Saturday, September 7, 2013


The expression – Shantung Compound – has a two-fold meaning.  It refers to a World War II prisoners of war camp in Japan – a military compound in the province of Shantung – where enemy civilians – resident in Japan at the outbreak of the war – were interned.  The expression – Shantung Compound refers also to the name of a book written by a distinguished theologian who had been a young prisoner in the camp – his parents were Baptist missionaries – and who wrote the book many decades after his prisoner of war experience as an adult Christian reflection on a most difficult and provocative situation.  The theologian’s name is Langdon Gilkey who taught theology for many years at the University of Chicago.  Fifteen hundred civilians – mostly British and American missionaries and business persons – were the citizens of the compound.  As prisoners, they had not been beaten or tortured.  Privacy, however, was non-existent.  There never was enough food.  Prison life was dominated by the tensions wrought by boredom and fear.  To his surprise, the author discovered that even the most devout missionaries were not immune from selfishness.  They too squabbled with fellow-prisoners and stole food from communal supplies.  All in all – in the author’s judgment – life at the camp led to a series of moral breakdowns so serious that they threatened the very existence of the prison community.  As the poet Bertolt Brecht has expressed things, “For even saintly folk will act as sinners unless they have their customary dinners.”  The hero of the camp was a Trappist monk who had also been interned.  With great skill he would “raid” the food supplies and the cigarette supplies, not for himself but for his fellow-prisoners.  When he was caught by the officials, he was put into solitary confinement.  He always loved that because it reminded him of his Trappist Monastery!
It strikes me that our world has rapidly become a vast Shantung Compound.  Hunger is a way of life for countless millions.  The gap in so many countries between the “haves” and the “haves not” is widening.  The experts are talking ominously about depletion-point for widely-needed, non-renewable natural resources.  This, in great measure, is what causes the fighting, the violence, the terrorism so rampant all over the globe.  Surely our Catholic faith tells us that our world very much needs to hear the good news which the Lord Jesus brings to us from his heavenly Father, the good news of God’s love for us and for all peoples, the good news of God’s plan for human wholeness, human happiness.  Difficult though the road is that leads to our final goal, the Gospel of the Transfiguration gives us a remarkable vision and encouraging hope.
We will begin with the Gospel of Mark.  The Gospel of Mark represents a long reflection on one particular question – Who is this Jesus of Nazareth?  The author suggests to the readers that he has a secret to tell them.  The answer begins to unravel in Chapters 8 and 9.  First, we read of Peter’s Confession of Faith.  Popularly, Jesus was being regarded as a prophet, but the disciples confessed with Peter – You are the Christ!  Then comes the first prediction of the Passion with its stringent conditions for discipleship.  The Messiah, the Christ, the long-expected One is going to be a suffering messiah.  Finally, we come to the incident of the Transfiguration.  “Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them; and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.  Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus.  Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, ‘Rabbi, it is good that we are here!  Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’  He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.  Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.’  Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.  As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.” Mk 9:2-10.  (Cf. Mt 17:1-9; Lk 9:28-36.)
Twice during the liturgical year we contemplate the event of Christ’s Trans-figuration – at the beginning of Lent, having entered into the Lord’s trials and temptations, we are strengthened on the Second Sunday of Lent by the Gospel of the Transfiguration.  The Lord Jesus revealed himself in glory in the presence of his disciples.  He had already prepared them for his approaching death.  He wanted to teach them through the law and the prophets, through Moses and Elijah, that first he had to suffer and then come to the glory of the resurrection.  The Preface Prayer for the Second Sunday of Lent reads as follows: “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.  For after he had told the disciples of his coming Death, on the holy mountain he manifested to them his glory, to show, even by the testimony of the law and the prophets, that the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection.”  The second time we hear the proclamation of the Transfiguration is on August 6.  This Preface Prayer teaches us that Christ revealed his glory to his disciples to strengthen them for the scandal of the Cross.  His glory shone from a body just like our own to show that we the Church – which is the Body of Christ – will one day share his glory.  The Preface text reads as follows: “For he revealed his glory in the presence of chosen witnesses and filled with the greatest splendor that bodily form which he shares with all humanity, that the scandal of the cross might be removed from the hearts of his disciples and that he might show how in the Body of the whole Church is to be fulfilled what so wonderfully shone forth first in its Head.”  It seems strange, does it not, that so important a feast finds its place in the liturgy on the 6th day of August.  I am sure that this fact moved theologian Robert Imbelli to write – “It is regrettable that one of the theologically richest feasts of the year falls in early August, and thus scarcely receives the attention and celebration it deserves.”  We read the following remark in the Ordo which is the order of prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of the Eucharist for 2013 here in the Archdiocese of Boston: “Celebrated by 5th Century East Syrians, this feast was inserted into the General Calendar in 1457 by Pope Callistus III to celebrate the defeat, announced in Rome on the 6th day of August, of the Turks at Belgrade.”  No wonder Gregory Collins, OSB made the following comment:  “In the Eastern Churches the Transfiguration is one of the greatest feasts of the year, but it passed to the West also via the famous Benedictine Abbey of Cluny.  It was surprisingly slow in spreading to the wider Latin Church and even more surprisingly has still not yet acquired the highest festive status, that of a solemnity.  Yet from ancient times the Roman Liturgy has commemorated it on the Second Sunday of Lent so that in the West there are effectively two feasts of the transfiguration, one of which falls on one of the most important Sundays of the year.  Associating it in that way with the paschal mystery is very appropriate; and equally appropriate is the custom which some Lutherans have of keeping it during the season of Epiphany on account of how it manifests Christ’s glory.” (Collins, Meeting Christ in his Mysteries, p. 230.)  The imbalance noticed by Fathers Imbelli and Collins is being corrected to some degree by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  It’s good to notice in paragraph 556 the following observation – “On the threshold of the public life: baptism; on the threshold of the Passion: the Transfiguration.  Jesus’ baptism proclaimed the ‘mystery of the first regeneration’, namely, our Baptism; the Transfiguration ‘is the sacrament of the second regeneration’: our own Resurrection.  From now on we share in the Lord’s Resurrection through the Spirit who acts in the sacraments in the Body of Christ.  The Transfiguration gives us a foretaste of Christ’s glorious coming, when he ‘will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body’.  But it also recalls that ‘it is through many persecutions that we must enter the Kingdom of God’.” (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], paragraphs 554-556.)
A number of questions come to mind in connection with the Lord’s Transfiguration, questions about the function of this episode in the life of Jesus; questions about the meaning of the rich symbolism we confront in St. Mark’s narrative; questions about the significance of the Lord’s Transfiguration for you and me in the world of this time.
First then – What function does the episode of the Transfiguration play in the life and teachings of Jesus?  As a matter of fact, the announcement of the cross precedes the good news of ultimate glory, even though, in the order of preaching, the good news of the glory comes first.  Given the fact of sin and the truth that God so loved the world that he sent his Son as our Redeemer – given these two realities which touch the lives of all peoples of all times and places – God’s revealed Word is telling us that the cross and glory are never to be separated this side of the grave, that Jesus, who is revealed as God’s suffering servant, is also revealed as God’s glory-filled Son whose glory establishes his divinity, while his suffering offers proof of his humanity, whose glory is promised to all who follow him and whose suffering gives his disciples strength and encouragement in their own lives.

