Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Eighth Day of their Lives

“And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  St. Luke 9:30-31

Over the last few months, I’ve had several conversations with people who are staring down retirement.  Some friends are leaving their work with a deep sense of satisfaction, ready to take on some long-postponed projects.  Others are worried about how they will fill the time and are looking for a way to hang in for a few more years.  One friend was doing the most fruitful and fulfilling work of his career, but the funding ran out, and he’s facing part-time work, something quite different.  It might be marvelous, but I don’t think he’s completely sold on it yet. 

In the back of most of those conversations lay a series of questions I suspect we’ve all asked ourselves, even if retirement lies half a lifetime away: “Does my life add up? Does it have meaning, this work into which I have poured so much of my time and energy?  Do I have a legacy?”  It’s worth reminding ourselves that our privilege allows us to ask these questions of our work.  Most people in history and most people in the world today simply must toil on until their bodies give way.  But for all people, life is unpredictable, full of unexpected shifts, confusing blessings and overwhelming sorrows.  We long to understand where our lives are headed, how their true meaning will be revealed.  But so often, in the end, there is only confusion.  We see ourselves only through clouds of smoke, beset by doubt and fear. 

Jesus stands at the center of the Gospel reading assigned for today’s feast.  His face shines like the sun, radiating out God’s glory.  On either side of Him are Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes.  In the art associated with the scene. The rays of Jesus’ glory touch Moses and Elijah’s bodies, drawing them towards Him.  He is transfigured, but they are transfixed.  Their eyes focus on Him, their arms gesture toward Him.  In Him, they see a destiny they had always expected, yet never fully understood.

God sent Moses and Elijah to His people at crucial points in the history of salvation.  Moses led the people out of slavery and through the wilderness for forty years.  The commandments were given to him on Mount Sinai and at his direction, the people renewed their covenant with God.  Elijah was a worker of wonders and a prophet of great boldness.  At his command, fire came down from heaven and kings quaked before him in fear.  They were both great men, revered in their generations, and according to Scripture in Elijah’s case and legend in Moses’, God took them both to Himself in a glorious ascension.

But both Moses and Elijah also struggled throughout their careers to understand God’s will.  Both of them were often overwhelmed by their responsibilities and resented by those they came to serve.  Their earnest words fell on plenty of deaf ears.  And both left without things fully settled, handing on authority to leaders who were not quite their equals.  Moses was denied entry to the promised land for an act of disobedience, and his last words to the people are full of warnings about the perils of idolatry and distraction.  Elijah left with Israel’s king still unconverted, the prophets of the Lord living in hiding.  His departure was glorious, but there was only one witness.

Surely, both Moses and Elijah were grateful for what God had allowed them to do.  They had seen His power and wisdom in so many ways.  But for both of them, there must have also been a sense that God intended something more.  The trajectories of their lives pointed to something beyond them, a hope that wasn’t quite clear yet, but was solid at the same time.  The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in a marvelous survey of the heroes of Israel, says that they “died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar.[1]” 

But on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah see that promise.  The goal of God’s long plan of salvation, His final word is revealed in this well-beloved Son, the world’s true Savior.  The same radiance Moses and Elijah had glimpsed in the most dramatic moments of their lives, they now see here, poured out completely in the flesh of Jesus. 

St. Luke says in His introduction that it was the eighth day when Jesus was transfigured.  The eighth day is the day after the cycle of the week has passed, the day of fulfillment, final purpose, new creation.  In the transfigured Jesus, Moses and Elijah see the eighth day of their lives.  All the uncertainty and confusion comes into focus in this man and the work God is sending Him to do, this final exodus that will banish sin forever and set the world free for eternal life.  Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus about it, St. Luke says, this departure, this exodus that lies before Him.  They urge Him on and assure Him.  They speak on behalf of God’s people in every age, all those who, like us, wait to see the eighth day fully accomplished, in our flesh as it has been in His.

We too long for this light.  We are drawn toward the glory of God, that was revealed on the holy mountain and by the empty tomb.  We long for the glory that we will share at the final resurrection, when we will stand with Moses and Elijah, with Peter and James and John.  We will behold Him face to face, who has made us and rescued us and who draws us to Himself with unbreakable bands of love.   The light of His glory and the truth of that final day alone will draw our scattered lives together and give them their true purpose. 

“Our lives, like those of Moses and Elijah,” writes Archbishop Rowan Williams, “may have meanings we can’t know of in this present moment.. What we think is crucially important may not be so; what we think insignificant may be what really changes us for good or evil.  Christ’s light alone will make the final pattern coherent, and that light shines on the far side of the world’s limits, the dawn of the eighth day.[2]

Surely, like Moses and Elijah, none of us fully understands his or her own life.  But unlike them, in the midst of this life, we have seen the Word made flesh.  We have heard the words of God’s well-beloved Son.  This day, we gaze upon Christ, hidden beneath the form of bread and wine.  We sing the songs that will echo down the wide vaults of heaven, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory.”  We feast on the riches of the world to come.  We look up with Peter and say, “Lord it is good to be here.”  As a wise monk has written, “The liturgy is a time to practice living in the New Order of creation, the Eighth Day that is now silently permeating and renewing all things for those who have the eyes to see it.[3]

The loving and transforming presence of God revealed in the flesh of Jesus is present here with us now, if we would have eyes to see it.  That doesn’t mean that our lives will always seem fair, or that we will always be able to predict what God wants from us next.  That knowledge won’t shield us from pain or take away all our disappointments.  But it does set before us a profound hope, a goal that will satisfy every longing and bring to completion whatever we have accomplished and endured.  Often, like the disciples on the mountain, we see all this only in quick glimpses, through the clouds.  We speak of it like people half-asleep, confused, overwhelmed.  But what we have seen is true, beautiful and enduring. We have seen Jesus.  And no matter what comes, that is more than enough.

[1] Heb. 11:13.
[2] Williams, Rowan.  The Dwelling of the Light.  Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2003, 9.
[3] Peter Funk, OSB, “Going to the Father II, the Land of Unlikeliness.”  The Prior’s Blog, 5 July 2015.

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