Homilies and Poems

I am a Catholic Deacon and a Professor of English at Oregon State University. I've created this BLOG as a way of sharing my Sunday homilies, for anyone who would like copies, as well as some of my poetry. I'm also very glad to continue the conversation, over email or in person. Just click on "profile" and then onto my email address. Peace be with you and the Lord be with you. Also visit me at my website.

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Location: Corvallis, Oregon

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Feast of the Transfiguration
2nd Peter 1:16-10; Mark 9:2-10

Have you noticed that here and there the leaves are already turning?

The transfiguration of leaves!

I find it exhilarating. I feel so stuck sometimes. So frozen. As if nothing will ever be different or better or new. But then the leaves start to turn and fall starts to come and I remember that of course this isn’t true. Change is always happening, nothing ever stays the same, and that’s always thrilling in a way. Energizing.

But it also frightens me, as the disciples are frightened today, at the Transfiguration. Something really radical has happened, out of the blue, something the disciples never expected--this man they thought they knew is really someone else entirely--and they’re terrified, completely unsure what to do.

That’s what change does to me, too. It reminds me that I’m not in control. I’m not in control of anything.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about cancer. I’ve been reading, for example, a memoir by the poet Donald Hall about the death of his wife, Jane Kenyon, who was also a poet, one of my favorite poets, and he describes her dying exactly as a transfiguration: this beautiful, vibrant woman just a shell in the end, unable to speak or move, though shining, too, in a way, translucent. I experienced this myself last week when the former chair of the English Department died, of bladder cancer. I saw him a few days before, on his deathbed, just skeletal, with sunken eyes and sunken cheeks. Vulnerable. Lovable. This was the man who hired me twenty years ago, a man who was a fixture in the department, for twice that long, and looking out at all the people at his wake, all the older faculty, all the younger, I realized that the department has been transfigured, too. It will never be the same.

They’ve clear cut part of McDonald Forest where I always walk, and the other day, as I was going up the hill, I saw a flock of gold finches in the clearing--these beautiful, yellow birds, rising and dipping in the air where they had never been before. They are birds of open spaces, not of forest.

My colleague’s wake was like that.

I guess for us as human beings, change, transfiguration, movement often has to do with the body, with changes in the body, with death and dying. It does for Jesus: this moment on the hill, in the blinding light, prefigures his crucifixion. It has to be seen in the context of the cross.

Just growth. Just growing up. Our son Tim has been working this summer for Oregon Park and Recreation up at Silver Falls, cruising timber and learning what forestry is all about, and when he drives off to work with his lunch and his coffee, or when he comes back home at night, tired and sweaty, he suddenly seems like a man, like a grown man, an adult. And he is. He has been transfigured. Changed. Changed utterly.

Transfiguration is always happening and we just have to get used to it.

The anthropologist Joseph Campbell thought that this is the theme of all the great myths. All the ancient stories of heroes are somehow rooted in our bodies, in our biology, our DNA. The body knows that it’s mortal, that it will die, that we all die, and sooner or later it sends us those signals, and all the great myths, Campbell believed, of Odysseus and Achilles and the others, flow out of that unconscious insight, that instinct. The hero is the one who goes away and has adventures and in the course of those adventures realizes that he is powerless, that the world is vast and that he knows nothing. What makes him a hero is his humility. And so he comes back and tries to tell the rest of us. And we don’t listen. Of course.

The story of Jesus is just like these other myths in that sense, has exactly the same plot, is about dying to self and rising, but with this crucial difference, as Tolkien told C.S. Lewis. It has this crucial difference: it’s true. It’s not what the second letter of Peter calls a “cleverly devised myth” but a true myth, true in all the ways anything is ever true, and more, more than we can imagine.

What the true myth of Jesus is telling us, what the true myth of the Transfiguration is telling us, is that there’s not just death, but life. Not just the body but something more than the body. That’s the other crucial difference here, with the Christian story, this faith in something beyond, this wild hope: not just that things change but that they change for the better, not just that we die, but that we rise to greater and greater light and life--life beyond the wake of the chair, life beyond the death of the poet, life everlasting.

When Jesus is transfigured he isn’t diminished. He isn’t beaten down. He shines.
I know a man who had been struggling with addiction. All sin is best understood as addiction, I think, and this man’s addiction is to alcohol. But what I so admire is that he’s going to a 12 Step group now, letting go and letting God. And yet, exactly as he has surrendered his desire for control, exactly as he has admitted his dependence on others, exactly at this moment, he has also taken responsibility for his actions. He has made changes, and is changing. Through grace and with the help of others, he is being transfigured. As we all can be. Sin will always be with us, we will never escape it, not in this life, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be transformed. We can be.

I can be a better man. You can be a better man, a better woman.

Everybody we see at the airport, or the mall, or on the freeway--think of it--everyone in the world is a shining light, underneath. All the people in the world are not just what they seem to be, on the surface. They are much more, much greater, and so they must be honored, they must be respected, they must never be judged.

That’s the whole point of the sacrament of reconciliation. It wouldn’t exist at all without our faith in the possibility of transformation, our faith that beneath our exteriors there is a light, a light that in the end, despite our sinfulness, can break out and shine through.

You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

That’s where the Transfiguration happens: in our hearts.

We are all more than we seem, and change is always possible--blinding, joyous, sometimes terrifying change. We, too, can be transfigured, and we are. We will be. We are being transfigured at this very moment, through the grace and the power and the great unending gift of this Eucharist. We are being transfigured every minute of our lives, by all that happens to us, by every breath we take, every cell that dies, and every minute, every event, is grace. All is grace.