, as Jesus touches the disciples and raises them up as they cower in fear, so too are we touched when we dare to give away the little we have to the world as it comes to us each day.  There is no need for us to pretend we are more than we are or have more than we do.  For what is uniquely needed from us is Jesus alone; the one whom we give when we give what is uniquely ours to offer.

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