Septuagesima Sunday: The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

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Septuagesima Sunday begins Pre-Lent, the three Sundays previous to Ash Wednesday. It’s three strangely named Sundays, Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima mean “seventy,” “sixty,” and “fifty.” The tradition of this numbering goes to the seventy years Israel was in captivity in Babylon. The idea is, Lent is an “exile” not unlike Advent’s theme of “crying out in lonely exile,” as sung in “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The seventy years does not exactly match up with 70 days before Easter…but it’s close enough.

The “-gesima” Sundays are sometimes paired up the with “solas” of the Reformation, by grace alone, by faith alone, and by Scriptures alone. Septuagesima goes with grace, with its Gospel on the workers in the vineyard. Sexagesima goes with Scriptures; it’s Gospel is the Parable of the Sower. Quinquagesima has Blind Bartimaeus and teaches faith. It’s as good a construct as any, given that every Gospel teaches, well, just about every important Christian doctrine, but it’s a nice framing of the three Sundays of Pre-Lent.

This week’s Gospel, then, bears the theme of grace, and it certainly does. Two contrasts are introduced in the Gospel. There’s the landowner who wishes to do good with his own things, and there are those laborers who cast the “evil eye” on others. It’s grace vs. the evil eye, and that sets up a nice contrast from which to learn.

Let’s stipulate that the landowner is not being unjust. He doesn’t pay the first group, who worked eleven hours, less than what they were due. He pays them fairly, according to the contractual “handshake” he made with them.

But we see that the “payment” he gives those who worked only one hour is really not payment at all, but the man doing “good” with his own things, as he wishes. That is, it’s a gift. St. Paul gives nice catechesis on the parable when he writes, “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…”

Faith is the hand that receives. The ones who worked last received the “gift” of way more than what was expected, and they didn’t turn it down saying, “We didn’t work for this!” One could imagine some thinking this way! How hard it is to receive gifts!

It’s hard to receive gifts because our natural way of thinking is transactional – this is the world introduced by scarcity, by Mammon. In a world of scarcity, everyone cannot have everything. Stuff needs to be divvied up fairly, by rules. And chief among those rules is the rule of transaction, “I give you this; you give me that. I scratch your back; you scratch mine.”

But we do not serve Mammon. We serve God. And more importantly, we serve a good God.

Now, when we see the word “good,” our minds can go back to the creation, where after each day the Lord declared what He had made was good. That can guide our understanding of the parable. Each day of creation was abundant life of new created beings: light, the firmament, the land, the seas, the sun, the moon, the stars, the fishes, the birds, the animals, and humanity. To the living beings the Lord said, “Be fruitful.”

What did any of these creations give in exchange for the life they were given? What do we give in exchange for the sun rising, or the seed sprouting? What do we give in exchange for our lives? What do we give in exchange for our new life by Christ’s death and resurrection? The answer to all these questions is, nothing. It’s all gift.

And that is the nature of the grace we receive, Christ teaches. It is given on the basis of the Lord’s goodness, not on the basis of what we do. This doesn’t mean there’s not work involved – each set of laborers in fact does some work. But whether it’s the faithful Jew who learned the Torah from his youth and then properly converted to Christ and died a holy and faithful saint, or a thief on the cross who corrupted the Law and only confessed faith in Christ in his dying breath, the gift is the same.

In fact, the latter receives the gift first, which is likely a statement on the gentiles’ inclusion in the plan of salvation long after the Jews were called in Abraham. Indeed, “many are called” – that is, many were called in the call of him in whose loins were “many,” the “father of man,” Abraham – but few are chosen, that is elect in Christ from the foundation of the world. Here, “few” may not refer to a number, but to a status, in the sense of “the small ones” are chosen.

Against this grace, others cast “the evil eye.” The evil eye is miserly, jealous, and bitter toward what others receive. The evil eye lives in Mammon’s world of transaction, where scarcity reigns and there must be a fair distribution of stuff. To him who works more, more must be paid out.

“Evil eye” theology is “tit for tat.” You scratch God’s back; He should scratch yours. It’s at the root of so much bad theology, and requires subtle psychological dynamics. It’s essentially witchcraft, influencing divine forces by human action. It involves the manipulation of “God phantasms,” or projections of human desire, or idols. We can make God work by our tit-for-tat operations only when he becomes an image we can manipulate. It inflates our pride. It justifies Self. And it casts an evil eye on those who don’t fit into that self-projected regime.

But this is not our Lord. He is completely “other” from us and operates by His own rules – He does as He wishes, as the parable teaches. But His capriciousness does not mean fear on our part, even it if means loss of control. No, we learn He is good. It’s a goodness revealed from the beginning, a goodness that expresses itself in growing abundance.

As we stand at the front of the line ready to receive an unearned gift, the rules of transaction and the glances of many evil eyes may drive us away from the giving hand. Let it not be so. We have a good Lord, and it is good to be at the receiving hand of a good Lord. If you ever forget that, just spend a few moments contemplating all the things in your world that you have purely as a gift.


