He Did Not Know What He Was Saying

Douglas McManaman
Homily: 2nd Sunday of Lent March 9th, 2022
Reproduced with Permission

"Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."

Peter, James, and John see the glory of the Lord on the mountain, and what they experience is wonderful: "It is good that we are here", Peter says - the word is kalos , which is why it is probably best translated as "It is beautiful for us to be here". It is so wonderful that Peter wishes to prolong the experience. The tents that he wants to build are booths, which are small shelters erected every year at the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. The feast itself, in the early Church, was a symbol of the perpetual joys of heaven. In suggesting they build tents, Peter is really proposing that this experience of heavenly glory be prolonged. But, the gospel says, he did not know what he was saying .

The transfiguration was only a foretaste of the joy of heaven; there is much work to be done, much of it difficult, and so they descend the mountain. The way to the kingdom of God is always a way of the cross. And each one of us has our own unique way of the cross, our own unique vocation that comes with moments of great joy, and moments of sorrow, trials and difficulties.

But the trials and difficulties often appear to us as though something is amiss, as if something is wrong, that life should not be like that, that life is supposed to be perpetual harmony and relative ease. I remember one school administrator who years ago would always identify a good day with a smooth day. The implication was that a bad day is one that was not smooth and easy, but full of difficulties. Because he was a friend of mine, I could challenge him on this: a smooth and painless day is not necessarily a good day, and a day full of trials and difficulties, headaches and stress might very well be a great day, a very fruitful day in which a tremendous amount of good was accomplished. But many people don't really think in those terms, in the terms of a theology of the cross.

But there is an interesting paradox at the heart of the gospel. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest". But a few chapters later he says: "Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me". How is it that these two go together? It is paradoxical, because only by sharing in the life of Christ do we enter into his rest, but to share in the life of Christ is to share in his "way of the cross". That way of the cross, ironically enough, brings rest; it lifts our burdens, while avoiding the way of the cross only increases them.

But St. Paul, in that reading, exhorts his listeners to be imitators of himself. One of the great moments in the papacy of Pope Francis was his call on the world's priests to stay close to the marginalized and to be "shepherds living with the smell of the sheep." If there is one New Testament figure who exemplifies what it means to come down from the mountain heights and to "go out into the deep", into the water, in order to bring forth life, it is St. Paul. The temptation, though, is to avoid the way of the cross, to build tents instead, to avoid having to go out into the deep-in scripture, water is a symbol of chaos, disorder and death, and so to go out into the deep is to enter into the darkness of others' lives. The temptation is always there to seek sanctuary, a life of ease, with minimal disruption.

Years ago, while visiting my brother in the U.S., we were having lunch with a friend of his who is a retired engineer. Our conversation centered around "doing the will of God"; for my brother was very frustrated with the expression; for he kept asking: "How do we know the will of God? It's so easy to say: "Do what God wants you to do", but how does one know that?" I was trying to figure out a way to answer that, and I was beginning to see how difficult it was to do so, but this retired engineer, who never studied theology in his life, just spoke up and said: "Perhaps the will of God is simply doing what needs to be done". It kind of stunned us both; for it was a brilliant answer. So concrete, so realistic. I don't know what needs to be done in your life, but you do, and I certainly know what needs to be done in my life, and that's the will of God, in the here and now. It is very ordinary. And of course, God became ordinary in the Incarnation - the extraordinary joined himself to the ordinary.

My spiritual director always insists that we should not pray to know what it is God wants us to do: we are not going to know that; we are not going to figure that out. We don't know the mind of God. Rather, pray to want to do what God wants you to do - which is not a prayer to enlighten the mind, but a prayer to change the heart, and from that change of heart, one will discern what it is God is calling me to do. And it will be, without a doubt, what needs to be done in my life, in the here and now. I will want to do just that.

Recently, we celebrated the feast of St. John Bosco, "father and teacher of youth", as was his title. What is so remarkable about John Bosco's life was precisely its uniqueness and creativity. He was not your typical priest of the time. He went out into the streets, which were filled with young people who had come from the countryside to seek work in the industries. There was great poverty and crime in the cities, and John Bosco would walk the streets and get to know the kids, get down and actually gamble with these young street kids and befriend them, and eventually he built an oratory where young people could come during the day to receive an education and learn a trade. He rescued thousands of young people from the streets of Turin, Italy. An example of a vocation lived creatively. He looked around and saw what needed to be done, and he did it.

Each one of us has a unique vocation, and the call is to creatively walk that unique way of the cross towards the fullness of the kingdom. One of the greatest religious philosophers of the 20th century, Nicolas Berdyaev, writes:

The greatest mystery of life is that satisfaction is felt not by those who take and make demands but by those who give and make sacrifices. In them alone the energy of life does not fail, and this is precisely what is meant by creativeness. Therefore, the positive mystery of life is to be found in love, in sacrificial giving, creative love...all creativeness is love and all love is creative. If you want to receive, give, if you want to obtain satisfaction, do not seek it, never think of it and forget the very word; if you want to acquire strength, manifest it, give it to others.