Transfiguration – Holy Land Pilgrimage
by Father Peter Iorio who was on pilgrimage to the Holy Land February 7 -20
Most of you know that I was on pilgrimage in the Holy Land for the Last two weeks and I have just returned, (a couple days later because of a sickness), but I am just back. It was a most beautiful experience filled with many graces, I can say. The graces are still coming, and they are multifaceted.
I learned many things about the Bible and our Catholic faith which filled me with joy and knowledge. At the same time, I felt a great sadness because of the religious and political situation over there. In our holiest sites there are divisions among Catholics, Orthodox, Armenians, Coptics, etc. The tension in Israel between the Jews and the Palestinian Christians and Muslims with the wall separating those who live in the West Bank is heartbreaking.
One experience felt very strange to me. I am glad that we do not have such formality in our diocese with our Bishop Stika. Our group of 26 pilgrims from the Diocese of Knoxville had a “formal audience” with the patriarchal vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine. An Italian bishop, he welcomed us warmly in perfect English and shared with us the importance of our presence in the Holy Land. He told us that we not only come to visit the Holy Sites, but that we must encounter the Living Stones of our faith, the Christians who live in this land who are descendants of the original Christians. They are diminishing in number because of the political situation which makes it hard for them to stay in Palestine. NOW I understand first hand the importance of having the Bethlehem Christian Families who sell olive wood products here at St. Mary’s every fall. Overall, it was a nice experience in the meeting hall of the Latin Patriarchate and we all received souvenir gifts. Following his instruction, we did several times meet the “living stones.”
Last Sunday, our group was welcomed by a local parish in Beit Sahour, next to Bethlehem. Beit Sahour (which means “house of the guardians” referring to the shepherds in Arabic) is the site where the angels appeared to the shepherds the night of the birth of Christ Jesus. And just to let you know, the land is very hilly and mountainous. As with many if not most Biblical encounters with the divine, the shepherd’s field was on a hill and in order to reach the newborn Savior, the shepherds had to climb higher to reach Bethlehem which is quite a steep place. Last Sunday’s parish Mass was in Arabic and the pastor spoke English as well for our benefit. He spoke to our group after Mass about the new god in our world: The God of Security. That struck me very much.
Especially today in the first reading from the book of Genesis, this notion of personal security challenges us. God is putting Abraham to the test by asking him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. It seems puzzling to say the least. Indeed, it has baffled artists and philosophers for centuries. Does it suggest that we must simply have a blind type of faith? I don’t think so. This would be a kind of ‘fideism’ which is an incorrect doctrine that faith alone is necessary. Fideism lacks the necessary use of reason. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is connected to the immensity of God’s love for him. And Abraham realizes this. What I take from this story is that Abraham’s trial taught him that ‘knowing how to lose’ is a part of life and opens us up more to ‘who’ God is. There’s no one who loses most than God Himself. Paul tells us in the letter to Romans ‘if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own son but handed him over for us all…’ The life of Jesus was a knowing how to lose. It started with the Incarnation when God became human flesh when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It is the internal law of God and of ‘being’ itself. So, if we want to come to know God; one way is by ‘knowing how to lose.’ And Abraham learned this! This ‘knowing how to lose’ is nothing other than ‘being’ itself, because when it’s lived and put into practice it is ‘being’ like God Himself. When Abraham goes ‘beyond’ his own attachment to his only son, God declares ‘because you have acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly…’
We can say that Isaac is a precursor to Jesus because this child received “new life” after his father was put to the test. On the Cross, God the Father let his only beloved Son be put to death and this letting go or ‘knowing how to lose” resulted in the resurrection, new life. In the letting go process, Abraham received much more than what he hoped for. The same goes for us.
And this is what Jesus is doing in the Transfiguration – preparing his disciples for his death which is necessary and therefore preparing them for his resurrection which is greater glory and beautiful and a marvel to behold. The Transfiguration experience is a preparation for the testing that they would have to undergo during the Lord’s Passion.
The Transfiguration shows us that Jesus is at the same time, fully divine and fully human. He has two natures. If Jesus is only divine, he cannot touch us in our human situation. If Jesus is only human, he cannot save us. The splendor of Jesus transfigured consists in the coming together of his two natures, without mixing them and without confusion.
On Ash Wednesday, I determined that for Lent, I was going to try to live more intently Jesus’ signature teaching that He gave when He delivered the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes are my Lenten devotion and in particular I highlight:
I am paying attention especially to –
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.
Blessed are the Peacemakers.
In reality, these beatitudes are truly the spiritual practice of knowing how to lose which is also called detachment. They connect us to the Love of God and call out of us a greater and more courageous Love of Neighbor.