Transfiguration of Suffering

2nd Sunday of Lent (A) – March 8, 2020

St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-20, 22; 2 Timothy 1:8b-10; Matthew 17:1-9

I was with the kids preparing for Confirmation this past Wednesday, and one of them asked a profound question: “So, is there any happiness without suffering?” And that’s a question we all need to ask ourselves. Is there any happiness where someone doesn’t first suffer in some way? Because that’s the message of the Transfiguration.

When I was ten years old, my parents decreed that everyone in the family would have to play an instrument. A couple of my older sisters played the violin, so I definitely did not want to play that. So I chose the cello. It seemed way cooler, and way more fun. It looked cooler, it sounded cooler. And so I decided that that is what I wanted to play. I got on YouTube and watched videos of Yo-Yo Ma, Jaqueline du Pré, Mstistlav Rostropovich, János Starker. I was enamored. I wanted to be able to do what they did. I was ready to do anything to do that. And so my parents got me a cello and had me start lessons with Quinn Lake. But what no one told me, and what no one really could tell me, was what it would cost, what I would have to sacrifice to get there.

Does anyone know what comes right before this story about the Transfiguration? Did Jesus decide one day to just give the disciples a “sneak peak” of the glory of the resurrection? What happened before this? What prompted this? Jesus predicted his passion and laid out the conditions of discipleship.

Peter has just made his profound confession of faith: “Some say you are John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. But me? You’re asking me? You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:14-16). And what does Jesus do? “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” (Mt 16:21). Jesus makes the first prediction of his passion. Think about that. Jesus and the disciples have finally agreed who Jesus is: he is the long-awaited Messiah, the one who would restore the Kingdom of Israel, the one who would gather the tribes, the one who would finally set right all that went wrong beginning with Adam and complete the promises God made to Abraham. And what does Jesus say? That he would be killed. And what’s more? He says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25). The Messiah must suffer and die, and if we want to follow him, we must deny ourselves, take up a cross (take up an instrument of torture and death), and follow him—lose our life.

Does that make any sense to you? Do you think it made any sense to the disciples?

But it is in this moment that Jesus is transfigured before them—a transfiguration that is described using language from Jewish apocalyptic literature. In essence, Jesus is revealed as the Son of God and the one who will come in the glory of God at the end of the age. And Moses and Elijah appear with him—Moses and Elijah, icons of the Law and the Prophets. Moses and Elijah show that Jesus is doing all of this in accordance with the scriptures. So what’s the point? Jesus gives a glimpse of the “glory to be revealed” when suffering is embraced. Jesus shows us that joy, glory, happiness—they all come through suffering. Or perhaps more importantly: suffering, endured for Christ and the sake of the Gospel, is the privileged path of receiving God’s blessing (c.f., Gen 12:2-3).

Again: playing the cello. I was ready! I had seen the cello playing of Yo-Yo Ma and Jaqueline du Pré, Rostropovich, Starker—and I was ready to follow them! I had “confessed” that Quinn was the one who would show me and lead me, she would be my “rabbi” and “messiah.” Then it became very apparent, very quickly: this goal was not going to be easy. Learning to play the cello involved so much suffering. Being forced—sometimes against my will—to practice every day, to go to lessons, to have my teacher tell me what to do and to give me all of these rules I had to follow; a teacher who would constantly critique me and push me. There was so much suffering.

But what got me through it? My incredibly stubborn German personality, my iron will that would never allow me to quit? No.

I would see my teacher play. She would play things so effortlessly, so beautifully. I wanted to play just like her. I had seen the “glory to be revealed” in her playing. I had seen that suffering—suffering she had to go through too when she first learned to play—I had seen that suffering was the only path to the joy and the happiness that I wanted. And through that suffering, through failure and practice and submitting myself to the life that my “rabbi,” that me teacher laid out—through all of that I found the joy and freedom of playing the cello.

As Christians, as “little Christs,” we do not get to skip all of the suffering. Jesus never said that was part of the deal. No, he said, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me.” But as the Transfiguration reveals: our suffering is not in vain. Death does not have the final word.

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