Saturday of Transfiguration: Why Keep the Transfiguration Secret?

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Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”

We see “vision” and we think some sort of ghostly, supernatural apparition. In fact the word simply means, “What is seen,” as in, an appearance or spectacle. It’s something that fills the eyes. It’s an externally objective sight. It’s not phantasm of the mind, and that’s an important distinction to be established against the Gnostics, who would deny the validity of any physical appearance, seeing all such things as corrupt delusions, or the Platonists, who would see in material diversity only accidents of essential “Ideas.”

What Peter, James, and John saw was real. But what did they see? We immediately think of the transfigured Jesus, along with Moses and Elijah. That was quite a sight to see! But look at the verse immediately preceding our verse for today: “When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”

That too was a vision. It was a new vision of the one they had become accustomed to, Jesus. Before they saw their friend and rabbi, a strong candidate for the Messiah, and probably a prophet. Now they saw God’s Son, the only one they were to listen to, the source of the Word, and incredibly, the foundation for a new testament. Was Jesus also suggesting they keep that to themselves? It’s something to think about.

Whether that “vision” was the transfigured Jesus or the transfigured faith and understanding, what does it mean that Jesus commanded them to tell no one about it until He was risen from the dead? Why keep that secret?

Obviously, it’s because testimony of what that vision meant wasn’t fulfilled without Jesus’ death and resurrection. The vision convinced them that Jesus was Christ, the Son of God, the source of all wisdom, and that through Him would come resurrection from the dead and a new life in the world to come. But such things mean nothing without Jesus’ death and resurrection. Transfiguration only comes by way of the cross, and resurrection.

But the “Why?” of all this is where the mystery really begins, because it deals with fundamental aspects of reality. Why does the cross mark all creation? And why is there this hidden mystery which is only revealed by the proclamation of apostles and received by faith? Those are the two questions brought up by Jesus’ words: the cross and faith. Why are these so foundational?

St. Peter, witness of the transfiguration, has an answer to this at the beginning of his letters:

“Grace to you and peace be multiplied. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory,”

Here we see both the importance of the cross and the reality of faith going on. The purpose of the cross, or the “various trials” is to test the genuineness of faith. Yes, there will be a revelation of Jesus Christ, an inheritance that doesn’t fade reserved in heaven for us – this is what Peter witnessed, after all. And on account of witnesses like him, we are born again by his preaching, and that Word fills our hearts with “inexpressible joy” in Christ, whom we love though we don’t see. It’s all there, the mystery of faith and the cross.

Still, why it must be this way remains a mystery, and Peter’s explanation is almost circular: God gives the cross to test faith; but why faith in the first place? Why is believing the word of a witness superior than Christ Himself coming forth and revealing Himself? And why must such witnesses and their hearers “prove” their faith through suffering and martyrdom? What is it about God’s perfection of mankind requiring this?

Does it have something to do with the nature of creation in matter itself, wherein the principle is laid down, that words create worlds? Eden could not be created without the possibility of leaving Eden. At which point, now there are two things set against each other, the world of Eden and the world of rejecting Eden. Similarly, every proposal of a word or being establishes the possibility of whatever it is not, so that these two can potentially be against one another.

Words cut. Within the cosmic structure created by those words, there is peace. But (a) things have to be cut to build the structure, and (b) now there exists an “outside the cosmic architecture” which can set itself against that which is in the cosmic architecture. Satan’s temptation was of a world outside the cosmic architecture of God’s full creation, and that world is ever set against the world God built.

As the Lord re-builds, or renews, His creation, it involves a Word which behaves as a sword, and creates a world set against “the world.” Hence the cross. To say Christ alone is God and Lord is to say all other gods and kings are false, and that leads to suffering, first suffering within ourselves as the Word hews out the image of Christ, and second suffering from without as the faithless abuse us.

If words build worlds, then faith is the material through which God builds the new world. Perhaps there’s something of an answer there, to the question, why the cross and faith?

Sometimes the question is the answer, and the answer we seek is a question back at us. “Why does the earth look old?” Answer: because the earth looks old. Why is this a question for you? Because you want to know how it got old? Where does God fit into your thinking?

Why faith and the cross? Because faith and the cross. Why is this a question for us?

All our “maybes” and “how abouts” are no better than Job’s friends giving explanations for his suffering. Why faith and the cross? Well, that’s where faith comes in, doesn’t it, and we bear the cross of insufficient understanding. But with faith, and a transfiguration to fuel that faith, the questions can fade away, particularly when the eyes look up and see “only Jesus.”


Friday of Transfiguration: “Jesus Only,” Among the Most Beautiful Words of Scripture

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And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

They saw no one but Jesus only, or perhaps better translated, “Jesus alone.” “Jesus alone” can be taken in two senses corresponding to Jesus’ humiliation and exaltation.

By His humiliated state, we confess as Philippians 2 says, “being in the form of God, [Christ Jesus] did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.”

