During the time I worked as a university campus minister, I came to expect two recurring events at the end of each semester, immediately before Exam Week. Mass attendance increased dramatically on the Sunday before exams and social gatherings increased among students who were active in the Catholic campus ministry program.
The increased attendance at Sunday Mass was due to the presence of students who were struggling with their classes. The increase in social activities was due to the students who were comfortable with their academic performance and well prepared for exams. The struggling students showed up for Sunday Mass in large numbers because they were hoping for Divine intervention. The well-prepared students engaged in social activities in order to give their minds a rest before taking exams.
I thought of the second group of students when I read this Sunday’s Gospel reading. Those students who gathered socially before Exam Week weren’t avoiding study; they were taking a break from study in order to be clear-headed and refreshed before Exam Week began. In a somewhat similar manner, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain in order to refresh themselves after ministering to the crowds.
Jesus had sent the Twelve Apostles on a missionary journey. When they returned, they were faced with a hungry crowd of five thousand whom Jesus fed by a miraculous multiplication of bread and fish. In private, he spoke to the disciples about his impending death and the cost of discipleship. After this period of intense activity, Jesus needed some quiet time to pray, and he took three of the Twelve with him.
The Gospel tells us that, while Jesus was at prayer, his appearance changed radically, Moses and Elijah appeared with him, and a voice came from heaven announcing, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” (Lk 9:35) Ecstatic religious experience, like the vision seen by the three Apostles, would have been considered rather normal in the ancient world; today, in western culture, it seems rather foreign.
Ecstatic religious experience is unfamiliar to most people in our culture, but I think the phenomenon is easy enough to understand. Religious visions, revelatory dreams, and similar events are not far removed from the simple desire for private prayer exhibited by Jesus prior to the Transfiguration. In fact, ecstatic religious experience can be likened to the impromptu social gatherings by those college students who felt adequately prepared for exams. Those students needed a change of pace, an opportunity to clear their minds in preparation for the effort required by test-taking. Ecstatic visions and prophetic dreams function similarly as a change of pace, something out of the ordinary, an unexpected rest from the banalities of life.
As I mentioned, ecstatic religious experience is uncommon and distrusted in western culture. Our thought processes are so heavily influenced by science and technology that visions and prophecies seem unreliable and probably primitive. We still require an occasional period of spiritual refreshment. The event of the Transfiguration can offer some guidance.
The Transfiguration occurred while Jesus was at prayer. This, I think, is the aspect of the story that we should seek to emulate. Daily prayer is a requirement in everyone’s life; it is also a prerequisite for the communal worship we offer at Sunday Liturgy. Daily private prayer with the Scriptures can afford us a change of pace and a little distance from our daily routine. During Lent, we are encouraged to spend extra time in prayer, that is, extra time devoted to listening to God’s voice.
Regardless of whether you have a well-established private prayer life or you’re a little behind the curve, you can make this Lent an opportunity to find refreshment and rest in God’s presence by praying with the Scriptures. Why not start today? Why not spend 30 minutes reflecting on today’s Gospel reading?
I’m certain that some of you just clutched at your chests, fearing a heart attack because of the thought of spending thirty minutes in prayer, but thirty minutes is a rather short period of time. Most people watch more than thirty minutes of television before they start their day’s activities. Many people watch more than thirty minutes of television commercials in a day. Isn’t it time for a break, a little rest from the routine, a little refreshment for your spirit? Spend half an hour today and every day listening to God’s voice in the Scriptures; you will find rest for your soul.