As the world around us looks like it’s falling apart, today’s Feast of the Transfiguration is a welcome reminder that there’s glory ahead. Let’s climb that holy mountain to see far and wide. On the mountain of the Transfiguration, Jesus revealed God’s plan for saving the world. “This is my Son, my beloved, listen to him,” God says.
“It is good to be here,” the disciples say in the gospel story, and they invite us to join them. The mystery of the Transfiguration anticipates in a transitory way the glory to come in God’s kingdom. Yes, it will come, glorious, beyond anything we know here.
When Jesus is transfigured before the eyes of his disciples on the mountain, two figures talk with him: Elijah and Moses. Why are they there?
They were prophets told by God to free others from slavery, but they suffered to do it. Appearing with Jesus they’re reminders that glory calls for sacrifice. Jesus suffered so God’s kingdom will come.
On the mountain Jesus proclaims that all creation will be transfigured, but first the Messiah must suffer before it takes place.
Years ago I visited Mount Tabor in the Holy Land, traditional site of the transfiguration. Outside the church was a beautiful garden with plants and flowers from all over the world. All creation waits to be transfigured, they say.
The Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord is celebrated by Christian churches all over the world, in the Ukraine, Russia, Syria and the Middle East, for example. Can we bring to that holy mountain today places of war and violence, poverty and homelessness, where glory seems so far away? You will be transfigured too.
” Therefore, since each of us possesses God in his heart and is being transformed into his divine image, we also should cry out with joy: It is good for us to be here – here where all things shine with divine radiance, where there is joy and gladness and exultation; where there is nothing in our hearts but peace, serenity and stillness; where God is seen. For here, in our hearts, Christ takes up his abode together with the Father, saying as he enters: Today salvation has come to this house. With Christ, our hearts receive all the wealth of his eternal blessings, and there where they are stored up for us in him, we see reflected as in a mirror both the first fruits and the whole of the world to come.”
Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Anastasius of Sinai, bishop
On the summit of the Esquiline Hill, a short distance from the Lateran Basilica, the church of St. Mary Major was begun in the early 5th century and completed by Pope Sixtus III (432-440.)
Hardly a good time to build a church. In 410, Alaric and his Goths shocked the Roman world by sacking a city all thought invincible. In 455 the Vandals under Genseric vandalized Rome. Twice more in the century other barbarian tribes invaded.
The English historian Edward Gibbon called this period a time of decline and fall. In far off Palestine St. Jerome cried out in disbelief at Rome’s misfortunes. In Africa St. Augustine replied to the followers of Rome’s traditional religions, who said Christian weakness caused the city’s devastation, by writing his treatise “The City of God.”
Christians were not the cause the city’s misfortunes, the saint said; two loves are at work in the world building two cities. One love builds an evil city; Christianity builds the City of God, promoting love and justice, even in hard times .
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is honored in this church. In 431, the Council of Ephesus repudiated Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, for refusing to call her “Mother of God.” The title safeguarded Christian belief in the mystery of the Incarnation: Jesus is God and man, the council said. The Christian world saw Mary as a defender of Jesus, her son, who was both human and divine.
Devotion to Mary ran high in the Christian world after the council, and churches dedicated to her arose everywhere. In the city of Constantinople alone, 250 churches and shrines in her honor were built before the 8th century. Pictures, icons of Mary holding her divine child multiplied, especially in churches of the East, where they became objects of special devotion.
Mary’s title, Mother of God, does not make her a goddess, otherwise how could she have given birth to Christ who is truly human? Yet, she can be called Mother of God, because Jesus who is truly her human son is truly Son of God from all eternity as well.
St. Mary Major was not built just as a doctrinal statement, however, it also shored up the spirits of frightened Christians who lived in dangerous times. On its walls stories from the Old and New Testaments called for courage and hope. God’s plan does not lead to decline and fall, they say, but to triumph in Christ.
In this church, Mary is Jesus’ mother and closest disciple. This place is “a school of Mary” – to use a phrase of Pope John Paul II–who teaches the mysteries she has learned.
She is a leading figure in the sacred stories depicted here and is joined by a noticeable number of women from the Old and New Testaments who like her seem powerless, but are empowered by God.
The great 13th century mosaic in the church’s apse of Mary crowned by Jesus Christ as heaven’s queen proclaims God’s triumph in her, but also his triumph in the church as well. She is taken up to heaven “to be the beginning and pattern of the church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way.” (Preface of the Assumption)
It shouldn’t surprise us that many of the mysteries in which Mary had a special role were first celebrated here as liturgical feasts. The Christmas liturgy, especially the midnight Mass on December 25th , began in this church in the 5th century and spread to other churches of the west. Early on, a replica of the cave under the church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, was constructed here. After the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the 7th century, Christian refugees placed relics here purported to be from the crib that bore the Christ Child and relics of St.Matthew, an evangelist who told the story of Jesus birth.
Besides the Christmas liturgy, other great Marian feasts, such as her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, developed their liturgical forms in this church.
Built on a hill where all could see it, near Rome’s eastern walls so often threatened by barbarian armies, St. Mary Major affirms Christianity’s ultimate answer to its enemies. It is not military might, but the power of faith and love that triumphs in the end.
Visiting St.Mary Major
The church’s 18th century façade was built by the popes to enhance the appearance of this important church at a time when many visitors, especially from England and Germany, were traveling to Rome on the Grand Tour to visit its classical and religious sites.
