This past December our entire family fell ill. It happened in the span of four days between Christmas Eve and December 28th. It went, daughter 1, son, daughter 2, mom, and last but not least … dad. I thought I might thread the needle and escape, but once again, pride came before the fall.
We recovered in the order we fell ill, which meant there was a point when the three kids were all feeling pretty chirpy while mom and dad were still down. I don’t think this has ever happened in our family, and looking back it was so bad it was actually comedic. Our home was transformed into The Lord of the Flies. People of all ages were in various states of consciousness. For a few miserable days it was sheer anarchy. But worse than being sick was having to cancel our family’s highly anticipated annual Christmas pilgrimage to grandma and grandpas house. This was a difficult pill to swallow.
I confess, in this circumstance, to struggling with God’s permissive will (His allowance of this situation). Why did this have to happen this way? I had several better ideas that I felt God could’ve considered. Like, how about we all get sick during the school semester, or when we’re working, instead of during Christmas break and scheduled vacation time? That sounds like a better idea, doesn’t it? We were all perfectly healthy in the fall, everything was great then. Why couldn’t it just stay that way?
It seems to me that it is very easy for us fallen humans to question God’s permissive will precisely when life gets difficult.
When the road ahead becomes challenging, painful, sorrowful, scary, dangerous even, we cry out to God, “Why is this road so hard? I do not want this challenge or hardship, I want things back the way they were. Better yet, whatever experience of God’s peace, His goodness, His grace, His mercy, His glory, His love — whatever previous experience of God’s blessing I have had in the past — I want that experience again, here and now. Why can’t things be like they were back then? Where is my vision of peace? Where is my word of comfort?
As easy as it is for us to think in this way, there are two flaws in this thinking.
The first is that we discount completely the promise, not the suggestion, the promise of God that “the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7.14).
The challenges of human life are not just physical, they are not limited to our mortality which exposes all of us to physical infirmities and ultimately and inescapably, our own death. But they are also spiritual. The infirmities of our spiritual life, and those of others, cause far greater and more lasting pain and suffering. But these challenges should not come as a surprise to the Christian.
Just one week before he took Peter, James, and John up the Holy Mountain and was Transfigured before them, he reminded them of their calling — of their identity as his disciples — saying, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
The way of the cross is not an accidental way for some unfortunate few. The way of the cross is not for those who have veered from the right path. The way of the cross is the right path. It is the way of life.
If we are surprised by the cross we must bear as Christians, by the pain and suffering we must endure in this life, we have either not been paying attention to the teaching, or we have more likely forgotten or grossly underestimated the meaning of the cross, and the reality of it’s weight.
The first flaw in our thinking then, when we wonder why we are suffering, and where God is in this suffering, is our forgetfulness that Jesus specifically calls us to pick up our cross and follow him.
The second flaw, is mistaking the blessings of this life – the glimpses of God’s glory, the affect of His Words of comfort and truth, the times of rest, and peace and prosperity — as ends in and of themselves. This is the mistake Peter makes on the Holy Mountain. On the mountain, the Uncreated Light of God is manifested through Our Lord Jesus Christ, God of God and Light of Light. He is transfigured before them. They are blessed with a glimpse of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And what does Peter do? He exclaims with great joy, “This is it! Here we are! We have arrived! Let’s put down our packs and set up booths. Maybe open up a gift shop and sell tickets! What else is there? This is it!”
But the revelation of God in Christ on the Holy Mountain was not an end in itself, it was given as an assurance to the disciples of the Goodness of God, the Truth of God, the Glory of God’s salvation in Christ, for the road of the cross that lies ahead.
Peter, filled up with the joy of the whole vision, wished to dwell there with Jesus where he was delighting in Christ’s manifested glory. But this was not God’s plan of salvation for the world. As St. Leo the Great writes, “the world could not be saved except by Christ’s death.” He goes on to warn us that, “Among the temptations of this life we should understand that we are to ask for endurance before glory” (ACC Matthew p.55).
St. John Chrysostom writes, “[Christ] is transfigured to manifest the glory of the cross, to console Peter and the others in their dread of the Passion and to bring their minds to elevated understanding” (ACC Matthew, 54.)
Our Lord explicitly connects His Transfiguration with His cross, instructing his disciples on the way down the mountain, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead” (Matthew 17.9).
Twice in the liturgical year we remember the Transfiguration of Our Lord. And both times they lead us down the mountain, on a 40 day journey to the cross.
On the eve of Lent, this Last Sunday of Epiphany begins our 40 day journey down the mountain to the cross of Good Friday. And on August 6th, which is the Feast of the Transfiguration, we begin another 40 day journey down the mountain to September 14th, which is the Feast of the Holy Cross. Twice in the church calendar, the Mount of the Transfiguration invites us on a 40 day journey to the cross.
When the road becomes difficult, challenging, sorrowful, dangerous even; when the weight of the cross gets real in our lives, rather than wish we were back up on the holy mountain, perhaps it was precisely for these times, that God has revealed glimpses of His glory, and peace, and grace, and mercy, and love to us on that mountain. Rather than asking, “Why the cross? Why not the Light and Life from the mountain?” May God give us grace to remember it is for this very cross, that He has given us these glimpses of Light and Life in His Son! To fill us with courage, and endurance, and resolve, and faith to pick up our cross and follow Him.
And of this we can be assured, whatever the glimpses of Light and Life and salvation He has given to us through His Son — whether through prayer, Holy Scripture, the sacraments of His church — they are only that … glimpses. And however beautiful and brilliant these are, they will pale in comparison to the glory that shall be revealed. For as St. Paul says, now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face (I Corinthians 13.12). But the only way to get from that which is, to that which is to come, is the way of the cross.