Contemplative Darkness and Transfiguration
Sunday March 11, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Second Sunday in Lent
Read. I (Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18) Read. II (Philippians 3:17 - 4:1)
Gospel ( St. Luke 9:28 - 36)
In the Gospel reading today, we hear about the Transfiguration of Our Lord. The Transfiguration, we are told, happened on top of a mountain, when Jesus was enveloped in prayer. At the same time, we are told that a cloud came down and it enveloped Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, as well as Peter, James, and John. As that cloud came down upon them, Peter, James, and John found themselves terrified. They were frightened by the darkness and by hearing the voice of God on top of a mountain. We see that there is a pattern established with this kind of cloud. It is reminiscent of what is called the "shekinah cloud" from the Old Testament. The shekinah is the glory cloud, the cloud that led the people of Israel through the desert. It was a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night. When Moses went out to the meeting tent, the cloud would descend on the meeting tent. There Moses and God would speak face to face as two men would speak when they were together. We are also told of a cloud that would come down. For instance, in the first reading today, as Abraham sat waiting for God to reveal Himself he was enveloped in a terrifying darkness. It was the beginning, or the ratification if you will, of a covenant. At this time of the covenant, God had Abraham sitting there with these animals that he had cut in half. He sat for hours until, right before sunset, the terrifying darkness enveloped him and then God made Himself manifest in the smoking brazier and in the flaming torch that passed through. He made a covenant at that time with Abram.
We see that in any kind of covenant there is going to be some hardship in order to make the covenant. Think of Moses at an advanced age walking up the mountain. We are told that he was prostrate for forty days and forty nights. Then God made the covenant with him. We also hear about the cloud descending upon Mount Sinai. There Moses was enveloped in the cloud talking to God as God was making this covenant with Moses and the people of Israel. We know that anytime a covenant was made there was suffering that was involved, there was a struggle. We can look at the crucifix and see the covenant that God made with us in His Son. We see the pain, the suffering, the waiting that had to take place. With each covenant this is the case. We can see a similar kind of pattern. We have Moses and Elijah up on the mountain, and we see the prophets and the law represented by the two of them. We see that cloud coming down once again. We see that the disciples had to go up the mountain first, so there was a hardship. This is not an easy, little afternoon jaunt. They had to walk up the mountain. They were obviously exhausted. They fell asleep and Jesus is praying to His Father. Then the cloud comes down and envelopes them after they had awakened. And they are terrified. We can ask ourselves what our own response would be. This obviously wasnít some puffy cloud that was floating along and just happened to come over the mountain at that time. Instead, they watched as a dark cloud came down upon them. It would be a terrifying thing. We see the same thing with Moses, we see the same thing with Abraham. We see the same thing throughout the Scriptures. We see the same thing in the life of every saint, not necessarily that there was a physical cloud, but that in order to be transformed they had to go through a terrifying darkness. They had to feel, sometimes, like they were abandoned by God, like they were left on their own. They had to trust. Think of Abraham. If you were in Abrahamís place sitting there, think first of all what it would take. Abraham didnít exactly have modern surgical tools, so taking a cow, a ram, and all these animals and cutting them in half with a stone knife would not be an easy thing. Then think of splitting them and sitting there for hours with these things. Vultures are swooping down and heís just sitting there, not moving, trusting. And then this darkness envelops him. Imagine he was terrified as this darkness came upon him, not knowing what it was, not knowing what was happening to him, not having any control of what was going on. Only after all of that, did God make the covenant with Abram.
We can think of Jesus on the cross and all the things that happened in His Passion: the night before, carrying the cross, being totally out of control as someone else nailed Him fast to the cross, hanging up there between Heaven and earth, having no ability in His humaness to be able to control the situation, facing death, and dealing with the pain. Think of the terror that there would be, the darkness that would be there as he cried out, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?" intoning Psalm 22, as He was hanging on the cross. He was praying for us, but describing what was happening in His soul at the same time.