The church’s interior, with its splendid 5th century mosaics along the upper part of the nave, retains its original form better than any other of the major basilicas of Rome.
The Sistine Chapel at the right hand side of the nave was built to house a silver reliquary with relics of the crib brought from the Holy Land in the 8th century. Two popes, Sixtus V and Pius V are buried there.
The Borghese Chapel at the left hand side of the nave honors the ancient icon of the Virgin and Child,”Salus populist Romani”, that Roman Christians have reverenced for centuries. A reproduction of the icon is a nice remembrance to bring home.
The magnificent 13th century mosaic in the apse of the basilica presents the Coronation of Mary in heaven. It’s surrounded by 5th century mosaics depicting scenes from the birth of Jesus and the life of Mary.
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”Matthew 16:13-23
August 4th is the feast of St. John Vianney, (1786-1859) the patron of parish priests. Born in Lyon, France, he had to struggle to become a priest. Once ordained he was made pastor of a small parish in an out of the way place called Ars. “He cared for this parish in a marvelous way by his preaching , his mortification, prayer and good works,” his biography says. He was especially good in hearing confessions and soon people were coming from everywhere to Ars.
Good to pray for parish priests, struggling to minister in the church today as it goes through difficult times of change and questioning.We need more John Vianneys.
John Vianney knew the value of prayer. He wanted to become like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Colette who “used to see our Lord and talk to him as we talk to one another. How unlike them we are! How often we come to church and have no idea what to do and what to ask for. We know how to speak to another human being, but not to God. “
His simple sermons challenged and changed those who heard him.Hurray for simple sermons and priests who preach them.
|A Catechism on prayer, by St John Mary Vianney|
The noble task of man, to pray and to love
“Sacred scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy,” the church stated at the Second Vatican Council ( SC 24), and in reforming the liturgy it directed that “the treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word. In this way a more representative portion of the holy scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years.” (SC 51)
In the scriptures ” the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as support and energy for the Church, strength of faith for her sons and daughters, food for the soul, a pure and everlasting source of spiritual life.” (DV 21)
The Word of God is meant to be a feast for us.
Our present Sunday and weekday lectionaries, which we follow in this blog, answer the church’s wish expressed at the council. They make the treasures of the scriptures more available for the faithful. They’re a feast.
Yet as we know feasts, meant to be fulfilling, can sometimes be overwhelming and seem too much. We may not be able to take them all in.
Our lectionaries may seem like that: too much to take in. For example, we read from Mark 1-12 for the first 9 weeks of our church year. We read from Matthew 5-25 from weeks 10 to 21. We’ll read afterwards from Luke till the end of November, when Advent begins.
In that same period we read numerous selections from the Old Testament and the New Testament, this week from Jeremiah, one of the major prophets. A big banquet.
We might be tempted to yearn for the older lectionary for the Tridentine Mass, which was used in the Extraordinary Celebration of Mass in Latin. It contains a much smaller sample of scripture readings: about 22 percent of the Gospels, 11 percent of the epistles and less than1 percent of the Old Testament. But that approach abandons the church’s desire to be open to the treasures of the scripture and a deeper biblical spirituality.
We might also be tempted to abandon the liturgy altogether for another way of spirituality or devotion. But that would means abandoning the prayer of the church.
In her Constitution on the Liturgy, the church emphasizes the place of the Word of God in the mystery of the Eucharist. She believes that “the two parts which, in a certain sense, go to make up the Mass, namely, the liturgy of the word and the eucharistic liturgy, are so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship.”
In both the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the Eucharist we’re to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” (SC 56) Jesus Christ is with us in the liturgy, not just to be adored, but to be our Teacher and Lord. He speaks to us through the scriptures and comes to us in the Bread.
As he was with his first disciples, he is with us as our patient Teacher and Lord. The lectionaries are meant to be read again and again. We must be patient and learn from them.
Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.Matthew 15:21-28
The giant waves on the Sea of Galilee in Rembrandt painting would be hard to survive, let alone walk on, but that’s what Jesus did, Matthew’s gospel today tells us. Jesus walked on the waters and tamed them. Only God does that, the psalms say.
“You uphold the mountains with your strength.
You are girded with power.
You still the roaring of the seas
And the roaring of their waves,
And the tumult of the peoples. “ Psalm 65
We usually read the stories of the disciples in the storm at sea as stories of rescue, and they are. God saves us from the storms we face on our life journey. But first, the stories testify to Jesus’ mastery over creation. On the shore his power touched human beings, like the leper, the deaf and those who could not speak; on the sea he rules creation. “Truly, you are the Son of God,” his disciples say after he gets into the boat and the wind dies down. (Matthew 14,22-36)
In his encyclical on the environment “Laudato Si” Pope Francis emphasizes the power of God over creation. As creator and savior, God gives all things their dignity and purpose. Human beings are not lords of this world, God alone is.
The story of Peter in our gospel takes on new interest in that perspective. Jesus invites him to walk on the water, giving him a share in God’s power. But Peter’s fear and lack of faith overcomes him. He begins to sink.
In our unfolding environmental crisis (storms, winds, floods) are we like Peter, called to share God’s power but turning away from our responsibility to calm the waters? Too big for us to take on. If that’s so, we sink.
Then he made the disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”Matthew 14:22-33
When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” He said to them, “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, “Bring them here to me,” and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over—twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.Matthew 14:13-21