Think of Peter, James, and John beholding Moses and Elijah, these Hebrew hall of famers. Their friend and teacher, Jesus, had been revealed in His exalted state, the state He’s in when He’s not in His humiliated state. Then the Father overshadows them and speaks. The whole seen is awesome, and terrifying. The three cannot deal with it. They fall on their faces.

And then they hear the words, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” Looking up, they see “Jesus alone.” Whew. Here’s their friend and teacher back to normal. They can arise. They can handle this. Is this not the beauty and purpose of the incarnation? So that God can be with us in such a way, that we can stand in His presence? Is that not the whole purpose of the Gospel, so that we can stand, unafraid, in the presence of God? Is that not the end result of our justification?

Of course it is. You almost hear a “just Jesus” lurking here, as in, “Don’t worry, it’s just me, Jesus.”

On the other hand, this “Jesus alone” can be taken at a more cosmic sense. The three disciples had just “seen” and witnessed Moses and Elijah – again, hall of famers – and their friend and teacher in this terrifying, glorified state. Their minds were filled with awe. They were overwhelmed. So many things must have been going on in their minds, and in their faith. So many questions. Peter’s suggestion about the three tabernacles reflects their confusion. And then the Father declares, “Hear Him.”

I’m reminded of that stock scene in a show or movie, where some poor individual is in a fire, or hanging on a ledge, or in some dire predicament, and there’s all sorts of confusion and noise going on around him. The hero is trying to focus his attention on him, “Just listen to me and follow my instructions. Block out everything else.”

I see that sense in the “Jesus alone” as well. Amidst all the confusion and faith challenging events, the Father points to Jesus and says, “Keep your focus on Him. Follow His instructions.” And when the confusion dies down, they do just that. “Only Jesus” matters. Only Jesus has the answers. Only Jesus will save them. It’s not unlike Peter’s challenge when Jesus invited him to walk on the waves. “Just keep your eyes on Jesus; forget everything else.”

But there’s something more going on with those words “lifted up their eyes” and “saw.” Again, the whole purpose of the transfiguration event was to confirm the apostolic word, to confirm their eye-witnessed testimony that Jesus is Christ, the Son of God, who brings resurrection and everlasting life.

They lifted up their eyes and saw nothing else – nothing! – but Jesus alone.

Now, here’s where the cosmic element comes in. Jesus fills all things in heaven and on earth. Which is to say, there is a way to “see” with our “eyes” all things in heaven and on earth in such a way that we see Jesus alone. Going back to a repeated theme, there’s a proper confession rooted in the Psalm which sees only the “goodness of the Lord” in all creation.

A good creation – in view of the fall – can only be seen as good on account of Jesus’ redemption of it. That is, only by seeing the creation through Christ can we see it as good. Having that vision is among the many promises of faith. Of course it’s a faith into which we all must grow, for who among us does not see some aspect of the creation, or of our lives, and think, “This area here has gotten out of God’s control. Christ cannot truly be here.”

But that is heresy on so many levels. Christ most certainly is there. St. Patrick had such a faith when he penned these words:

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the poop deck,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Yes, Christ fills all in all! And certainly the hymn puts a faith on our mouths similar to what we see in the Gospel, where we see “only Jesus.”

What does such a vision do for us? It does for us exactly what it did for Peter, James, and John. When confusion arises we have a hunch are there because of divine or spiritual forces out of our control – a hurricane, cancer, someone else wins the lottery, my spouse is a drunk, my kids all have problems – we too want to fall on our faces in terror. Who can stand before such cosmic forces? What do all these things mean?

And in the midst of that comes our Lord, saying, “It’s just me…do not be afraid.”

It’s just Jesus. All Jesus. Even the suffering. It’s all Him, and because it’s all Him, we need not be afraid. Such is the fruit of an eye that sees only Jesus. As Jesus said, “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light.”


Thursday of Transfiguration: The Son, the Author of Salvation

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While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!”

Who exactly is the “Son of God”? It’s sort of an odd relationship within our doctrine of God. It makes sense on pagan terms, like Zeus siring a handful of sons by both humans and immortals – Hercules comes to mind. And the idea of one God makes sense on philosophical terms, the primary ground of all being who transcends all being itself, but the philosophical idea of God almost demands a strict monotheistic understanding. This was something Islam capitalized on.

But a single Father who has a single Son, both of whom are in essence one, along with a Holy Spirit, this introduces all sorts of mysteries. What’s going on here?

Add to the mystery the two “modes” of this Son. There is a pre-incarnate Son and a post-incarnate Son. The pre-incarnate Son would be the Second Person of the Trinity, who appeared as the Angel of the Lord to Moses and the judges, for instance. You could also argue the pre-incarnate Son was the Word of the Lord which “came to” such and so prophet. In fact, likely every manifestation of God in the Old Testament was in fact this pre-incarnate Son of God. St. Paul says the Rock that followed Israel in the wilderness was Christ!

But then there’s the post-incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. This is the one who was born of Mary, suffered and died, who was transfigured, and who sits at the right hand of the Father.

Now add another wild concept, the correlation between the eternal and temporal. Jesus the man lived in a temporal realm; the Second Person of the Trinity lives in an eternal realm. This means He’s above or outside of time. Was the incarnation of Christ communicated to the eternal nature of the Second Person of the Trinity?

