Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a mountaintop where He was transfigured before their eyes, an event that echoes through the ages, even through prison walls.
When I wrote “At the Root of Jesse” recently, I described the view outward from the prison cell in which I live and write. That same scene can also be viewed in reverse. Sometimes I am on the outside looking in as I return to my cell from daily work in the prison library. I stand and wait at the massive glass wall of this aquarium to await some unseen hand to push a button to grant me electronic admission.
From that perspective, while I wait, I have a panoramic view of this prison within a prison, and can tell instantly whether anything has changed in my absence. As my eyes unconsciously scanned the landscape one day two weeks ago, they stopped at an empty bunk just outside my cell door. All signs of any human presence were missing, the thin mattress folded in half on bare steel. My heart sank a bit. Our friend, Anthony Begin, was gone.
When such a thing happens, the lack of basic information is chilling, and the most distressing part of being in prison. The niceties of social concern and overlapping lives mean little here, and any inquiry is treated with suspicion. But over the next few hours I was able to learn that Anthony had a medical appointment that morning, and never came back. By 10:00 AM word came down to pack his belongings. By 11:00 AM, all trace of him was gone.
I knew that Anthony was struggling. A week earlier, he was taken out of the prison for a new brain scan. I wrote of Anthony’s aggressive cancer in “Pentecost, Priesthood, and Death in the Afternoon,” and again of his reprieve from imminent death in “The First of the Four Last Things.” Anthony had been given three months out among his friends – three months neither he nor his oncologist ever expected.
When I write, “out among his friends,” I mean here, living with us in a place still difficult by its very nature, but far preferable to the prison of suffering and fear of death he had endured for six months. There were only three here among the swarms of prisoners Anthony called his friends, and you know all three.
During this three month reprieve, Anthony got to experience a transfiguration of sorts, both in himself and in his small circle of friends. It was not quite the experience of Peter, James, and John that you heard or read on the Second Sunday of Lent, but it changed Anthony. I’ll describe how in a moment.
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF CHRIST
If the parish where you participate in Mass uses the Seasonal Missalette published by J.S. Paluch, then have a long look at its current cover the next time you are at Mass. The cover depicts The Transfiguration, an inspired work by Venetian artist, Giovanni Bellini painted in 1460. The painting is displayed in the Museo Correr in Venice. It depicts the Transfiguration of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, an account told every Second Sunday in Lent.
Last Sunday, the Transfiguration account was read from the Gospel of Saint Mark (9:2-10), simply told, but filled with history and theological meaning:
”After six days, Jesus took Peter, James, and 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 him in reply, ‘Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us erect 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.” (Mark 9:2-10)
Peter’s idea to erect tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah seems an almost comical response from someone just given a vision of the Kingdom of God and its most renowned denizens from the Hebrew Scriptures. As the passage points out, Peter “hardly knew what to say. They were so terrified.” But the idea wasn’t entirely out of place.
It was the seventh and last day of Sukkoth, the “Feast of Booths” described in the Books of Deuteronomy (16 13-15) and Leviticus (23:45). Known in Hebrew as Hag ha-Asif, translated as “The Festival of Gathering,” it lasted for seven days during which Jewish observers erected tents or booths from the boughs or branches of palm trees. The booths were a memorial of their ancestors’ deliverance from bondage in Egypt:
”You shall dwell in booths for seven days, all that are native in Israel shall dwell in booths that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23: 42-43)
The presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus on Mount Tabor represents the Law and the Prophets, the two pillars of divine revelation in Hebrew Scripture. They represent the heart of God’s covenant with Israel. There were some previous hints of the Transfiguration. In Exodus (34:29), Moses did not know that upon his descent from Mount Sinai with the Tablets of the Law, “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.”
Upon the death of Moses, according to Deuteronomy (34: 5-6), God Himself secretly buried his body in an unknown place in the land of Moab. However, the New Testament Letter of Saint Jude (Jude 9) refers to an ancient Jewish legend from the apocryphal text, The Assumption of Moses. Saint Jude described a story that he presumes his listeners already know: that Satan attempted to take the body of Moses, but the Archangel Michael “contended with the devil” and brought the physical body of Moses into Heaven.
The same became true of Elijah. In the Second Book of Kings (2.11) the prophets Elijah and Elisha became separated by “a chariot of fire and horses of fire” and “Elijah went up in a whirlwind into Heaven, then Elisha saw him no more.” In the Gospel account of the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John – as well as the early Jewish Christian Church – would have readily perceived that Moses and Elijah came from Heaven to witness the Transfiguration of Jesus.
They would also have known well the Prophet Malachi (3:23- 24) who declared that “Elijah’s return will precede the Day of the Lord.” Hence, as Saint Mark points out, “they were so terrified.”
A METAMORPHOSIS OF FAITH
Note that Saint Mark’s account of the Transfiguration that you recently heard at Mass began with the words, “after six days.” Something very important happened six days earlier between Jesus and his disciples that literally rocked their world and shook their faith. As the pilgrimage Feast of Sukkoth began, they saw Jesus cure a blind man at Bethsaida. Then Jesus asked them at Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8: 27), “Who do men say that I am?” They answered, “John the Baptist” [already slain at Herod’s command], while “others say Elijah, and others one of the Prophets.”
“But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked. Peter, answered with something – like the offer to build some booths six days later – that came spontaneously from his heart and soul: “You are the Christ!”
