Despite the Transfiguration they saw no one but Jesus.
Today’s Gospel about the Transfiguration of Jesus offers us an insight into what happens when faith is awakened and later subsides, when what is a profound understanding of our Catholic tradition becomes shallow due to routine, familiarity. Peter, James and John are lifted to a vision of Jesus in all his significance – resplendent with meaning, set against the rich background of the Old Testament in the persons of Moses and Elijah. And then, when they come off that high, what happens? The radiance is gone; they no longer see anyone but Jesus – un-transfigured, the too, too familiar figure of routine piety, a plaster saint.
Beware of spiritual, mental shallowness. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, which tells of the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age - the Lost Generation of the 1920’s - shallow characters abound. There’s the description of parties at Gatsby’s mansion that last from 9 in the morning to well past midnight, hundreds of guests coming and going – who don’t even know Gatsby. It’s a generation adrift from old traditions, excited about easy money, booze, good times – shallow. People become ecstatic over someone they have never met before and then pass on to some other novel experience. Phony.
In one scene Nick, the narrator of the story, walks into the mansion’s grand library, there to find a solitary fellow, a bit loaded, excited about something. Nick inquires and the fellow says, “What do you think?” “About what?” replies Nick. “About that . . . They’re real.” Nick again replies, “The books?” The fellow nods. “Absolutely real – have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and – Here! Lemme show you . . . See! It’s a bona fide piece of printed matter . . . What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too – didn’t cut the pages. But . . . What do you expect?”
I once knew a man who worked in a bookstore in Manhattan who told me wealthy people would come in and ask for four yards of red, six yards of blue . . . meaning yards of books of the same color for decorative reasons. Not to be read but only seen as symbols not sources of wisdom. How many Christians have a similar decorative interest in the Gospels and the deeper regions of our Christian tradition – pages uncut?
Shallowness. A dangerous thing. There is another character in The Great Gatsby named Tom Buchanan – a wealthy jock, star football player in his Harvard days, has a string of polo ponies, bored stiff with his wife and with his girlfriends, nostalgic for his playing days. Dangerous. An empty mind, starved for intellectual exercise, is susceptible to the first book one reads – and in Tom’s case it’s a diatribe about “The Rise of the Colored Empires”. Now at last he has something to think about – a threat to civilization, to his wealth, to occupy his vacant mind. A single issue takes over – he is obsessed with this one book – and moreover now thinks he is smart, possessed of an “intellectual” vantage point from which to judge society as a whole.
Lent is a season when the Church encourages us to deepen our understanding of Scripture, of the Eucharist, of the profound meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, of the relevance of all this to the deepening of our understanding of who and where and why we are in this world. Don’t let the opportunity pass without cutting a few pages of the sacred heritage you hold in your hands.