At times the Scriptures speak this way, for instance when it describes Jesus as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Huh? How did that happen? Well, it can happen because what happened “in time” with Christ is communicated “outside of time.” This, incidentally, is how our baptisms can be the “place” where we are elect from the foundation of the world, in Christ – that’s when our names were written in the Book of Life. This is also how Hebrews can say the Lord’s works were “finished” at the foundation of the world, yet the declaration of this finishing takes on flesh at the cross, when Christ said, “It is finished.” And clearly in our own lives, we still need finishing! Theologians like to describe this time mystery as the “now not yet” nature of God’s works.

If the incarnation of Christ is communicated to His eternity, was the Person who appeared to the Old Testament saints the incarnate Son of God, whose identity as Jesus Christ was a historical reality yet to be revealed in the fullness of time? When it says God made Adam in His own image, and we know the image of God is Christ, can we take this almost literally, that Adam was shaped in the human form because that’s the form Jesus had?

I like this interpretation because it makes Jesus’ life and death foundational to the entire cosmos. Because of our linear view of time we see Jesus as a chapter in the middle of a big book called “The History of the World.” But in God’s time, perhaps there’s more of a chiastic structure – structured like an X – and the middle part is foundational. So, Christ’s life and death are written into the foundational DNA of creation, and indeed, the creation itself works out the Father’s will in Christ Jesus.

This would make sense such passages as these from Hebrews: “[Jesus] learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him…”

Obedience here is the same word used for how the wind and waves obeyed Jesus. You might say it’s the proper posture the fundamental matter of creation must take before God. If one would be worked on by the Lord, he must passively accept being worked on. That’s obedience. Jesus is Lord and God, and He’s also the one who “fills all things in heaven and on earth,” suggesting He’s the embodied creation itself!

(This recalls the suggestion a few weeks ago, that Christ’s baptism itself was like the Lord calling for a new creation out of the old – the Lord is always calling new creations out of the waters!)

Part of the Christian life, then, and obviously, is to passively accept, or surrender to, God’s work on us in our lives. Whatever suffering befalls us is His “authoring” of our salvation. It’s His work of creating us.

Jesus is the Son and Word of the Father made flesh. Words create worlds, which means the perfected world is the Body of Christ, who again, fills all things in heaven and on earth. When the Father presented His Son to Peter, James, and John and declared Him His Son, the one to be listened to, He was inviting them into a new world. They were witnessing what this new world meant – brightness, glory, beauty!

To listen to Jesus means to be obedient to Him, which means to receive His work on our lives, which means, yes, suffering. Just as it meant for Him. It is how He authors our salvation. That word, “author,” from Hebrews is interesting. Authors create worlds with words. Words cut and hew as they build. So also Jesus’ words in our lives.

Yet, lest our three witnesses lose hope, we also have that witness of what awaits, the glory of the transfiguration. Armed with that vision, all suffering becomes bearable. It’s as St. Paul writes, hoping how he “may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death,” all so that He might “attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

What obedience is learned in suffering? What did Jesus learn? What did the Second Person of the Trinity gain by experiencing suffering in human flesh? Why in the Gospel of Luke was Jesus talking about His death with Elijah and Moses? These are mysteries which must be left for another day, but whatever the reason, suffering is pretty foundational to what it means to be human, and live in fellowship with our Creator. Jesus Himself, the Creator’s own Son and focus of love, embodying the creation, had to suffer, and this is foundational to everything. Jesus couldn’t say “It is finished” until He underwent it. Why?


Wednesday of Transfiguration: Jesus, the Tabernacled Word

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And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

To understand Peter’s thinking, you have to review the last chapter of Exodus and the first chapter of Leviticus. Peter’s mind and faith still had that “old wineskin” quality, as all Jews would have, of course – the seed of the Gospel bears fruit with patience. Many a sermon has mocked Peter as an impulsive dolt whom God Himself had to straighten out. “Listen to him” is taken in the sense of, “Straighten up and listen to your mother!”

No. Peter was being a good theologian according to the Old Testament doctrine. Tabernacles are places of meeting where God descends and brings His Word. Here is the last verse of Exodus and the opening verse of Leviticus: “For the cloud of the LORD was above the tabernacle by day, and fire was over it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys. Now the LORD called to Moses, and spoke to him from the tabernacle of meeting…”

The tabernacle was a veil for God, so that He could be among His people and guide them with His Word and presence. The naked presence of God would destroy His people, so this was the only way. Moses and the great prophets became His mouthpiece.

As Peter, James, and John ascended the mountain with this mindset, everything fell into place. Here’s the mountain. Here’s the brightness, the fear, the presence of great prophets. It’s a replica of the Sinai event, with Peter, James, and John representing Israel. “Let’s build a tabernacle just as in the days of old” is a sensible sentiment.

But the new wine was about to be poured, and the old wineskins couldn’t contain it.

