Year after year a journey of grace opens for us, and draws us through a re-enactment of a primal mystery. An ancient pattern unfolds: awakening, encountering, deepening, suffering, death and rebirth, transformation, and return. This rhythm is as old as the stars, as obvious as the plant cycle: seed, growth, flowering, dying, seed pod bursting and casting off its contents far and wide. Germination. Beginning the cycle of new life again. The pattern of awakening, trial, and transcendence lies so deeply in the human psyche and in lived experience that resonance is inevitable.
The Christian Year guides us through this geography of grace toward deep union with the divine. To interiorize the liturgical cycle in prayer from Advent to Pentecost is to practice the classic modes of the Christian mystical journey of conversion, purgation, illumination, dark nights, and union, like Teresa's Interior Castle or John of the Cross's Ascent of Mount Carmel. The story of Jesus and the disciple's encounter with him, is the story of our own soul. The Christian year, through readings, prayers and practices of the tradition, unfolds the soulscapes within us, drawing us toward union with the divine in love.
detail, The Last Judgment, Giotto, 1306
The eternal birth which God bore and bears unceasingly in eternity is now born in time, in human nature. St. Augustine says this birth is always happening. But if it does not happen in me, what does it profit me? What matters is that it shall happen in me.
Source: Meister Eckhart from Whom God Hid Nothing (edited by David O'Neal)
Advent 1 Entering the Portal
(Year A: Matthew 24:36-44), (Year B: Mark 13:24-37), (Year C: Luke 21:25-36)
But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.
The Last Judgment Portal, Gislibertus, c. 1150, St. Lazare Cathedral
You ascend the steps of a great cathedral. But when you find yourself at the threshold and crane your neck upward, you might change your mind about going in. On the tympanum over the portal you see Christ enthroned with the blessed on his right and the damned tumbling into hell on his left.
What does this unwelcoming scene mean to tell you? I think the church is saying this: Know that you enter a life-changing realm. Sacred space will challenge and change you. And, saying “yes” to the mystery within is a matter of life and death.
Likewise, the threshold of The Liturgical Year – the first Sunday of Advent – nakedly reveals the cycle of sacred time beginning with the end of all things.
Why? Why begin the journey of the year with stories and images of destruction and chaos and the end of time?
But then, why not? Why not begin by confronting the deep and persistent fear at the heart of human nature? Why not begin the Christian journey of overcoming death by facing down the fear of death? Fear inhibits the journey of love.
If I choose to enter the portal of sacred time, the church lovingly, realistically, with unmistakable clarity, confronts my soul with death - not only my own mortality, but the end of the world itself. The journey into sacred time begins by shattering my illusions.
Apocalypse means a “lifting of the veil.” To begin this journey I not only have to face death, but I must be willing to lift the veil of my own ignorance. I have to be willing not only to change but to be transformed. But, my end is my beginning. To face death is to begin the great adventure into the fullness of my humanity.
I don't have to be fearless, and I won't be transformed in an instant. Liturgical time allows plenty of room for growing and healing along the way and every season has its insights and beauty, its adventure and treasure, and its own radiant purpose.
Icon of The Second Coming, Greek, ca 1700, with Abraham and the Good Thief
How do I begin to pray the Liturgical Year?
Faced with the Apocalypse, my first prayer may be some kind of desperate foxhole prayer: facing the thought of destruction of the world, or even facing the destruction of my own world, or even some event in my life that breaks my tranquility in some way, can shatter my image of God, raise my existential anxiety, provoke a sense of meaninglessness.
A first prayer may be generated by the shock of tragedy, helplessness, impotence against life's difficulties. (Have you noticed this with yourself or others? That the shock of tragedy shatters naive faith, replacing it with depth and a sense of wider reality?)
But prayer, any prayer, begins to dissolve time. Mystical life begins with a 'yes' to that Unknown which is beyond time.
And so, in this apocalyptic place, I stammer my first, pathetic, heart-felt, fearful prayer. Perhaps it is only a whimper. But that whimper will help shatter the boundary of time itself.
The Apocalypse offers an invitation to me, a three-dimensional being, to participate in a relationship with Being of unlimited dimensions.
It takes time, though, to adjust to the implications of this revelation. And so the Church provides a timepiece within which to enter sacred time and the adventure of walking within two kinds of times in one world.
With the Christian Year, the church subtly guides the Seeker through layers of awakened consciousness - a journey of ever-increasing love.
This journey becomes integrated into a person's own daily life. In time, no longer will it seem like I am walking in two worlds. The sacred and the mundane, the eternal and the ordinary are one world.
And one more word on Last Things:
Apocalypse is no mere symbol. We human beings have always truly lived on the edge of apocalypse with rampant disease, natural disasters, the threat of projectiles from space, famine, and never-ending warfare. In this era, we add additional varieties of an apocalypse of our own making with nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and climate change.
And although I sense that the One to whom I am uniting my soul, transcends even the ends of the world, that does not lessen my responsibility to do what I can do to heal and comfort others, repair earth and work for peace.
It is wise, then, for the Church to acknowledge my deepest fear and confront me with my most urgent task at the very beginning of my life in faith.
Advent 2 In The Desert
(Year A: Matthew 3:1-12), (Year B: Mark 1:1-8), (Year C: Luke 3:1-6)
John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Jacopo del Sellaio
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight-” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. -Mark 1:2-4
Having stepped through the Portal of the Last Judgment the first Sunday of Advent, I agree to enter sacred time and the journey of faith. I try to say “yes” to Eternity, to reality, to impermanence, to the shattering of my illusions, to death, to open-ended mystery. This is the work of prayer at the very outset of Advent.
