As We Watch

Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24:12-18
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

“…for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
– Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated August 6, yet the gospel passage itself is closely associated with the beginning of Lent. The Revised Common Lectionary proclaims it on the Sunday before Lent while the Catholic Lectionary does so on the Second Sunday of Lent. Both lectionaries give the First Sunday of Lent over to the temptation of Jesus in the desert.

Why should the Transfiguration story – which each of the synoptic gospels places about midway in the course of things – mark our yearly return to the Lenten journey? Standard answers include that the association is already implicit in the synoptic accounts, which place the story near Jesus’ final turn towards Jerusalem; that the Taboric vision is a preview of Christ’s crucified, resurrected, and glorified body; or that the passage links the Old and New Covenants, with Moses and Elijah serving as metonyms for the Law and prophets.

Whatever the explanation, the Transfiguration, with its cryptic signs, wonders, and occasions for awe, has long proved a source for profound theological reflection, fascinating Christological speculation, or incisive literary analysis. It can also stand out from the rest of the gospel narrative as a baffling anomaly. Read more

Lost Sheep and Broken People

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 7:11-14 OR Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15: 1-10

I once imagined the easiest commandment to keep was the one against idolatry. It seemed rather simple: don’t go sacrificing animals to statues of false gods and I’d be fine. I was much younger then. I hadn’t yet lived into life’s ambiguities, hadn’t yet recognized the power of my own desires, hadn’t yet read enough theology – Augustine in particular.

When I understood idolatry as getting the order of my loves wrong, specifically by desiring (and thus secretly worshipping) something more than God, I saw false gods everywhere. Nearly all recorded history – from the founding of ancient Sumer to the unedifying rhetoric of the current US presidential race – can be read through a biblical lens as a very long series of idolatries, all of them sad.

In the same way that a microscope reveals nasty-looking creatures swimming in a glass of tainted water, a biblical lens makes visible the idolatries that reign in what we like to call “the world,” as if we were merely in the world and not of it. The Bible doesn’t cut us much slack when it comes to our dealings with the world. What other nation besides the Jews would include the prophets – those town criers of communal betrayal and merited retribution – in their sacred texts, second only to Torah itself?

As for Christians today, it’s not as if the line between faithful church and idolatrous world is bright, broad, and evident to all. Nor am I one to lecture another on keeping one’s loves in the proper order. If I’m able to rightly name another’s sin, it’s because I know that sin from the inside. Read more

Snaring Satan

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

2 Kings 5:1-14 OR Isaiah 66:10-14
Galatians 6:7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“The cross of the Lord was the devil’s mousetrap. The bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death”
– St. Augustine, Sermon 263

The modern mind doesn’t know what to do with the idea of “Satan,” and, try as I might to make it otherwise, I have a modern mind. Like many others, I don’t know if the Hebrew, S-t-n, “the adversary or accuser,” or the Greek, diabolos, “the slanderer,” can still be understood a personal, superhuman enemy of God Rather than catalogue modern answers to that question, I’ll pose a riddle: “Is Satan’s first deception persuading us that he exists or that he doesn’t?” Read more

Learning to be Sheep

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:36-43 OR Acts 13:14, 43-52
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Sheep again, that well-worn metaphor. The Bible tells of countless flocks and many working shepherds: Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Amos, and the shepherds of Bethlehem. The image of a shepherd tending a flock (the latter a frequent stand-in for the people of Israel) recurs often. In the Old Testament, shepherd imagery may point to God, the promised Messiah, or human leaders appointed by God: prophets, priests, and kings. Some of those human shepherds are said to have scattered their sheep, as in Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Ezekiel 34. In such passages, a worthy shepherd is typically promised to gather from the scattered remnants a new, well cared for flock.

Sheep, as I’ve noted in previous lectionary reflections, are not intelligent. Left alone, they wander off, get into tight spots, tumble over cliffs, and fall to predators. After centuries of human-directed selection and husbandry, whatever survival skills wild sheep began with have long since been bred out of their descendants. To be called “the sheep of his flock” is no compliment.

Even so, this week’s readings might tempt us to smug self-recognition, as if, after a perfunctory admission of past stupidities, we are now undoubtedly the sheep who hear the shepherd’s voice and will soon enough stand in the presence of the enthroned Lamb (who is, paradoxically, the eternal shepherd). It’s tempting to see those flock-scattering shepherds as someone the other: first century Jewish leaders, members of other churches and denominations, clergy or theologians whose actions or convictions we find appalling. It’s tempting to imagine we know who is and who isn’t on the right side of salvation history. We may well be among the sheep who listen, and we may fervently hope to one day stand before the Lamb, but the smugness and certainty must go. Read more