The new wine is that Jesus is the incarnate word. He needs no tabernacle because He is the tabernacled Word, as St. John writes, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”

Gone is the mountain, and the “portable mountain” (the old tabernacle and temple), because “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” No old “Mount Zion” (the temple) is needed. A new “Mount Zion” is at hand.

Gone is the overpowering brightness and the fear. Rather, as Jesus says when His brightness fades away for another day, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” And there they saw “only Jesus.”

This is the new mountain, the one Hebrews talks about contrasting that fearful one of old. It’s the humble country church where believers reverence an altar made of plywood, because their faith transfigures that item into the throne of God. They do it in confidence, peace, and comfort, knowing that lurking behind these realities is a “consuming fire” – the transfigured Lord – but in the end, the whole point of the Lord’s program is to bring about a “perfect love that casts out fear.”

Think of this dance of constrasts: On one hand, Peter begins the scene wanting to shield His friend and Lord, to separate Him with the cloth of a tabernacle; the Lord ends the scene by lifting him up and appearing as “only Jesus.” On the other hand, Peter begins the scene thinking he was witnessing three great prophets; the Lord ends the scene teaching him that, there’s something way more than a prophet in His Son, Jesus.

The majestic vision goes from awesome to mundane, while at the same time the meaning of what was seen goes from great to eternally majestic, three great prophets to one mundane Lord God. That’s the beauty of the incarnation, and that is the beauty of the faith of which Peter, James, and John became the primary witnesses.


Tuesday of Transfiguration: The Christian “Ascent” Experience

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Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.

Gnostic spiritualities typically have some sort of “ascent experience.” Their mystical understanding reflects their teaching that matter, physicality, and flesh are prison houses for the mind out of which mystical ascent can take us. The higher you ascend, the more distant you are from physical entrapment. As you leave even the stars behind, you also leave their fatalistic influence on your soul. That is the goal of the gnostic.

Remembering that Gnosticism is the devil’s theology, and it apes the Gospel at every point, we most certainly affirm an “ascent” aspect to Christianity. We see it in the transfiguration event. Jesus “led them up on a high mountain.” And this isn’t an isolated event. As one professor once put it in one of my seminary classes, “Often wherever there’s a mountain in the Scriptures, God’s going on.”

Of course, pulling the curtain open to the devil’s mechanisms, we see that the devil only wants us out of our bodies because that’s where death is. He wants the dissolution of God’s creation. He loves spiritless flesh, and he’s lord were flesh has lost its spirit. In that way he is “Lord of the maggots and flies” (Beelzebub).

Gnosticism paints that rotting corpse of a theology in pretty hues.

Against Gnosticism, we confess that our Lord has created the material world. So invested in the material order is He that He sent His Son into the flesh. He “descended” into the flesh. He sanctified it with His descent, sealing it as “good,” just as He had declared it in the beginning.

The Lord’s statement of Christ that He is His beloved Son is really just a riff off of “He looked at what He made and it was very good.” It just so happens that, due to the fall, His Son was the only thing in all the creation that reclaimed that status of “very good,” and so was the only source and hope of the rest of the creation claiming that status as well. Hence the baptism of Christ, where Jesus placed Himself in the “face of the waters” so that the Holy Spirit could hover over and a new creation begun – those jumping in those waters share in that new creation.

We see “ascent and descent” elements strongly in the transfiguration event. But instead of the ascent being an escape from material order, biblical ascent is more like…perpendicularizing the horizontal nature of history. This needs to be distinguished from Voegelin’s “immanentizing the eschaton.”

Voegelin’s phrase means “to make present politically what is intended as an end times reality.” Our coined phrase means, the higher we go with Jesus, the closer we are to the eternal realities inaugurated at the end of time. Voegelin’s phrase was a critique on Gnosticism and its influence in politics – a furtherance of that “devil’s theology” and aping of the Gospel. It’s the Antichrist’s “evangelical” program to inaugurate a world without war, famine, and pestilence through the movements of divinely-inspired people “working with God” to bring about His kingdom.

What it’s missing is the realization that history is God’s work, because there can be no history without matter. Matter introduces change, and change means time, and time means history. God owns every single so-called debacle in history – the devil is His little pawn in this process. He owns it, and the sanctified vision of the Christian is able to confess the whole world – and its history – full of the goodness of the Lord.

But that sanctified vision comes from above. As St. James writes, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.”

That is where the ascent comes in. We see here that “good gift” James identifies with God’s Word. Which brings us back to the transfiguration.

Here is a passage from Proverbs 30 serving as a perfect background to James and the transfiguration event:

Surely I am more stupid than any man, And do not have the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom Nor have knowledge of the Holy One. Who has ascended into heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name, and what is His Son’s name, If you know? Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, Lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar.

It’s almost like the Lord gave the transfiguration event specifically to answer this Proverb! We are stupid regarding knowledge of the Holy One – we’re with Peter throwing out ideas about tabernacles based on our limited understanding. Who has ascended to find this information out? Who knows God’s name and His Son’s name? Well, it’s the one who led the disciples with Him up the mountain! It’s Jesus! He taught us God’s Triune Name. It was revealed even there on the mountain: “This is my beloved Son!” You mean “Jesus only”? That one who remained after the miraculous event?” Yes, Him!

