Awkward Catholic

Living my faith as the awkward man of God that I am.


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To the Heights – Through the Valley

That awkward moment I was bounding up the main stairs of the Catholic high school just as all the teens were being dismissed and filing out into the halls and parking lot, and my foot missed the next step and I face-plant in front of all of them… not a good way to make a first impression.

Mountain in a Lake

 

One of the most profoundly important scenes in the Gospel is one that is often overlooked or treated as a nice story but left behind quickly as it is a bit confusing… the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is contained in all three synoptic Gospels, with a brief reference in John; in each instance the Transfiguration is a turning point, the fulcrum to the whole story of our redemption.

To see the face of God… to see God, Face to face… it is the destiny, the dream of every human heart because it is the fulfillment of every human desire. Yet, to see God’s face is death; that is, we cannot see God’s face until we have faces with which to see him. (Peter Kreeft).

What do the above two points have to do with each other? What do they have to do with Good Friday and Easter? Why write about his today? I’m so glad you asked.

The Transfiguration is the fulcrum to the entire Gospel and yet is so often misunderstood or glossed over because there is simply so much going on. Prior to the Transfiguration Christ had spent his entire ministry in Galilee, healing, teaching and doing miracles. After the Transfiguration he sets his face towards Jerusalem and to his ultimate glory. The story is a Theophany in that it reveals God. It is a mountain top experience, a foreshadowing of our destiny in heaven. And it is a Christophany in that it reveals the true nature of Christ, the summation of the Law and the Prophets (Moses and Elijah), but not just a summation for Christ goes beyond them, becoming the lasting fullness of God’s revelation… the revelation of the Face of God.

As Jesus is praying his face was changed and his clothes became dazzling white. This is a vision of the heavenly glory that awaits each of us, but more importantly, it is a vision of the Face of Christ unveiled for our human eyes to see. In this glimpse we see the glory of God, but it is just a glimpse. One of the most important lessons I have learned from this passage is that in order to obtain the beatific vision in its fullness, like Christ we must first pass through the valley of the cross.

Wounds of Christ

I love the reaction of the Apostles because it shows clearly that even they didn’t get it. They were as thick-headed as I am. Just a few days prior Jesus had told them that “if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Then, in the Transfiguration, he discusses his exodus, i.e. his Passion, with Moses and Elijah; Peter, John and James, completely miss the point! They want to make three tents, three chapels where they can keep that encounter alive. They want to stay on the mountain. Can you really blame them?

To the ancient Jewish mind (and the modern mind too), suffering meant that God had abandoned you, that you had somehow caused God to leave you to wallow in your misery. That’s what Job’s three friends accused Job of when he suffered more grief and loss in one day than most people suffer in a lifetime. And Peter, John and James didn’t want to descend into the valley, to leave behind this mountaintop experience. They wanted to stay there, where it was safe and comfortable and “heavenly”. Who can blame them?

But a cloud comes down upon the three disciples and the voice of God booms, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him!” I love this! It reminds me of the countless times I’ve bent down to my four year old who is blessed with an active imagination, so much so that he rarely hears what others are saying to him or asking of him. I repeatedly bend down and call out his name, “Dominic! Listen with your ears!” The apostles, like us, needed to learn to listen to Jesus, who had just commanded them to take up their crosses, to descend into the valley of the cross and suffer like Christ.

Why? Why must we suffer? Simply this… to find our faces. What’s the point of suffering, of Good Friday? What’s so good about it anyway?! As Peter Kreeft describes, our hearts are like granite blocks in the hands of a master sculptor who must chisel away the stone until our true image appears.

I remember hearing once that a master sculptor, when he obtains a new block of granite, doesn’t just start chipping away but rather listens to the stone, spends time with it and studies it in order to find it’s true nature. I like to imagine the Father does the same with us, he sees the true nature, our real faces inside the deep recesses of the stone. And the blow of the hammer against the chisel, our suffering, is what brings our true nature out.

That’s what’s so good about Good Friday… the true nature of Christ is revealed in his face, the most beautiful face of love, the suffering Christ, the Holy Face, the scourged face, the crucified face of Christ. And in that most horrible moment, in the suffering that broke the world, Christ took upon himself the suffering of the world and transformed it into the most beautiful, powerful, death destroying love. That is a good Friday! That is the beauty of our suffering… it enables us to find our faces so as to meet Him face to Face.

Face to face

The mountaintop experience gives us hope and strength to endure the valley of the cross. We cannot stay on the mountain any more than we can stay in heaven… until we have found our faces. And so like Christ, having encountered his glory on the mountaintop (the retreat or prayer experience) we must set our faces towards Jerusalem… our own individual exodus’ by taking up those little crosses of daily life and follow him. And as we walk through this valley of the shadow of death we find that each thorn, each whip, even the nails piercing our hands and feet become as beautiful roses, a garden of joy and peace… because like Job, we find our own faces and are able to meet God, Face to face and be satisfied.


