2 Lent - C - reprinted from March 4, 2007
A new film to be shown on the Discovery Channel on Sunday, March 4 at 8:00 pm, and a new book of the same title, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, by archeologist Simcha Jacobovici, and produced by James Cameron of Titanic fame, are stirring much controversy. In a suburb south of Jerusalem, archeologists have discovered a family burial plot with ossuaries marked "Jesus, son of Joseph;" and another, "Mary;" and another, "Mary Magdalene;" and another "Joses, brother of Jesus;" another "Matthew, and apparent relative of Mary; and another, "Judah, son of Jesus." The speculation is that this is the family tomb of Jesus and his family. (Of course they fail to mention in the promotions that these were all very common names in the time of Jesus). There are 10 ossuaries all together. Because I have an interest in understanding what life was like at the time of Jesus, I find this discovery to be interesting, not because I believe it is the tomb of Jesus, but because it gives us the opportunity to reflect on what we mean by our belief in resurrection and eternal life.
This week we hear the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. First of all, let's clarify what the Transfiguration event in the gospel of Luke today implies. Peter, James and John, early on, had great respect for Jesus as teacher, healer, and prophet, but in this prayerful encounter on the mountaintop, they begin to experience Jesus in a new way. They see his glory. They begin to intuit hints that he is going to accomplish something great in Jerusalem. Peter announces that he would like to erect three tents in honor of Jesus, and the men He was seen speaking with - Moses and Elijah. We are also told by Luke that Peter did not understand what he was talking about, or the whole experience on the mountaintop. Then a cloud comes over them, and they hear a voice announcing that Jesus is the beloved Son of God, and that the apostles are to listen to Him.
The key insight into the Transfiguration event is how the apostles come to see Jesus in a new way. I am submitting/suggesting this week that this is the challenge of faith in Jesus Christ in general - we are not to become locked into previous, inadequate understandings of Jesus. We are always to be open to seeing, understanding Jesus in a new way, while holding to the 2,000 year tradition of core beliefs in what He was about, what happened to Him, what he achieved for the human family.
These findings by archeologists and a movie producer suggest that we call into question the physical resurrection of Jesus, the physical ascent of Jesus into heaven. But I call us to come to see Jesus in a new way. For years now, I have understood the physical emphasis of the resurrection and ascension accounts as making this statement of faith: after His death, Jesus was intact. He was the same. He was transformed. He became a glorified spirit, simultaneously appearing to His loved ones, while also being one with Abba and the Spirit in heaven.
The physical nature of these accounts emphasizes that the core Jesus, the essence of Jesus was transformed by His life, death and resurrection. We are told, in the Resurrection accounts, that the Jesus experienced was not held bound by the laws of time and spaced. He passed through doors. He appeared and disappeared. People recognized Him. People did not recognize Him.
The upcoming TV program on the Discovery Channel does not call into question my belief in resurrection at all. The Spirit of Jesus moved on to a new dimension of being. Jesus lives - risen, glorified. We have spoken before how Jesus did not ascend into the sky like a spaceship or a rocket. Those were stories that ancient people told to confess a belief that Jesus moved on to a new dimension of being after His death, resurrection and departure from the earth.
To put it another way, I drive down 111th St. on the south side and go by two cemeteries where my parents, and most of my family and loved ones, are buried. If those graves were excavated, I am sure physical remains would be found. But I believe that my mother, my father, my aunts and uncles, my friends are not under that ground. They are in this new dimension of being, glorified spirits, with God. The fact that "remains" would be found of anyone who has died does not threaten my belief in resurrection and eternal life. I believe that the experience of Jesus in His resurrection was that He was transformed, resurrected. This time, this place could not and would not hold Him.
I would like to go back to the cloud that comes over the apostles and Jesus after the transfiguration event. We have been told that Peter did not understand what he was saying as he witnessed the event. A 14th century English monk wrote a famous book entitled The Cloud of Unknowing, perhaps based on this transfiguration event. In the book he states that the human intellect cannot be the only pathway to understanding God. The mystery of God, indeed the mystery of Jesus, transcends our intellectual capacity.
You and I are in "the cloud of unknowing," too. God, Jesus, life, death and resurrection - they are essentially mysteries. We can use our intellect, our emotions, our intuitions to approach God and faith; but ultimately faith is a jump of the imagination and a jump of convictional knowing. Faith becomes, if you will, an epistemology, or a way of knowing that helps us approach and find meaning in life.
Let us use the 40 days of Lent to have our own transfiguration events with Jesus, to try to probe who He was, who He is, and what He means to each of our lives. Let us continue to embrace Him, and embrace Him anew as the Lord of our lives, our Savior, our Redeemer, the one who heals us, the one who properly directs us in life. If we do this Jesus work, we also will be transfigured and transformed.
Let us use these days to grow in what Abram experienced with God as he took on the role as the father of a nation in Genesis. Let us remember that we are, because of our baptism, in covenant with God. Whoever, however this God is, we are in an unbreakable bond of love with God. God will never let go of us. God works all things for our benefit.
Let us be reminded also, by Paul in Philippians, that our ultimate citizenship is where Jesus went after His death, resurrection, and what was to be His ascension. Our citizenship is in heaven. We nonetheless have a period of citizenship here on earth. Let us be as responsible and just in living that citizenship as we can, as we seek the fulfillment of the continuum of life on the other side of death. Let us become more comfortable with the cloud of unknowing.
Is the Discovery Channel's contention that they found the bones of Jesus truthful, accurate, historical? I do not believe so. I believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, that He is alive, glorified; and I hope for an experience, for myself and my loved ones, that is similar to the one Jesus had.