Do not add to His words. No, as the Father said, “Hear Him.” Anything more than Jesus’ word is a lie.

When the scene ends, they go down the mountain, but not alone. They go with the One who incarnates God’s Word. This makes God’s Word readily imminent. Yet, at the same time, the three disciples carry their witness of eternity with them. This “Jesus only” – their mundane friend and rabbi sweating with them in Palestine – is one mountain-ascent away from a transfigured and eternal reality in which He is supreme. He’s one mountain-ascent away from His end time reality! Wow!

Is that same possibility available to us? It absolutely is! It’s what faith is, as opposed to gnosis. Gnosis is an “experience,” a bodiless escape from the real world into an alternative, phantasm-based world. Faith is a vision absolutely rooted in every sensate thing you see marching before your eyes, ears, tongue, flesh, and smell. Again, it’s how we are able to see the goodness of the Lord in the world.

This vision, after all, is what Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would deliver: “He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.” It all centers in the Word painting that vision, that “good and perfect gift from above.”

Faith looks at the “Jesus only” on a cross and sees the transfigured end-time Jesus; therefore faith can look at a cancer-addled sad situation and all awful sights, and see incredible brightness and glory. That is the Christian ascent “experience.” It’s a transfiguring of our world here into a “from the end times perspective” reality.

This vision is what makes sense of Psalms like Psalm 34, of which here are select portions; note its final connection to the cross:

I sought the LORD, and He heard me, And delivered me from all my fears. They looked to Him and were radiant, And their faces were not ashamed. This poor man cried out, and the LORD heard him, And saved him out of all his troubles. …Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him! …The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, And saves such as have a contrite spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, But the LORD delivers him out of them all. He guards all his bones; Not one of them is broken.


Monday of Transfiguration: The Coming of the Kingdom

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For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.

In addition to the verse quoted above, here is the verse immediately preceding the Transfiguration Gospel:

For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.

When Peter recalls the transfiguration event, he calls it the “coming,” or the Parousia, to use the Greek word. The Parousia is the end times coming of Christ.

Just one verse before the transfiguration account, Jesus also speaks of His “coming.” The Greek word here is not parousia, but erchomai, the verb for “to come.” However, this word is very often also used for Christ’s end time coming. Whereas erchomai focuses on the action of coming – going from one place to another – parousia focuses on the result of that coming, the continuing presence of Christ.

There’s a powerful case to be made that at the transfiguration event, Peter, James, and John literally saw the coming of Christ, that is, His second coming. Put another way, they saw the “end times” Jesus, the post-exaltation Jesus. Or put in John’s terms, they saw Him “as He is” after His revelation, which he adds is how we will also be, what St. Paul terms “the revealing of the sons of God.”

Did Peter, James, and John see the second coming of Christ? If so, what would support this case?

First, we can refer to the verses quoted above. Jesus tells His disciples that “some” of them would see Him coming in His kingdom. “Some” suggests more than one, so it can’t just be referring to the revelation given to John at Patmos. Well, the very next verse Jesus takes “some” of the disciples and transfigures into His exalted state right before their eyes. This event St. Peter specifically calls the “parousia,” or end coming and presence, of Christ. The textual evidence is strong.

Second, let us remember what the purpose of the event was. It was to confirm the faith. The apostles were to be witnesses of the articles of faith that made up the Apostles’ Creed. We see in the transfiguration event several articles of the creed witnessed: the fatherhood of God, the sonship of Jesus, the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come. How on earth could the apostles “bear witness” to the life of the world to come if it were merely the word of another? As Peter wrote, he wasn’t about writing myths, but was an eye-witness of the things He proclaimed.

Third, and this would be the most controversial, but Peter, James, and John were witnessing the resurrected bodies of Moses and Elijah. Now, Elijah’s body had already been “resurrected” or “transfigured” long ago, when the fiery chariot picked him up and took him to heaven, but Moses’ body had not. Moses’ body will only resurrect at the second coming.

How do we know Moses’ body was resurrected at the transfiguration event? Well, we can’t know for absolute certainty, but here are some indications that he was there bodily.

Moses was localized. He wasn’t a ghost. Elijah could not have been anything but a body, because it was his body which ascended in the fiery chariot, so why would Moses not have had the same status as Elijah? Or was Elijah a body but Moses – and Moses alone – a ghost?

We’ve already seen Jesus prove the resurrection of the flesh by pointing out how the Lord at the burning bush was the “God of Abraham,” that is, the God of the living, not of the dead. How was Abraham resurrected at the time of the burning bush? How is Moses resurrected at the transfiguration?

Such mysteries are not answered because, well, that’s how mysteries operate. They’re weird, and time warpy. For instance, the Gospel of Luke tells us Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were talking of His “exodus,” or death. How can they speak of something which had not yet occurred? How can the book of Revelation speak of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”? Mysterious. Time warpy. But that’s how eternity works – not time bound.