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Hands in the Air Vulnerability

What is the first thing most people do when being held up by robbers?Surrender Pic Stick their hands in the air. When a criminal is surrounded what does he typically do to give up the fight? Stick his hands in the air. When you’ve been working on something with all you have and you just can’t figure it out and you give up, what do you do? Throw your hands in the air. Why is that? I believe because putting your hands above your head places you in the most vulnerable position you could possibly be in. Our hands, and by extension our arms, are the first and last defense. We stick our hands out to feel our way in the dark, we cover our face to protect it from incoming danger, we brace ourselves with our hands as we fall. Our hands protect and defend us; to move them as far away from our bodies, to place them in a position of uselessness is an act of vulnerability.

To be vulnerable is to risk that the other will hurt you, and to, in a certain sense, say, “I give you permission to do whatever you will.” Like it or not, it’s something we all experience in our lives. In fact, most of us spend the greater part of our childhoods being vulnerable and learning that to live life that way hurts… a lot. And so we learn to close ourselves off, to protect ourselves. Hence, we have the wonderful song by Simon and Garfunkel, I am a Rock.

VulnerableIn almost every human interaction we consciously or subconsciously judge how vulnerable we are going to be with the other person; “How much am I willing to share?” “Can I trust this person?” “Can I be myself right now?” and countless other questions we ask ourselves. Each of them lead back to that core question, “How vulnerable am I willing to be towards this person?” Now, we can’t just go around willy-dilly lettin’ the crazy out on everyone we meet. But there are some people I believe it is necessary to risk that vulnerability with, to risk being hurt by. Those are the ones to whom we say, “I love you.” (And yes, this includes God.)

In order to love we have to be vulnerable, don’t we? On Good Friday I was meditating on the Way of the Cross and was struck with a new insight concerning the 10th Station “Jesus is Stripped of his Clothes.” This is quite possibly the most vulnerable moment in all history: the God-Man, the most powerful, infinite, good and loving being making himself weak and helpless with love. He was completely exposed, completely vulnerable! Vulnerable to what? To us, to our hate and judgment, our scorn and mockery, to the weight of our sin crushing him as he leaned upon the rock of his love.

Jesus is Stripped

Our modern sensibilities have glossed over the reality of this moment and made it difficult for us to realize its gravity. Out of a sense of decency we have placed a cloth over Christ’s loins. We protect the image so as not to reveal too much. And who can blame us? But it wasn’t really that way. The Romans didn’t suddenly find pity in their hearts for the man they were in the midst of torturing and decide, “Let’s leave him a little decency.” They stripped him of everything and nailed his hands above his head to the cross… the most vulnerable position to be in for anyone, least of all God.

Of course, in this Easter season I can hear the objections now, “But Mike, it’s Easter! Why are you talking about the Cross now?! Where’s the upbeat, happy, alleluia message?”

It’s right here, hidden beneath the nakedness of God. You see, it is precisely because he allowed himself to be stripped and utterly exposed that we have the joy of Easter. This is what love is after all, being open to the other, being vulnerable giving yourself completely to another, whether or not they give anything back. That’s why Adam and Eve covered themselves after the Fall, to protect themselves from each other, and from God. And that’s why Christ, the new Adam, ended up naked on a mountain before all the world, to untie the knot of Adam’s sin.

“But Mike, I can’t go around in naught but my skin. I’d get arrested and possibly sunburned!” Yeah, that’s probably not a good idea. You can however have a heart naked and open like the saints, who in imitation of Christ, loved without fear, pretension or ulterior motive. Yes, it’s risky and it’s going to hurt but so did the Cross. And didn’t Jesus demand of his followers that they pick up their cross and follow him? Did you ever ponder that? He doesn’t just want us to suffer like him. He wants us to love like him, to be vulnerable like him, to risk rejection like him.

Light Cross

After all, it’s only because of his vulnerable love that we have the joy of Easter. Love hurts, yes but as Lord Tennyson said, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” It’s better not because love is simply some noble cause, but because that is what we are made for! We exist to love, to know and be known. And you cannot be known if you are a rock! You cannot love if you are an island alone and unfeeling! And when we take this risk it will hurt because we are surrounded by people who would rather crucify God than embrace him (and that includes most of us some times). But the Good News is that when we do open ourselves to this vulnerable love, we become like Him; and who doesn’t want to become a little more God-like?

So what does it look like to be vulnerable?

For me, that means opening up to my wife about how I’m feeling. It means trusting others and not always keeping them at arms’ length with sarcasm and jokes. It’s about having real conversations with friends and not just talking about sports or boardgames; looking people in the eyes and smiling, even with strangers. It’s about seeing Christ in the other person–my friend, my enemy, the stranger, the beggar, the president–and being truly present to them in their need and circumstance. Most of all, it’s about spending time in prayer and opening my heart to my Savior, the greatest lover of all.

So won’t you join me this Easter season and throw your hands up in the air like you just don’t care? Surrender to Christ, become completely vulnerable to him and his loving will, as when He stretched his hands out on the cross in naked vulnerability to the will of the Father. Remember: God will not be out-done in generosity!

And, as a parting note, if you need any more encouragement to let yourself become vulnerable, just read the very end of the Bible, Rev 21-22. That’s what we have to look forward to.