When in your day do you start to relax? Is it when you leave work? Arrive home? Change into something more comfortable? Have a good meal? One of the most relaxing things in the world is when we start a vacation and drive towards the mountains.
[Listen to Fr. Justin’s homily here.]
The Gospel today is centered on a mountain experience, and Pope Benedict says that, “The mountain is the place of ascent—not only outward, but also inward ascent; it is a liberation from the burden of everyday life, a breathing in of the pure air of creation; it offers a view of the broad expanse of creation and its beauty; it gives one an inner peak to stand on and an intuitive sense of the Creator” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1, 309). Every day, when we calm down and are peaceful, God the Father wants us to encounter Him in a transcendent experience, transcendent meaning beyond us, outside of this world. Most of our days we forget that He’s bigger than our daily problems, that we’re loved, that He has a plan for us, and that we’re hungering for something not of this world.
In the Gospel today, there are five ways that the Transfiguration of Jesus points us to a transcendent encounter with Him.
1) “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves” (Mt 17:1). Mountains in the Bible are always places where something significant happens, usually an encounter with God: Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount on a mount(!), He spent nights in prayer there (Mt 14:23), and it’s where He sent out the disciples at the Great Commission; He also prayed at the Mount of Olives just before His death (Lk 22:39), and was crucified on a hill. Just as in Star Wars, every time you see a catwalk, you know something bad is going to happen (Luke gets his arm cut off, and Han Solo dies), so, in the Bible, whenever you hear of a mountain, you know something important is happening. And did you know that the Temple in Jerusalem was built on what’s called the Temple Mount? This is where God’s revealing of Himself happens in liturgy (Pope Benedict, 308-309), something we’ll come back to.
2) “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Mt 17:2). This means that Jesus is revealing His divinity. Normally, when people looked at Jesus all they saw was a man, but, for this brief moment, the three disciples see Jesus’ identity as God. His white clothes also point to something transcendent because, in the book of Revelation, those in heaven wear white.
3) “Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (Mt 17:3). Moses and Elijah point to something transcendent because “there was mystery surrounding their death and speculation about their future roles” in the coming kingdom (Daniel Harrington, Matthew in Sacra Pagina, 254-256), so, these two people also point us, not to the here and now, but to the future.
4) “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mt 17:4). Dwellings mean tents. In the Jewish liturgical calendar, there was a celebration called the Feast of Booths, where the Jewish people would dwell in tents for a week. This was a symbol of how they dwelt in tents when they were stuck in the wilderness for 40 years, but also of how, in the end times, they would also dwell in tents (Pope Benedict, 315). So, St. Peter is thinking that they’ve reached the end, something transcendent.
5) “While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt 17:5). In the Old Testament, the cloud hovering above the Tent of Meeting and the one that descended on Mount Sinai were a sign of God’s presence, and so now, a cloud overshadowing Jesus indicates that God the Father, Who is transcendent, is present.
So, why did Jesus give these three disciples, Peter, James, and John, this transcendent experience? It was to prepare them for the Cross. These three disciples later on would also see Jesus at His weakest point, when He would sweat blood out of fear while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the same way, Jesus always brings us up the mountain so that, when we come back down to the problems of our life, we can face them properly.
Right now, we’re in the season Loving the Liturgy, and today I want to try to explain the transcendent nature of the liturgy, so that you know part of what God is trying to do every Sunday, in particular, strengthen us during sufferings.
1) Most of the words of the Mass don’t change. Why? Because important words in life get stabilized and ritualized. In a 2016 baseball game in Toronto, one of the members of the Canadian quartet The Tenors changed the words of the national anthem, sparking outrage, and forcing them to issue an apology and not let that singer sing with them until further notice. Why? Because the national anthem is really important, and important words get ritualized. This is also why every Saturday Night Live show starts with the same introduction, and why we always sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the same irritating melody. If you’re dating someone, and you get to the point in the relationship where you build up enough courage to say, “I love you,” and the other person says in response, “Thanks,” you’re in big trouble, and not even God can save you—just kidding. The ritualized response to words of this magnitude is, “I love you, too!” Therefore, whenever someone non-Catholic or our kids ask us, “Why does the Mass always repeat the same words?” The answer is: Important words get ritualized. And ritualized words are transcendent.