If it is the case that Peter, James, and John were the “some of you” disciples who got to see the coming of the kingdom before their deaths, how cool is that. How cool that we have that witness. Those apostles, the foundations of the Church, were given to witness what we will one day be.

So, when they say things like, “now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is…”, we know they speak from eye-witnessed experience.


The Transfiguration of Our Lord: Why We Stand at the Reading of the Gospel

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There is an argument to be made that the Apostles’ Creed is so called because each of its articles were eye-witnessed by the apostles. And recall, a witness needed two or three to be substantiated according to biblical law. It’s an interesting discussion to be had, but if it is true, the transfiguration event is a big component of the argument. Several articles of the creed are eye-witnessed by three apostles: the Fatherhood of God, the Sonship of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Those latter two call for an interesting case to be made and will so in future devotions.

The Christian faith is not a philosophy, or a teaching, or an esoteric revelation. It’s not something a single person comes upon by a private revelation or by unique insight. It’s a truth witnessed to. It’s something seen. And once seen, it’s something proclaimed. These elements of the faith come out strongly in the transfiguration.

Transfiguration is like a bookend to the baptism of Christ. At the baptism the Lord declared, “This is my beloved Son.” Here the same thing is declared, with these added words, “Hear Him.” That adds a whole new dimension to the revelation of Who Christ is. It’s one thing to hear that a man is God’s beloved Son – Israel was called God’s son, and so was King David.

But it’s another thing altogether what develops at the trasfiguration.  Consider the situation. Here are Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Each of them are great prophets, obviously. Peter rightly represented the attitude of a typical Jew. The tabernacle was where God met His people, particularly Moses, in order to speak with Him. Peter recognized that three great prophets were present. One wrote the Torah. Another typified the Prophets of the Old Testament. And Jesus clearly was the Messiah (as Peter had confessed the previous chapter). Wow! Three great personages, how wonderful to tent them among us, so as to benefit from their every word, these prophets of God.

And what does the Lord do? He overshadows them and singles out Jesus. Hear that one. Not Moses. Not Elijah. Jesus. Hear Him. He will be the fount and source of all Word and wisdom. He will be the builder of a new world. He will be the tabernacled Word, as St. John realized and wrote down.

And beautifully, after the voice speaks, the three disciples see no one but “Jesus alone.” Just Jesus. Of Him we need not be afraid. We listen to Him, but not on our faces in fear. We listen to Him standing up, just like at the Gospel reading.

We can stand in confidence, boldly, just as Hebrews says, “ Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

We’ve used the expression before: Words build worlds. Jesus’ Word builds the world to come, just as it built the creation in the beginning. The world He builds, which we enter by faith, we enter standing up. That means something.

We’re not falling on our faces in fear. We’re not running away. We’re not running toward Him ready to help Him build the kingdom of God. We’re standing, receiving and reflecting His glory like the ones standing in Revelation: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ ”

Yes, we reflect His glory. We reflect His transfiguration, joining in His transfiguration. As St. John says, “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”


Saturday of Epiphany 3: Jesus Marvels at the Centurion’s (and Our) Faith

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When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! “And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. “But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And his servant was healed that same hour.

Such great faith indeed, for the centurion to recognize (a) that Jesus is a divine figure about whom no one is truly worthy to have under his roof, and (b) that the word of Jesus carries the same authority as Jesus Himself. Put another way, it is the faith of the Church. Like the Church, this sort of faith is not confined to Israel, God’s chosen people of old.

It is entirely possible for God to take the “sons of the kingdom” and cast them into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. This in fact is part of the work of Christ, as promised by John the Baptist, who of Christ said, “God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

We’re seeing here Jesus’ work of baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire. His Word, saturated as it is with the authority of God, is fiery, and does fiery things, like set aside a gentile’s faith as emblematic, and propose to the other Jews present that either they should believe as the centurion does, or be cast into outer darkness. Fiery indeed.

Meanwhile, God is raising up children from the stones, from outside Israel. New people from the north, south, east, and west will take the place of the children, being “grafted into the tree,” to use St. Paul’s language regarding the gentiles.

Jesus marvels at the faith of the centurion, who again, had Church faith. Does Jesus marvel at Church faith? Does Jesus marvel when people acknowledge Him as a divine figure deserving of proper fear and respect, who believe His word carries the same authority as if He were there in the regular sense? If the precedence here serves as any guide to an answer, yes He does. He marvels at our faith.

This is the faith of those whom God raises up from stones. If God is raising up children from stones, how is it He marvels at their faith? When all the work is ours, why would we marvel at the subjective involvement of that upon which we work? It almost doesn’t make sense.

But that is the mystery of faith, and for that matter, the source of eternal debates in the Church about the relationship between grace and free will. We are not robots, but are given the ability to act as free agents. Yet, our status as children of God is completely due to our Father’s “raising” us up.

