A priest of our diocese tells the story that one day he and some friends were out driving and they were coming upon Smyrna, TN. As they approached the city they started arguing about its correct pronunciation – was it “Smyr-na” or “Smeer-na”? It was close to midday so they decided to ask someone when they stopped for lunch. They came to a fast food restaurant and once inside the group went to a lady who was standing nearby. The priest said, “Ma’am, could you please help me and my friends with a debate that we are having? Could you, slowly and distinctly, tell us the name of the place in which we are?” The lady gave them a quizzical look and slowly said, “Bur … ger … King.”
It is good to know where we are – both geographically and, for our purposes this Sunday, in the life of faith and discipleship. Today, as we continue our journey toward Jerusalem with the Lord we are at the mount of Transfiguration but it is worthwhile to note both that this mountain points toward Golgotha – the mountain of the cross and sacrifice of the Son – and why it points that direction.
There is a beauty to sacrifice. Cinema, in its best moments, is aware of this. Think of those moments in movies that wrench our guts when the hero or heroine sacrifices (the soldier lets go of the rope and plummets to his death so that others in the troop might make it, Obi-Wan Kenobi lets Darth Vader strike him down, the priest in “The Mission” walks directly into a hail of gunfire while carrying the monstrance). But the beauty of sacrifice is not limited to “big” moments. Sacrifice can be seen in the parent who works two or three jobs in order to provide for his or her children, it can be found in the life of the teacher whose great work or opus is not a world-renowned symphony but generations of students whose lives are transformed by the love of learning. There is a beauty in sacrifice.
Before the sacrifice of the cross to which we are journeying with our Lord is the moment of Transfiguration. Before the sacrifice of the cross, all other sacrifices pale in comparison. The sacrifice of the cross is infinite. God dies that we might have life. We killed God. Do we recognize the scope of this? Sometimes the true depth (and beauty) of sacrifice can only be recognized in contrast to what might have been.
Romano Guardini’s book, The Lord, is a powerful exploration of the fullness of the Christian mystery. One thing that Guardini explores in his book is the great “What if?” What if Jesus had not been crucified? We assume that the crucifixion was just the way it had to happen, the way salvation was to be won. Not necessarily so, asserts Guardini. Within the Book of the prophet Isaiah running alongside the prophecies of the suffering servant, Guardini points out, are the visions of God’s mountain where peace is established, people forget the ways of war and right relationship is restored. God is revealed in the midst of his people. A choice is brought to us. Christ, the humble God-man, stands before every part of society, yet each one denounces him and each one turns away. The religious leaders call him a blasphemer, the government/military leaders mock him and wash their hands of him, the very people who welcomed him into Jerusalem waving palm branches later denounce him in favor of a criminal, even his disciples run away. What if we had not turned away? What if we had not denounced? Yet we did. Christ must go the way of the cross.
Do we recognize the depth of the sacrifice? Before the horror of the cross we have the moment of Transfiguration. What might have been? There is a spiritual that is usually sung during Holy Week but it is appropriate for all of Lent, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Sometimes it causes me to tremble … tremble … tremble … Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The depth of the sacrifice of Christ…
Going back to the story shared earlier, it is good to know where we are in the spiritual life, in our journey toward Jerusalem. This Sunday, in the beauty and awe of the Transfiguration … of who Christ is and of what might have been … we recognize the depth and love of the sacrifice of the cross.
God came to us. We turned away. Christ must go the way of the cross.
Another spiritual, “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse, for my soul, for my soul…”