Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
—“The Slow Work of God”, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), excerpted from Hearts on Fire
Lent is almost upon us. In two days, we will receive ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. When I think back over my life, I wonder why it’s taken so many years to figure out that God works slowly but surely. Other days, it seems like just yesterday that I was a little kid, yearning for the next stage of my life to unfold. Impatient as I often am, I am learning to take one day at a time, relishing each moment.
“Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, ‘Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” (Matthew 17:1-4 CEB)
The three disciples are tickled pink. Here they are on top of the mountain with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. And Jesus is amazing! His face is shining so bright the disciples can’t even look directly at him. Can you think of anything more spectacular than that? “Hey, Jesus, I could get used to this. Why don’t we just stay up here forever?”
The cloud of mystery that envelops Jesus and the disciples also wraps me in wonder. Who is this Jesus, anyway, and what claim does he have on my life? How is the slow and transforming work of God growing in me?
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
“While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.” (Matthew 17:5-8)
Here’s the thing, Jesus has already told his disciples in Matthew16:21-23 that he is going to have to go to Jerusalem where he will suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and legal experts and that he has to be killed and will rise on the third day. But Peter takes hold of Jesus and says, “God forbid, Lord. This won’t happen to you.” Jesus then says to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Jesus is already preparing his disciples for all that is to come. It is a slow but necessary work, and Jesus needs to gradually bring them along the journey to the cross. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Peter, James, and John to hear the voice from the cloud reassuring them that this Jesus is, indeed, God’s son and that they need to listen to him.
The liturgy of Ash Wednesday reminds us that, as Christ-followers, we are called to mark the forty days before Easter as a time of sober reflection.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent:
by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial;
and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
To make a right beginning of repentance,
And as a mark of our mortal nature,
Let us now kneel before our Creator and Redeemer.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9)
This mountaintop experience is not the end but the beginning of a journey, the slow work of God that will not be easy and will not be forced. Invariably, we, like Peter, James, and John will have to head back from the mountaintop down into the valley where the power of the cross is the source of our light and our salvation.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
How will we shine God’s light into our world? How do we wander right into grace and embrace it instead of fussing, fuming, and fighting? How does God want to transform us right now, here, today? And what will grace make of us tomorrow as the slow work of God unfolds?
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, so that we may remember that only by your gracious gift are we given everlasting life. Amen.
(All pictures are from the El Camino pilgrimage walk in Spain.)