What about the symbolism of the Transfiguration?  A mountain top is a most suitable place for revelatory meetings between God and his people.  It was on the top of Mount Sinai that God gave Moses the Law he was to bring to his people.  In our narrative, Moses represents the Law, Elijah represents the prophets.  These two great figures confirm the mission of Jesus and reveal the unbreakable bond that binds the new covenant with the old.  We should notice that Moses and Elijah were discoursing with Jesus about his death.  The dazzling light represents Christ’s glory; the cloud represents God’s invisible presence; the booths or tents which Peter mentions represent God’s dwelling place in the midst of wandering people.  When John the Evangelist tells us that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, his words tell us – God’s Word, God’s Son, has pitched his tent in our very midst.

What meaning does the Lord’s Transfiguration have for us in today’s world of fragile peace and broken promises?  Sin and disease of all kinds, and violence and all sorts of oppression and death seem powerfully center-stage, but our feast day is telling us the good news that the Lord Jesus alone is the one who should command our center stage.  However, as St. Paul reminds us – our life now is hidden with Christ in glory but when Christ comes again – we shall appear with him and God will be all in all.
For a helpful aid to prayerful reflection, the following observation of Saint Bonaventure can be of great help:
“Intending to strengthen the human soul
with the hope of an eternal reward,
Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John
and led them up a high mountain.
There he revealed to them the mystery of the Trinity,
foretold the humiliation of his passion,
and showed them through his transfiguration,
the glory of his future resurrection.
The Law and the Prophets bore witness to him
in the apparition of Moses and Elijah;
the Father and the Holy Spirit bore witness too,
manifest as a voice and a cloud.
And truly the soul devoted to him,
solidly established in the truth
and raised to the summit of virtue,
can make its own the words of Peter,
exclaiming with him,
‘Lord, it is good for us to be here,
in the peace and joy
of the vision of your face;
where the spirit,
in a state of heavenly and ecstatic rapture,
can hear secret words that no one may repeat.’”
These words of Bonaventure are found in Collins’ volume, Meeting Christ in his Mysteries, page 228.

Just a brief nuclear post-script:  It was on the 6th day of August, well over sixty years ago, that the crew of the aircraft – the Enola Gay – watched what had once been the city of Hiroshima disappear in a mushroom cloud.  Instead of life and transfiguration, there was awful death and disfiguration; instead of God’s power to glorify, there was human power to destroy.  Human history so often records our power to disfigure.  This feast reminds us of God’s power to transfigure.  A coded message was sent back to their base from the crew of the Enola Gay.  It read as follows:  “Visible effects greater than Trinity...Proceeding to Papacy.”  Trinity was the code name for the project that first tested the atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert.  The visible effects of Trinity were even more spectacular than at Alamogordo.  Papacy was the code name for Tinian Island, which was the airplane’s base of operation in the Pacific.  In retrospect it seems so blasphemous that such revered Catholic symbols should be associated with man’s inhumanity to man, but as the Gospel helps us to reflect on God’s plan for human dignity, we thank God for his grace of transfiguration first given to the humanity of Jesus but also promised to our own.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Father, for sharing your gifts so readily. You speak the truth with conviction and warmth. I have learned so much with just your first entry and I eagerly await what will follow. The truth will set you free! Peace and blessing, Jeanine