It is the same for us as it was for Abraham, Moses, Jesus, or any saint. We have entered into the covenant. For us, it was at Baptism and it was made easy. All you have to do is come and enter into the waters of baptism. What we have already done spiritually, needs to be done physically. Saint Paul said that when we were baptized, we were baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. So there was, spiritually, a terrifying moment as we entered into the waters which we saw last week were a sign of chaos. The people couldnít control the chaos of the water. So we entered into the chaos, we were out of control, and we entered into the darkness. We rose victorious with the Lord, radiant and glorious. We still have to share that physically in order to share fully in the covenant into which each one of us has been initiated. It is in the depths of prayer, which is the pattern we see with Abraham in the first reading, we also see it with Moses for 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai, we see it with Jesus, we see it with Saint Paul, we see it with any of the saints, that we must enter into this darkness. We must be enveloped in the cloud, which is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who came down upon Our Lady in the form of a cloud. The Holy Spirit who descended upon Jesus at the time of His baptism, when the same voice of the Father was heard at His baptism. Now it is heard on top of Mount Tabor. We see the pattern that is there. We see the pattern of the covenant. We see the pattern of the prayer.
Those of us who have entered into the covenant, must now pray. We must enter into that darkness which the saints call the "contemplative darkness". The darkness of the soul not being able to comprehend a light so brilliant that it becomes blinding. There we sit in the dark for hours. Sometimes for days, months, and years, when you read the saints. If we sit here and hear about it we say, "I donít want to do it. Itís terrifying. Itís out of control." We canít address it and deal with it. But if we want, as Saint Paul says, to come out with our "bodies transformed to be like His in glory" we must enter into that glory cloud, that shekinah, that darkness that has to envelop us. It is the glory of God, the brilliance of God. The closest that we can understand it, in our humanness, is to be able to look at the brilliance of the sun. Look directly at the sun and ask yourself what will happen. It is so brilliant you will become blind. You will not be able to see, so you will now be in darkness because of the brilliance of the light. Well, this brilliance is not a physical one, it is a spiritual one. It is to look at God face to face. The soul is blinded by the radiance of God. There, in the darkness, we will begin to see. It is like those who do not have eyesight. Those that are blind sometimes have far greater insight than any of us who are able to see because they must use the other senses. They must rely on God, therefore, they are able to see things that the rest of us cannot. That is what happens spiritually. When we begin in the spiritual life, God makes it easy. We can see. We can see the path and we can walk it. But then, He takes away the light and like the apostles on the mountain we fall asleep. We are unable to see, we are unable to comprehend. And when we awake, we are alone with Jesus. Then we can see in a way that we have never been able to see before. We will see His brilliance and we will become like Him in glory.
That is the transformation Saint Paul talks about. Thatís what we see in Jesus today. That is what we see in the life of every saint. There is a transformation that takes place in that call to holiness. It is a call that is given to each one of us. It is not beyond any of us, but it is the invitation that God makes to each one of us: to be transformed, to be holy, to be saints. But it remains for us to say "Yes". God will not force us. The pattern is there and it is something that frightens us. Most of us withdraw and say, "I donít want it because it is too frightening. How can I enter into that darkness? How can I be out of control?" Weíre control freaks, we human beings and we like to hang onto everything tight. God says, "Let go. Enter into the cloud. Enter into the darkness. Let yourself be out of control. Learn the lessons of being blinded by the light." Come out filled with the light, radiant, transformed, and in the glory of Almighty God. Remember Moses, when he came down from the mountain he glowed and the people could not look at him. The apostles could not look at Jesus on the mountain when He was transformed. We too are called to that similar radiance, not to anything physical, not to impress anybody because your face will glow in the dark, but to be in union with God because your soul is radiant with light.
That is the glory that we are called to. That is the holiness that God wants for you. The question is - Are we willing to do it? Are we willing to endure that darkness? Are we willing to enter into the chaos in order to rise victorious with Our Lord? We have already entered into the covenant spiritually, are we now willing to do what it requires to be transformed by that covenant? To be able to do physically and spiritually what has already happened mystically in each one of us? We entered into the death and resurrection of Christ. We entered into the chaos and the darkness of the waters of baptism and we rose victorious in the resurrection. Now, through our Lenten penances, through the struggles of life, through all of the things that we do, are we willing to enter into the darkness in order to rise into the Easter glory of Christ? That is the mystery: the transfiguration that took place in Jesus and that can take place in each one of us in the depth of our soul, to be transformed into the very glory of Almighty God.
*This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.