In the summer of 1999, I spent 10 days backpacking in the backcountry of Philmont National Scout Ranch on a carry-everything-you-need kind of trip. On the morning of the third day, we planned to hike to the top of Mt. Baldy, but after getting a late start, we failed just short of the summit due to thunderstorms rolling in over the mountain. From that point on, we set a new goal for the final day of our hike: get to the other iconic peak of the ranch, the Tooth of Time…for sunrise. It didn’t matter that it was a 5-hour hike from our camp to the top of the peak; we spent days planning about how to shave time off that hike because we were committed to the goal. We sought to ways to find closer camps, hike faster, look for shortcuts, etc.
It’s the end, the goal, the target that drives someone to act, in technical terms: the final cause. Today’s Gospel, in part, gives us the end, the goal, the purpose for which we Christians are to act. That famous story is told with that well-known introduction: Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves… It’s on Mt. Tabor that Jesus is presented to us: the dazzling white clothes, the glory of that Face, the presence of Moses & Elijah, the cloud, the Voice of the Father & His words AND as quickly as it began, it’s over.
In the words of the Preface for today’s Mass: he manifested to them his glory. That is, He definitively showed them not only Who He is, but also the glory which He eternally enjoys and the glory which He wants us to enjoy…to show…that the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection. The end is the resurrection, not just of His Body, but our bodies as well. This is all part of the goal the end, the aim, the target. Likewise, St. Paul to the Romans, in typical wordy fashion, starts by saying: Christ Jesus it is who died & then corrects himself perhaps also to highlight the end …or, rather, was raised – who is also at the right hand of God…
The end is the first thing thought of, but the last thing achieved. If the end moves someone to act, then it’s what causes the person to engage at all. The person then begins to select those things necessary to arrive at the desired goal or end. Once all those necessary means have been discovered or identified, then the work begins, so that through the means, if they are correctly chosen, the person achieves the desired end, but it’s always the end which in some way is motivating the person. I think, for example, of the Prodigal Son on his way home. While he was certainly filled with feelings of shame and sorrow for the pain he’d certainly caused his father, I’m sure there was also a certain joy and peace not only to be “doing things right again” but to be “going home.” It’s the end which he had in mind.
In the 1st reading, Abraham, our father in faith, as well had this principle at work in his mind and heart. In explaining how Abraham could have willingly offered up his son simply because God asked, the letter to the Hebrews (11:17-19) beautifully & powerfully states: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. He reasoned that God could bring men back from the dead; death was not the goal, the end. Even if he couldn’t elaborate it clearly, Abraham knew there was Someone greater at work; God had promised Abraham a different end: a son who would fulfill the promise. Abraham had the conviction and assurance in his heart and mind regarding the One who had promised. He kept his mind’s eye fixed on the end and therefore was able to endure this trial.
Likewise, referring to Christ, the Letter to the Hebrews (12:2) states: for the joy that was set before him [He] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Jesus has always the end and goal before His mind’s eye. The moment of the Transfiguration, we know, is, in part, for strengthening faith of the Apostles. In the face of the impending crucifixion, our Lord wanted the Apostles to have before their eyes a clear knowledge of His goal, His end…and theirs.
As we know, once all instruments & means are chosen, all that remains is to put the plan into action; the best kind of end is an end that is achieved. Back to New Mexico, 1999; all our strategizing was just talk unless we did something with it; when we awoke at midnight, with a 5-hour hike ahead of us, we knew what to do, but that didn’t mean we knew what was ahead of us; only that it’d be grueling. We were tired not only from a lack of sleep, but from 9 days of backpacking. The climb meant a drastic elevation change and hiking along a rugged mountain ridge for several miles … in the dark. Knowing what we had to do in one sense, made things easier, but in another sense, it didn’t make things easier at all; we still had to implement the plan. In short, we arrived at the Tooth of Time just minutes before the sunrise, and came away with an incredible story.
With that in mind, we return to more important things. In spite of the joy which lay before Him, Christ still had to endure all that the passion entailed: the agony, betrayal, scourging, trial, mockery and scorn, crowning with thorns, cross, nails, and shame. In one sense, it was easier because He knew the outcome; in another sense, it wasn’t because there was still the plan to implement. Likewise, for Abraham, his faith, the assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things not seen which gave him a certitude and confidence did not take away from the reality of implementing the plan that involved his only son…whom you love…the son of the promise; explaining the plan, at least in part, to Sarah; and a 3-day’s journey through the desert all the while knowing what was coming. While there certainly was a consolation in knowing the reliability of the One who had promised, he still had to go through the trial to see how God would keep His promise.
In the face of this apparent contradiction, I find the presence of Moses and Elijah at Mt. Tabor interesting as well for this discussion. Recall what Moses said to God after the Israelites complained in the desert about having nothing to eat: If this is the way you will deal with me, then please do me the favor of killing me at once, so that I need no longer face my distress. (Num11:15). Recall what Elijah said after the episode on Mt. Carmel with the 450 false prophets, fleeing from Jezebel, and hiding in the southern desert: It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life (1Kgs19:4). While their presence at Tabor was due, in part, to their importance for the Jewish faith, these were also two men who knew trials and difficulties. They knew what God was calling them to do; they knew the goal, but there were moments in pursuit of the goal when they’d rather have died than go on. Then you have Peter who says, though he doesn’t really know what he’s saying: Let us make 3 tents…that is, let’s stay here; let’s skip the trial & go right to the end. As we know, there is no rising from the dead without first dying, and more importantly in God’s plan, there is no resurrection without the cross.
We know the end, but sometimes we forget just how marvelous it really is; in our weakness and ignorance, we get distracted by the things of this world. We get seduced and dragged down by false promises of pleasure, wealth, and power, so Holy Mother Church reminds us of the end as our Lord showed it to us through the Apostles. We can also waiver in our commitment in the midst of those trials and distractions, so Holy Mother Church, through these readings, gives us hope through the example of Abraham, Moses, and Elijah; Peter, James, and John; and most especially our Lord Himself.
Pope Francis has reminded us that we are to share the Gospel with joy. Pope Benedict wrote in Spe Salvi: Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by—people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. If we fail to keep the end in mind, if we get dragged down by the seductions of the world, but how much more will this be true for the people who look up to us as examples, the people to whom we give a certain inspiration. If we don’t believe it’s worth the effort, don’t continue to struggle, they are less like to follow.
Let us take this moment of rest, this pause from the world to encounter our Eucharistic Lord anew and to ask Him to fortify our hearts, so that we may be joyful witnesses, true lights in the darkness, as we pick up our crosses daily and follow our Lord.