What exactly did that mean? Those who awaited a Messiah in Israel envisioned a political force who would transform the known world and set it aright. But Jesus said something astonishing (Mark 8:31): “The Son of Man must suffer many things,” be rejected, be killed, and after three days rise from the dead. And of them, Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”
And then a final bombshell: “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God come with power.” Hence, once again, Peter, James, and John, dazzled upon Mount Tabor six days later, were terrified when Moses and Elijah appeared.
And what of the Transfiguration itself? The Greek word the Gospel used to describe it is metamorphothe. His very form and substance were transformed. Remember my Advent post, “I’ve Seen the Fall of Man”? It recalled the great hymn of Christ recounted by Saint Paul to the Philippians (2:5-11):
“Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
For six days, Peter, James, and John must have lived with shattered hopes, discouraged over the revelation about what it means to follow Jesus. Ascending that mountain to see Him transfigured in glory was a gift of Divine Mercy that also transformed the cross – forever.
These same three disciples had been present when Jesus restored life to the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:37), and they would later be present with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane (14:33) to see Him humiliated as the Passion of the Christ commenced. They were also the only disciples to have been given new names by Jesus. Simon became Peter, “the Rock” and he called James and John “Boanerges,” the “Sons of Thunder.” Their new names denoted that they were forever changed by these experiences, a metamorphosis of identity and faith.
TRANSFIGURATION BEHIND THESE STONE WALLS
On August 6, 2014, the Feast of the Transfiguration, the well known Canadian Catholic blog, Freedom Through Truth, featured a post by Michael Brandon titled, “Transfiguration Behind These Stone Walls.” Michael Brandon wrote some very nice things, not so much about me personally, but about what I write. I was first bewildered by it. Then I was very moved. Then I finally accepted his premise that he and other readers have a vantage point I do not have. Michael Brandon wrote:
“In the 4+ years that I have followed These Stone Walls, I have seen the transfiguration of Father Gordon MacRae and Pornchai Moontri.”
I do not see the former at all, but I have been an eyewitness to the latter, and I am persuaded by the evidence. Two weeks ago in “Forty Days of Lent Without the Noonday Devil,” I wrote of another transfiguration, a transformation of discouragement that was not at all unlike that faced by Peter, James, and John to whom the cost of discipleship was revealed. Here is what I wrote:
“As my spirit slowly descended, I came to see that I could not afford to let it fall any further. I was losing my grip, not on my own cross, but on someone else’s. Just imagine Simon of Cyrene letting that happen.”
I have seen first hand how the cross of one person becomes a source of grace for another, and then ultimately for both. In the three month respite Anthony Begin was given from being consumed by cancer, Pornchai Moontri took care of him, unbidden, every single day.
Just weeks after being told he had only months to live, cancer released its grip on Anthony for a time, and he was able to leave the prison hospital where he spent six months dying. It was a priceless gift for Anthony who came in these three months to know the meaning of Divine Mercy. Anthony turned fifty in the three months he spent with us, an age he never thought he would see.
Then Anthony lost the use of one arm due to a tumor on his spinal cord. Every day, morning and night, Pornchai tied his shoes and helped him with his coat when he went to the medical center for pain medications. Every night, Pornchai heated water to prepare hot packs for Anthony, and prepared food when it was too cold for him to venture out for meals.
Prisons everywhere provide the barest sustenance and then sell food to prisoners for a profit. Anthony could no longer earn even the $1.00 a day available to those who can keep a prison job, but he never once in the last three months went hungry.
Pornchai brought Anthony to Mass, prayed with him, calmed his anxiety – because, if you read “Forty days of Lent Without the Noonday Devil,” Pornchai had some hard won expertise in anxiety. Over the last three months, Pornchai helped Anthony carry his cross with grace and dignity. He was Simon of Cyrene carrying that cross with him. The three of us talked a lot about life and death, and Anthony is not the same man he was nine months ago.
But Michael Brandon is right. The real transfiguration story here is Pornchai Moontri’s, and it has instilled something wonderful in our friend in the winter of life. Anthony Begin has seen the Transfiguration of Christ, and of life and death, and he is no longer afraid.
“In our struggle to be holy, grace is certainly required. But we must also do the footwork – we must will to be better than we really are… The degree of perfection is measured by the amount of adversity we overcome in order to be holy.” St. Maximilian Kolbe
Note from Father Gordon:
Anthony is gone from our sight now, but not from our prayers. We can no longer see him and cannot write to him, but you can. He will not be able to reply, but if you want to send him a card or note of encouragement this Lent, send it exactly as follows:
Anthony J. Begin – No. 76810
P.O. Box 14
Concord, NH 03302-0014
IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT FROM THESE STONE WALLS:
There has been a very positive development in the Federal Habeas Corpus appeal of Father Gordon MacRae. United States District Court Judge Joseph LaPlante has ordered a hearing to consider oral arguments in the case slated for March 17, 2015 at 10 a.m. in U.S. District Court in Concord, NH. Father MacRae’s legal team will have to fly up from New York for this. Please keep this hearing in your prayers.
Should you wish to help offset the travel costs and lawyer fees for this hearing, please send your gift c/o Father Gordon MacRae to our Legal Fund at P.O. Box 863, Hampton, NH, 03842-0863 or you may use the active PayPal link on These Stone Walls (upper right corner of the page). Please consult our “Contact” page for alternative avenues of assistance. Thank you and God bless you.