How did the centurion come to his point of faith? He likely was baptized by John the Baptist, heard Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount, and he probably heard rumors about the Father’s declaration at His baptism. All that is the Lord’s doing, with the centurion as a passive witness to such awesome events. That’s the Lord “raising up” children, through baptism, through catechesis, through Jesus literally sharing His status as “child” with everyone at the Sermon on the Mount by continually referring to, for them, “your Father.”

But then the connections going on in his mind are all quite subjective. Recognizing that Jesus is divine and that he is unworthy of him bespeaks a piety which takes “Jesus as Jewish prophet” to a new level, which is true, but not fully realized yet in the Gospel. And making the connections about the word carrying the authority of the person, and the real life example from the life of a centurion, is really a sacred logical syllogism going on in the centurion’s mind.

What other sorts of synapses were connecting those days following the Sermon on the Mount? Do we take Jesus’ words about “finding such faith even in Israel” literally, that He was actually looking for such faith like that of the centurion, just to find one person who reacted properly to the events preceding?

Let’s take it literally and see where it goes. Jesus could well have preached to hundreds, maybe thousands of people. All the information is laid out. And like, well, a sower casting out seed, only some will bear growth. He goes out and seeks that one faith which He wanted to make emblematic for the Church. When He finds it, He marvels at it, praises it, and sets it up as the standard for Church faith.

Is that the centurion’s work, or Jesus’ work? It’s the Sower marveling at the one seed that grows into a hundredfold. Is that the Sower, the sun, the water, and the seed, or the soil?

Of course it’s the former. Soil and stones are not life-bearing. They can only be passively acted upon. Yet, even as the Lord declares after each day that it is good – He delights in the abundance of life! – so He delights in the centurion’s, and our, faith.

What a mystery, to create something which is completely your own work, but which has the capacity to act on its own in such a way that you can marvel at it. But isn’t that how all life works? With the seeds, with our children?


Friday of Epiphany 3: The Effective Word

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“For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The Word is effective. It does what it says. We meditate on this point quite a bit, contemplating that the Word builds worlds. Words cut. Words saw. Words hammer and join together. Is that analogy run too far? Look at how Hebrews puts it: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

The Word is a slicer and a dicer, which incidentally is the process required to build things. It’s a bit of an allegory, but how did God create the world? He spoke words which divided light and darkness, waters above and waters below, land and seas, and which pried out birds, fishes, animals, and humanity from the dust.

The “Holy” in Holy Spirit means “to set aside.” In other words, to separate or divide from, the hew off one thing from another.

Words cut. Words can hew peace out of a chaotic situation. When you walk into a situation of unknowns, perhaps of unknown peoples, it’s words that carve out a wholesome reality in which friendships form. How does this happen? We all know. We use words to hew down to size common interests. “You like the Beatles? So do I!” And so on. Words are effective builders of things.

Words also can dissolve. This is the second half of the proverb we frequently quote, “A wholesome tongue is a tree of life, But perverseness in it breaks the spirit.” Words can introduce chaos and void into a situation, creating a world that saps life and spirit out of ourselves and others.

Words are effective because words hew and carve. This is why St. James centers his teaching on sanctification on the tongue. “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.” Is the tongue building a world reflecting the Lord’s construction of the Church? Or is the tongue being used to build one’s own world set against that of the Lord?

When we, by self-will, construct our own worlds, our own “cosmic architecture,” or, we might say, project our own running narratives or psychodramas in which we place the characters in our lives, it’s a phantasmic and perverse image of what the Lord does. Of course, in a fallen world in which we believe we can be God – a perpetuation of the original sin – we’re constantly projecting phantasms arising from our own self-will onto the created order, believing our own little world to be the true reality. We suck others into that world, like little toys we want to manage and control to substantiate our own psychodrama.

The point is, use of that sort of word is effective, but in such a lame, dissipating, dissolving way. Our worlds dissolve. Our worlds go “poof” in an instant.

Not so the Lord’s worlds, or new worlds. As to His worlds, no greater evidence of this is to look outside your window. There is God’s reality arising from His Word, all there fore you to behold. It’s the realm you live in, and how often we have to conform our phantasmic realities to the real world. You might say it’s the eternal project of psychological healing, even at a secular level.

As to His new worlds, that is, the Church, just ponder how an institution exists in our world spread across the globe and including billions of people. Within the four walls of this literal building there is a “cosmic architecture” of peace, forgiveness, grace, and goodness. It all arises from the Lord’s Word, which itself bears testimony to Christ’s reality at God’s right hand. We mystically have heaven on earth there. It’s something a great faith – the Church faith – receives and contemplates.

The Word of God is effective. It does what it sets out to do. We hear from Isaiah: “For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, And do not return there, But water the earth, And make it bring forth and bud, That it may give seed to the sower And bread to the eater, So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out with joy, And be led out with peace; The mountains and the hills Shall break forth into singing before you, And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

We look at this as a future reality. But in this context, it’s a prophecy of the new world, of which the Church is a type. Which is to say, by great faith, we can look outside – at that first world – and see the trees clapping and the hills singing. If Christ fills all things in heaven and on earth, a reality our souls are filled with by His Word in the Church, how could we not see the world in this way, as full of the goodness of the Lord?