Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: GN 12:1-4A; PS 33: 4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; 2 TM 1: 8B-10; MT 17: 1-9 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/031614.cfm
Have you ever gone through a period when you profoundly question how you’re spending your life? I’m thinking especially about suspicions that you might not be giving enough attention to your interior life – to your enlightenment.
Today’s gospel reading about Jesus’ transfiguration before his friends on a mountaintop with Moses and Elijah raises the issue. Matthew’s account presents a literally en-lightened Jesus. He’s suddenly filled with light. His face shines like the sun; his garments become white as snow. The story points towards enlightenment as the purpose of life with all other matters being secondary. . . .
Personally, Jesus’ transfiguration makes me wonder about all the things I do that distract me from the pursuit of personal enlightenment — distractions from meditation, my mantra, and the other spiritual disciplines the Great Masters tell us are necessary to attain union with God..
I’ll get back to that in a moment.
But let me contextualize my reflections by confessing my own recurring doubts about finding myself on mistaken path of activism. I mean lately I’ve been wondering if in my thinking, teaching and writing I’m too concerned with politics, economics, and issues of oppression and liberation – too influenced, perhaps, by liberation theology. In fact, over the past six months those wonderings have been surfacing with renewed intensity.
I blame it on India.
And why not? Four months spent in such an exotic atmosphere with its sea of people, intense traffic, dime-a-dozen gurus, wild auto-rickshaws, cows on the street, colorful temples, poverty, spicy food, and wonderfully kind people will raise questions about everything.
On top of that there was yoga every day, past life review, learning prana yama (breath control), and living inter-generationally with my daughter, her husband and three children under five. All of that can cause one to question everything.
Above all, a ten day silent Vipassana retreat with its strict “noble silence,” and 10 hours of meditation each day (100 hours in 10 days) will do the trick. So – to repeat – I find myself questioning everything, including all the things I’ve held important in life. I question what I’ve taught my students over my forty years in the college classroom – you know, about economic systems, on the history of colonialism, liberation theology, and the development of the Jesus tradition.
By the way, I am back teaching again. (That’s been my principal form of activism all my life.) And suddenly my life threatens to become very busy, involved, and outward-turned. Oh, right now it’s not nearly the way it was when I was teaching full time. Currently I teach a two-hour class on Monday, and then I have a day off. Wednesdays there’s another two-hour class followed by four days off. That’s not so bad at all, I’m sure you agree. The point is, however, that teaching has me back on campus.
So a couple of weeks ago, one of the deans saw me there walking across Berea’s quadrangle. He thought, “There’s the man I’ve been looking for.” And pretty soon he’s asking me about directing and administering a prison project Berea’s been asked to join.” (It’s the “Bard Prison Initiative” which offers college degrees to inmates.) The dean asked me if I’d be interested.
I said yes. And now I find myself recruiting Berea teachers to take part – helping prisoners in the Northpoint Training Center/Prison in Danville Kentucky to obtain a Berea College degree. So I’m back organizing and attending meetings. True: it’s a wonderful opportunity in so many ways. But it’s filling up my plate which had become delightfully manageable after I retired from Berea College and stopped my teaching in Costa Rica.
What about meditation then, I wonder? What about the pursuit of enlightenment as (at my age) I’m increasingly aware that the moment of death getting closer and closer? Will new responsibilities distract me from such concerns?
Once again, my questions are intensified by what I learned about Jesus specifically in India. There people kept telling me that during his “hidden life” or “lost years,” Jesus had spent time on the subcontinent. They said that between the ages of 12 and 30, Jesus traveled to India and studied under Buddhist masters who schooled him in the ways of Gautama who lived 500 years earlier.
Though virtually no Christian scholars give such tales any credence, many Indian spiritual guides simply take it for granted that Jesus’ time in India. They even point to documents discovered in a Tibetan monastery that offer “proof” of Jesus’ years there.
Even apart from such evidence they ask: how else can we explain Jesus’ teachings about divine sonship and identity with the “Lord of All”? After all, those teachings agree with the tenets of Indian mysticism, viz. (1) that there’s a spark of the divine within us all, (2) that such divinity can be realized (i.e. expressed in life), (3) that it is the purpose of life to do so, and (4) that once we see the divine spark within ourselves we inevitably recognize it as well in every other human being and in all creatures of the earth.
Though I agree with the literal contrary opinions of the scholars just mentioned, I also believe that Jesus did, in a sense, travel to India. He did so, I’d say, in the way that all mystics travel the world – by tuning into the Universal Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being. That Spirit leads mystics wherever they find themselves to reach the same conclusions about the divine that resides within us all. It’s as though they all sat at the Buddha’s feet – or at the feet of the Enlightened Jesus – without ever leaving home. In that sense, Jesus did indeed travel to India.
And that brings me to today’s gospel and the answer it holds to questions about how to invest one’s life – and about the obsolescence of liberation theology. In the gospel, Peter, James and John find themselves at the feet of the enlightened Jesus. They’re on the ground prostrated. But significantly, Moses and Elijah are there too.
That last element (the presence of Moses and Elijah) answers (I think) my question about balancing activism and the pursuit of enlightenment. The two prophetic giants represent the entire Hebrew Tradition: “The Law” (Moses) and “The Prophets” (Elijah).
Moses was the great liberator who led a slave rebellion against Egypt’s pharaoh 1200 years before the birth of Jesus. Like Jesus and his companions, Moses ascended a mountain to receive God’s revelation. Elijah was the 9th century BCE prophet who specialized in speaking truth to power. Both Jesus and his mentor, John the Baptist, were considered reincarnations of Elijah.
Jesus “conversing” with Moses and Elijah represents the conviction of the early church that a strong continuity existed between the Jewish Testament’s “old story” and the new one embodied in the Enlightened Jesus.
Accordingly, Jesus was the new liberating Moses. His law of love and compassion epitomized the fulfillment of Sinai’s covenant. Jesus was the new courageous Elijah – uncompromising in his siding with the poor – the widows, orphans, and immigrants.
As both the new Moses and Elijah reincarnated, the transfigured and enlightened Jesus insists on the indispensability of activism informed by transforming spirituality. And he does so in the face of acute knowledge about his fast-approaching premature death. (Jesus references that in the concluding words in today’s gospel episode: “Tell no one of this vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”)
What can all of that mean for us today – on this second Sunday in Lent? I think it means:
• We have to learn from Indian masters and the East in general about the importance of seeking enlightenment through cultivation of the interior life. There’s a “division of labor” among the world’s Great Religious Traditions. India’s contribution about spirituality is far better developed than the West’s and Christianity’s. The Enlightened Jesus (fresh from his own trip to India) calls us to daily meditation this Lent. There’s no other way to enlightenment.
• At the same time, Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah highlights Christianity’s part in the global division of humanity’s search for the divine. Side with the poor; take on their cause as your own. Do what you can (by way of phone calls, contributions, lobbying, and teaching) to stop the deportation of immigrants, to restore food stamps and unemployment benefits for the hungry and jobless – to see the world from the margins and periphery. The message is something like that.
• Finally, Jesus’ ever-present awareness of “the prophet script” requiring his own early death reminds us that the work of following our Master can never stop – there’s no retirement from it. The proximity or remoteness of death offers no excuse to relax.
Working without ceasing to change ourselves and the world is the very purpose of life. Jesus’ transfiguration, I believe, suggests all of that.