Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nighttime on the Mount: The Ascent of Prayer before the Descent of Tribulation

Tradition has it that the transfiguration of Christ on Mt. Tabor transpired forty days before his Passion. Evidently, the Lord wanted at least three of his Apostles- Peter, James and John –to experience his glory before they had to drink the chalice of his suffering. St. Peter would later recount his heavenly experience in his Second Letter when he wrote, “For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, 'This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.”

Sometimes the Lord guarantees victory before he permits defeats. He might inspire us with an unshakable certitude to take on a mission for his sake and then allow circumstances to contradict that mission. On Mount Tabor, the divinity of Jesus was revealed before his humanity was crucified. Later, in the Upper Room, he would give his resurrected flesh in the form of the Eucharist the night before his death on the Cross and three days before he had actually risen from the dead.

In tasting the goodness of the Lord, strength is given to us for the trials that are inevitably associated with doing his will. In the Imitation of Christ our Lord speaks to his disciple by saying, “That good and delightful affection, which you sometimes perceive, is the effect of present grace and a certain foretaste of your heavenly country, but you must not rely too much upon it, because it comes and goes.” And this delightful affection and the foretaste of our heavenly country is chiefly to be found in prayer and in meditation. It is, in a real sense, food for the journey and strength for adversity.

To be sure, it was only after an arduous climb up Mt. Tabor and only after the world had fallen asleep that our Lord would give three of his Apostles a glimpse of his glory. But in doing so, Jesus would not stand alone. Moses and Elijah, two prophets who represented the Old Testament and who also experienced the presence of God on Mt. Sinai, stood beside our Lord to give their testimony of support. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke refers to these two men as speaking to Jesus about his “exodus,” that is, his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. And who is better qualified to talk about such an exodus than Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land and Elijah who was assumed into heaven on a chariot?

After our Lord’s face had shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light, a bright cloud appeared and the voice of God was heard. It was as if God the Father had bequeathed his authority to Jesus by saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” This, it would seem, is reminiscent of Psalm 2 when God said in even greater detail, “You are my son; today I am your father. Only ask it of me, and I will make your inheritance the nations, your possession the ends of the earth.”

However, conferring the inheritance of the nations and the power to teach with divine authority did not only issue from the Father to the Son; but it also passed from Moses and Elijah- two of the greatest Old Testament prophets –to St. Peter and the Apostles. Indeed, by "making disciples of all the nations" through the preaching ministry of his Church, Jesus Christ would take back what once belonged to his Father; namely, the world! As the prophet Isaiah said, "In days to come, the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it..."

Every apostle must be equal to his mission. Hence, the work of being God’s oracle to the nations would require spiritual transformation; especially for these frail fishermen. And the symbolic value of the transfiguration of Christ on Mt. Tabor suggests that real transformation can only take place on a mountain of prayer and meditation. When speaking of the soul in contemplation, Cornelius A Lapide, a sixteenth century priest and professor of Scripture, wrote:

“She [the soul] is raised above herself, and is lifted up to God in heaven, where she learns and sees that all the things of earth are fragile and worthless, so that from her lofty height she looks down upon them as fit only for children. She perceives that the true riches, honors and pleasures are nowhere but in heaven.”

Without the foretaste of heaven in prayer and meditation and without eagerly anticipating eternal happiness with God, we will inevitably wince from sacrifice and the price we must pay in bringing souls to Christ. The meditation of heaven inspires a farsightedness that is needed not only for living out the life of Christ on a day to day basis, but for the challenging work God has called us to do.

No doubt, while St. Peter was crucified upside down in Rome; while St. James was dragged to his death in Jerusalem; and while St. John was in exile on the island of Patmos, recalling this heavenly vision of our Lord on Mt. Tabor was probably of great consolation to them. And although we may not enjoy the vision of the Transfiguration in the way the Apostles did, God will certainly not fail to give us a taste of that heavenly sweetness in prayer and meditation in proportion to our faith. This is God's way of giving us a sneakpeak of eternity so that we might be encouraged to hold nothing back!