Fathers and Sons

By Steve Rice

I don’t like crying in my oatmeal, but I’m not above doing it. When the morning news shows videos of deployed soldiers, sailors, and airmen surprising their children with a visit a school or some other event, I suddenly develop extreme allergies and I am not able to control my eyes from watering. Even when writing this on Friday, I had to clench my jaw a couple of times.

I think what grabs me is the unfiltered emotion, from both the parent and the child. The soldier, sailor, or airman, who is trained to fight, is completely unable to have any semblance of control over his joy and love, flowing from his tears. And likewise, the kids, especially the teenage boys, who are loathe to show any emotion out of fear of embarrassment — they don’t care. They hug their dad or hug their mom and cry like a newborn — and I’m crying — and I can’t get enough of it.

The vision of their mom and dad, after months and months of separation, is overpowering in its raw, real emotion, because they are seeing what they have been longing for, what they have been waiting for, what they have been praying for — from both sides. And to witness the power of a heart seeing what it has desired gets us every single time. And it should.

It’s a fair question to ask, if the human heart longs for God, in a way that is deeper and more fundamental than even a parent and child longing for each other, then why doesn’t God just show himself to us? Why not, in the midst of human suffering and pain, does God not fill the sky with this presence and confirm what we’ve all prayed to be true — that God is real, God is here, and all is well?

Why not, like in the gospel today, does God not show his glory in way that is incontrovertible? Why not a global Transfiguration where, instead of just Peter, James, and John, the whole world is shown Jesus Christ and his glory?

It’s a fair question, but it is the wrong question.

It’s the wrong question because it assumes that God simply wants us to know that he exists. The Devil and his demons know God exists. God wants us to know his love. And for us to know his love, we must journey to that place where we not only desire his love, but we need it for life itself. And the steps of that journey invariably require sacrifice.

Go back to those tear-jerking videos of parents and children embracing and crying with joy and love. The crucial part to that scene is the prolonged absence. If it were not, I’m sad to say, for that distance and time apart, the scene would be quite different. The difference between and father and son not embracing, not talking and not crying out of love, and a father and son that are, is sacrifice. That time and distance clarified what is important, what is real, what they desire, and what they need.

It’s not a matter of existence. The parent and child know the other exists. They can call, they can use FaceTime, and they can write. They want to be in each other’s presence for the sake of love.

But here’s the other reason why this is the wrong question. Divinity is not subject to human perception. If divinity were subject to human perception, then God would be a part of creation. God would be creaturely.

So, when God reveals himself to us, he is showing us his nature and not his appearance.

For hundreds of years, in both the Anglican and Roman traditions, the gospel for today, Quinqugesima, was of Jesus healing a blind man in Luke 18. Jesus asks the man what he wants, and the man says, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Jesus heals him and says, “Receive thy sight; thy faith has saved thee.” In 1979, the prayer book revision brought the Transfiguration for the last Sunday before Lent, but sight is still very much a part of the message.

In the Transfiguration, after a period of six days, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain, and there his glory is revealed. The veil of his flesh gives way to the radiance of his divinity. Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus as the great lawgiver and the great prophet. By itself, it’s an image we’d all like to have — confirmation that Jesus Christ is God and that all of this is real. But there is a reason why the disciples are confused, and Peter misses the point in saying, “It is good for us to be here, let us build some dwelling places,” as if this were the consummation of Jesus’ ministry.

The Transfiguration is powerful and beautiful and one of my favorite episodes in the Bible, but it not a stand-alone scene. We have to go back and see what happened just before Jesus took Peter, James, and John on the mountain. In every Gospel that has the Transfiguration, immediately before Jesus speaks about his death. He speaks about this cross. Peter, yet again missing the point, rebukes Jesus when he speaks about his death. But his death is revelation of his glory.

When St. Peter later reflected on the Transfiguration (he does so in our second reading), he must have made the connection with Moses in Exodus 24. The parallels are not accidental. Moses is the mediator of the Old Covenant; Jesus is the mediator of the new. Moses takes Aaron, Nadab, and Abi’hu up on the mountain for six days. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John. On the seventh day, a cloud overshadowed Moses and the voice of God called out. On the seventh day a bright cloud overshadowed Jesus, he was transfigured, and the Father says, “This is my son, the beloved.”

But as precise as those connections are, perhaps the most important connection is what comes before Moses ascends the mountain. Before he goes to the mountain with the three others, he reads the words of the Covenant to the people and he takes blood from sacrificed oxen and sprinkles the people.

The shedding of blood immediately precedes the voice and showing of God. The shedding of blood on the cross reveals God.

We hear of the Transfiguration the Sunday before we begin our own Lenten journey so that we may remember that the cross of Christ is the glory of God. The cross of Christ is the showing of God’s nature, which is his unfathomable love.

To know that love and see the cross with the eyes of faith, Jesus tells us the same thing he told his disciples before the Transfiguration: take up your cross it, embrace it, and follow him. We will not see Jesus Christ with any hope of clarity and power, without sacrifice. Because sacrifice teaches us what is important, what we should desire, what we need. Sacrifice amplifies separation, so that we may long for communion.

For the glory of God, for his face, for his nature, for his love — look to Jesus Christ on the cross.

For a father embracing a son after a period of sacrifice gets me every single time.

The Rev. Steve Rice is the rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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