Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Sometimes rumors are true. The adage has it that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. We certainly can use a lift after the trials and tribulations we have been going through and the state of a world teetering on the brink of endless war. 

We are two weeks into Lent and last Sunday’s Scriptures “lift up” our spirits, just in case we are tempted to fall off on our Lenten resolutions. The hardest stage of a diet is always the first couple weeks, not different from any moving process, whether it’s a new house, an apartment, a job or a school. The first few minutes of prayer are often the most challenging, just to settle down and disengage from distractions. And then there is the unpredictable, like the weather …

St. Teresa of Avila — “big” Teresa as some have called her — commented on how weather is as inevitable in the spiritual life as it is in nature. We have wet and dry spells, periods where graces flow and some in which no flowers seem to grow. Not to mention the surprises that can suddenly elate or deflate us. Certainly, the experience in last Sunday’s Gospel account from Luke — the Transfiguration — caught Peter, James and John off guard.

All three disciples were familiar enough with prophecies and prescriptions of their Jewish faith, which the appearance of Elijah and Moses represented. For some reason, God decided to knock them for a bit of a loop by raising their expectations about what Jesus was all about. Perhaps they were getting a bit too comfortable in this little “apostles’ club” he had invited them to join. They had come to learn enough of his teachings and actions and maybe even to “settle down” in their sense of who he was.

Throughout his Galilean ministry, Jesus was warning those in his intimate circle that the Son of Man would undergo sufferings, be put to death and in three days rise. He repeated this again and again, but when it happened no one believed it. Maybe this glorious moment would somehow help their faith when things got ugly on Good Friday. Maybe they would remember this moving experience when, after Christ ascended into heaven, the lives and faith of the apostles and the early Christians would face resistance, persecution and even death threats and executions. 

Our challenges can lead us to question God’s presence in our lives. The Evil One exploits our weaknesses, our tepid faith and trust, the awareness of personal sin that we seek to deny, projecting our hard luck onto God, when in fact we are dodging our own responsibility. It can often happen, however, as in the case of Job, God himself is testing our trust and removing the false gods and securities we tend to cling to so that we will turn to him and him alone, paying him the undivided attention he deserves. There are no atheists on a sinking ship.

The stirring song, “Amazing Grace,” was inspired by just such an event in the life of one John Newton. Not noted for being a religious man, he was conscripted in the service in the slave trade at the end of the 18th century. After being delivered from a vicious Atlantic storm, begging God’s mercy, his life was completely changed. He went on to become a Christian preacher and eventually an abolitionist, never forgetting this particular moment, of course, but also discovering how God had been with him throughout many other twists and turns of his life. It had begun to dawn on him that God was using so many other of his life’s experiences as occasions of grace.

I am convinced that in any parish congregation there are thousands of stories that rival those of John Newton. In fact, I believe that the great work of evangelization — or, to use a less scary sounding word, “gospeling” or telling the “good news” (which is what “gospel” means) — is something that is born right in our midst. Jesus walks with us, where two or three are gathered in his name, and invites us to bear witness to that presence as it enters our lives.

How many times I have heard the story of a parishioner who courageously shares how he or she may have struggled in their faith, maybe even “lost” it for a period, because of an experience in their life, the loss of a loved one, an experience of abuse or neglect by a significant person in their life, a scandalous or shocking event, an incomprehensible account of great suffering. All of these can trigger questions about the reality of a loving God. Even Jesus experienced feelings of abandonment by the Father, as he cried out from the cross. At that moment it almost seems that grave suffering tempted Jesus even to forget who HE was. Well, we know Satan left him at times, Scriptures tell us, only to return another time. The Evil One tracks us down to take advantage at our most vulnerable moments.

Remembering our peak experiences — the engagement, the day of the wedding, religious profession or ordination, the birth of that child, the first fires of a friendship — can bring us back to who we really are and how we are loved. We may need to recall those moments even more often at times when nothing particularly bad or great is happening, but when we are in periods of relative stability or even boredom. Acedia, or spiritual apathy, can be as toxic as outright doubt, when we question our faith or even God’s existence! If God is just that proverbial “plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of my car,” he is hardly more than a charm or token. At moments like this, it might do us better if God gives us a good shake and wakes us up out of our lethargy.

Well, this certainly happened to those disciples that day on the mountain. It also happened on the hill of Calvary, where only one of the apostles could even look at it, so scandalous was what had become of Jesus. Yet another, even more shocking revelation in life may come if and when we discover, slowly or suddenly, that what God has in store for us so exceeds our idea or imagination of what we can become with his unconditional love and support, that we find ourselves completely shattered by a dazzling light at the end of a dark tunnel. St. Paul and St. Augustine have something to say about that! So might you or I, any day now.

There is no telling about how the Holy Spirit, the great breath of God’s life, the personal love between the Father and the Son, might break into our lives in an instant, unexpected, perhaps unwelcome even, but brilliantly and compellingly. In the midst of our Lenten routines and faithful rigors of discipline, the Transfiguration reminds us that God’s surprises are always going to break us out of our delusions of control and self-styled security, lifting us up to higher visions, raising expectations, and landing us on holy grounds where our hearts will burn and our souls radiate the Face no one can look on and live. Yet angels and saints do, God knows, and amazing grace will lead us heavenward home. Such rumors are true.