Offering A (perhaps) Strange Analogy
Today we have the reading from Luke regarding the Transfiguration. (Lk 9:28b-36) What I wanted to focus on was what happened after Peter suggested they make three tents. Here is the text:
33 As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. 34 While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
What does it mean when we are told, “But he did not know what he was saying”? And very specifically, why were they frightened by a cloud?
Regarding Peter not knowing what he was saying, this would seem to indicate that he was speaking without thinking, or speaking foolishly, or simply ignorantly. Of what would he be ignorant, or what was it that he did not understand? He wanted to put up three tents, possibly reminiscent of the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. This festival is both about harvest time and about reliance on God’s providence during the Exodus. Commentary in the RSVCE regarding the Transfiguration story as told by Matthew suggests also that Peter wanted to extend the experience and basically rest in God’s glory.
I also think he meant to honor Jesus by elevating him to the same status as Moses and Elijah. He did not see that The Law and The Prophets were preparatory and anticipatory and that Jesus was the fulfillment of both. And he did not see that they were not to simply rest, but must instead be about Christ’s mission. That he would be a member of the Church Militant before being a member of the Church Triumphant.
God provides clarification.
There is a Hebrew word, kābôd*, which throughout the Old Testament is usually translated into English as “glory.” But, this interesting word can also mean, extreme, dark, heavy, surpassing, etc. For example, in Gen 12:10, the word normally translated as “glory” is translated as “severe” as it describes a famine. In Exodus 17:12, the word used to describe the rod being too heavy for Moses is kābôd.
The impenetrable cloud of Ex 19:16 that descends on the mountain before speaking to Moses is also described with the word kābôd. God speaks to Moses and gives him the Ten Commandments.
There seems to be a parallel here with Peter and the others.
We generally think of glory as something we would want to behold, something that we would enjoy. But this gives us some insight into the much maligned phrase, “fear of the Lord.” The surpassing majesty of God Almighty is overwhelming to those who experience it. Peter, James and John were frightened for the same reason as the the tribe in the desert at the manifestation of God on Mt. Sinai.
God speaks to Peter, James, and John, and gives them a commandment. “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
So, the strange analogy.
A sacrament is both sign and symbol and it points beyond itself to an otherwise invisible reality. My analogy depends in part on the idea that the universe itself is sacramental, for it points to a reality beyond itself – we can know God because He is manifested by his Creation. And so my idea is this – if a person cannot give a concrete real-world analogy to help express an idea, then maybe he or she doesn’t know what they are talking about, especially in the realm of spirituality.
As noted above, the term used when describing what is translated as “glory” is also used to describe things that are overwhelming, surpassing, dark, heavy, weighty – a sense of pressure. If you take a can and remove the air from it, it will collapse. Why? Because the weight of the atmosphere, something we rarely notice, crushes the can because it is not counteracted by an equal pressure within. We do notice when we drive into the mountains or fly in a plane. What is happening when our ears “pop”? Pressure equalization. We have to have similar pressure inside as exists outside in order to withstand the weight of the atmosphere.
In Isaiah 6:1-3 we are told that,
1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3* And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The whole earth is full of his glory. The only way any of us can withstand the weight of God’s glory is by being pressurized on the inside. As St. Augustine said, “You were more inward to me than my most inward part; and higher than my highest.” (Conf III, 6, 11) Meister Eckhart echoes this:
“I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.” – Eckhart von Hochheim O.P.
During this Lent, as we listen to these readings, bit by bit we and the Apostles are brought along and prepared for our role in Jesus’ saving mission. If the time of Lent succeeds in helping us draw nearer to God, then we will feel some discomfort. Those areas in our life that are not in conformity with God’s plan for us will feel squeezed. What can we do?
Penance. “pop” Fasting. “pop” Prayer. “pop”
If we allow our ears to pop, by penance, fasting, and prayer, then as the weight of God becomes more tangible, so also will the necessary internal support be more tangible. We will be sustained internally by the weight of God’s glory.