The best way to avoid these words’ losing their meaning is? To prepare. Next week, we’ll talk about arriving on time for Mass, and, if we do, then we’ll have time to prepare to mean the words we use every Mass.
2) The Mass, in many respects, is purposely designed to look, sound, and feel timeless. When does this church look like it was built? It’s hard to say because it’s a fairly classic church design. You see that tall ‘Airport Square’ building over there? That building’s design has 70s written all over it. Have you seen those beautiful new apartment buildings on 41st Ave. between Oak St. and Cambie St., in Vancouver? In my opinion, they’ll look dated in a few decades. Certain things in Catholicism change, and that’s good, such as how we reach out to people in evangelization, and how we pray individually. But the most important things, for example, Who God is and what Jesus did for us don’t change, and it helps when churches are designed to look transcendent. The most expensive and most powerful production car in the world is the Bugatti Chiron, costing $3 million, but they purposely didn’t put a touchscreen panel in it. What!? For $3 million, no touchscreen? That’s because the designers knew this car would be special in 50 years, so any touchscreen they put in now will look old very soon. If you ever listen to praise and worship music, you’ll know that its music sounds old very fast; you can recognize what’s from the 90s. That’s not always bad. I love praise and worship and it leads many to conversions, and we should use it. But Gregorian chant or Palestrina will last forever, and if you want to feel like you’re in heaven, listen to that type of music.
The Sign of the Cross is at least 1,900 years old, and Catholics and Orthodox Christians will never stop using it. The whole world knows what it means, it’s used in movies, and wherever you go, if you use it, you’ll know you’re part of a universal family. The Our Father, the I Confess, the Gloria, the creeds, the Holy, Holy are all ancient, thus communicating that there’s more to life than the here and now. The way we celebrate Mass does have to adapt to people and cultures in order that the signs of Mass speak clearly, but there’s another aspect where we have to adapt to the Mass and realize, “I’m supposed to adapt and learn to be quiet, be reverent, and learn to meditate and to sing.”
3) Certain symbols are designed to be uncommon. As I’ve said before, the main advantage of receiving Communion on the tongue in this culture is that no one eats other food this way. Right after Vatican Council II, when Catholics started receiving Communion in the hand, one of the unintended consequences was that people started treating the Eucharist like ordinary food; it’s not ordinary food; Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, and so uncommon signs such as receiving on the tongue point to something special. People who receive on the tongue are not holier, but the sign value just says that this is something special. The same goes with the vestments that the sacred ministers wear. And when do we kneel in daily life? Go to a public school and see when they kneel—they don’t, because kneeling is something sacred.
So, most of the words of Mass don’t change because they’re important; much of the Mass is designed to feel timeless; and certain symbols are uncommon.
In 2007, I was really looking forward to start a two-week vacation. But around 7:45 a.m., my mom left me a message to call her back. “This doesn’t sound good,” I thought. So I called her. “What’s going on, Mom?” “We just got a phone call from L.A. and Papa died of heart failure. Now how are you doing?” “I’m okay… How are you doing?” “Well, I’m in shock, but I’ve been praying for Papa.” “Okay, tell you what, Mom, let me just celebrate Mass and then I’ll come home.” So, I took a shower, cried, and then went to the sacristy. I was staying at St. Ann’s Parish in Abbotsford that day with Fr. James Hughes, and told him, “Hey, Fr. James, my dad just died.” He was very kind and compassionate, but we didn’t tell anyone else. But the best part was the Mass. It was so peaceful doing the right thing, the most important thing, and doing something I know by memory: Put on the sacred vestments as always, process in, the Sign of the Cross, listening to God’s Word, a boring homily by Fr. James, then the preparation of the altar, the Eucharistic prayer, the consecration, and then I got to pray for my dad silently when we pray for the dead in the Eucharistic prayer, then to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood as always, and then conclude. I just love the Mass! That’s where I want to go in my sadness but also in my joy. Take everything else and just give me the Mass. That was the greatest gift I could give my dad.
Every Mass, Jesus invites us up the mountain to encounter Him.