Spending TIme on the Mountain
Homily for August 6, 2017 (Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord)
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 97; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Matthew 17:1-9
Most of us are probably familiar with the term “airhead.” It’s typically and often jokingly used as an epithet directed at people who are deemed to be mindless or stupid: “So-and-so is such an airhead!” What few of us may know, however, is that the term has a far different, older and more serious meaning. Its roots are in military lingo for a place in enemy territory that has been secured by airborne troops in order to establish a base of operations to bring more troops, supplies and weapons in by air—the air equivalent of a beachhead.
After witnessing Peter’s overwhelmed response to witnessing the Transfiguration, some might accuse him and his companions of having their heads in the clouds. But as we hear in our second reading, after the resurrection of Jesus this event became a spiritual airhead in their battle to establish the church. The apostles had to face the hostility of many of their fellow Jews who saw the gospel of Jesus and the Way as at least unorthodox and probably blasphemous as well as the Romans who saw them as superstitious, unpatriotic and a threat to public order. The fact that Peter, Andrew, James and John had been eyewitness to Jesus’ majesty and ear-witnesses of his Father’s testimony about his Son (repeating the words that had also come from heaven at the time of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, cf. Matthew 3:18) bolstered their claim that “we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.”
It’s helpful to remember that this episode in the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) comes shortly after Jesus begins to warn his disciples and friends that the reality of his role as the Messiah would not fit their expectations. For generations, many in Israel had placed their hopes in something closer to the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Daniel. Named for its primary protagonist rather than the unknown author, it was set in the 6th century BCE and the time of exile to Babylon but written in the 2nd century BCE. The people of Israel had been back in their land for centuries, but they were cruelly oppressed by Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who had been appointed by Alexander the Great and was aggressively and often ruthlessly imposing a program of Hellenization on the people under his control. Greek language, literature, religion and other cultural elements and practices were highly encouraged—at the tips of spear and sword. Our first reading is part of a vision that Daniel had of a “Son of Man” who would come one day and render judgment on Israel’s oppressors and free God’s people.
That hopeful and liberating vision of the Son of Man was utterly unlike the torture and suffering, execution and shame that Jesus foreshadowed when he spoke of the cross and of greatness not in terms of place and power but instead of love, service and sacrifice. Yet it was necessary for him to establish that beachhead in their hearts and minds. Peter, his brother and the sons of Zebedee were privileged to have airheads established, too.
In baptism, Jesus established a base of operations in us. He handed on to us his saving mission. It’s good to spend time on the mountain. Hopefully that’s part of our experience of Sunday Mass. But eventually we have to come down from there and get to work. +