I take my first steps only to find myself in a desert wilderness – a dangerous place; a place of spirits, wild beasts and demons, of hardship, of wandering, of testing. Here, the Biblical landscape serves as a map for the soul: associations of nomadic life, the sojourn in Egypt and the flight to the wilderness, loneliness, dryness, silence and lamentation and exile, and of course the unmitigated Presence of God.
Here, I am utterly vulnerable, like a child. The church calls me to the desert, away from distractions of my life, to come to know myself at the core. To know myself - this is also the work of Advent.
I am not alone, however. John the Baptist, angelic messenger guarding me, guiding me, meets me here. Clothed in camel's hair, living on “locusts and wild honey” John lives solely on whatever the wilderness – whatever God – provides for him.
Like all the figures I will meet upon this journey through the liturgical year, there is some trait, some characteristic, or some insight they offer, that I will need and will want to appropriate upon my journey. And so I pay attention.
John is utterly vulnerable, dependent upon God. In this I want to be like him, in his humility, his trust in God, his poverty of spirit.
John teaches me that the desert itself is a landscape of my soul I need to get used to and learn to love and come back to again and again for solace and for challenge. Here I learn to avoid distraction, learn to begin the process of continual conversion toward God. Here I confront those things that get in the way of my loving God, and God's love for me, so that at any time in my life, I can enter the wilderness and find myself – in an instant – in prayer. I need to “practice” the desert wilderness, attune myself to the darkness, the immensity of the universe behind the night sky, absolute silence, the breath of God behind absolute silence.
In such a fierce landscape I might confront all my personal mechanisms of distraction: my addictions, my soul-withering habits, my fleeing from consciousness and from compassion.
In the desert I might learn that the virtues I've used to survive and thrive in the first half of life can be muted now. I need to develop good habits of self-examination. I need to learn how to negotiate the wilderness of my soul in such a way that as I grow I can repent and return to God no matter where I am. In the desert I might learn how to continually awaken, not to just my own consciousness, but a higher, more ennobling, and universally shared Consciousness.
However, all of this may be too much at one time. But to begin. That's the hardest part.
Advent 3 At The River Jordan (Year A, Mt.11:2-11), (Year B, Jn.1:6-8,19-28), (Year C, Lk.3:7-18)
detail, Unknown Miniaturist, French Breviary, 1455
John the Baptist says to the shallow and cynical side of my soul,
“You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come! Bear fruit that befits repentance...Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” -Matthew 3:7b,8,10
John the Baptist speaks forcefully to my unconscious collusion with the oppressive powers of my culture and society and our collective and my personal degradation of the environment. I can't ignore that I live a certain life style at the expense of exploited people around the world who I do not see, who receive our garbage, our toxic waste, who supply us with cheap goods and services while working in slave conditions. I'm implicated in the powers that promote consumerism, mono-culture, and unending short term gratification at the expense of peoples and generations to come and even life itself upon this extraordinary planet. I am of the brood of vipers class.
But John speaks gently to the humble and most hated inhabitants of his country. To tax collectors he says, “Don't cheat.” To soldiers he says, “Don't bully.” (Luke 3:10-14). When I am humble enough to ask, he says, “Just try.”
He invites me, and the tax collectors and soldiers and sinners to the Jordan for a ritual cleansing. He says, The One who is Coming, who is mightier than I, whose sandal I'm not worthy to stoop down and untie, will call you to leave your tax collector's booth, he will forgive you soldiers as you pound his flesh into the wood of the cross, he will baptize you – anyone who wants it – with fire.
I go to the Jordan because I know I need repentance. Forgiveness. Conversion. A re-orienting of my life. For once, I know my need of God. For now, I accept the cleansing waters, I come up from the river gasping for breath like a newborn.
But how do I change? Where do I begin? It isn't as if I am the first person to ask.
Just as the church lovingly helps me face death and revelation during the First Week of Advent, and calls me into contemplation and silence and self-examination in the Second, the Third Week of Advent invites me into the ancient Purgative Way. This tradition offers you and me a set of skills needed throughout the mystical journey of the soul.
The Purgative Way, so closely linked to conversion and repentance, implies purging. What prevents you from loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? And what prevents you from loving your neighbor as yourself? Sins are those things that inhibit full communion with God and neighbor: bad habits, illusions, ignorance, distractions, all of which need purification.
Sometimes the Purgative Way is referred to as a “stage” of the mystical life. That implies, however, outgrowing it, like a two-year old's tantrums, or a teen-age rebellion. Rather, the Purgative Way is a skill set with which to practice continual conversion and repentance during the long journey of life in God. A way of returning to God again and again within the brokenness of our lives and in the world's collective sinning and sorrows.
The prayers and practices of tradition shape you in the beauty of holiness – the psalms, the daily study of scripture, and writings of holy men and women, the daily offerings of intercession for the world and those far and near, praying for our enemies, confession, petition, thanksgiving, praise, and, of course, awe. This daily work, this daily orientation toward the Divine, form the solid foundation in the school of life built upon rock. (Mt.7:24-27, Lk.6:46-49)
“Prepare the way!” proclaimed John. Prepare the way for your transformation and the world's. Growing in grace demands a continual building upon the foundations of conversion and purgation. Wash again and again in the River Jordan. These are all things you can DO.
But there is more to the purgative way than my prayers and actions. Active Purgation balances with another skill set – what teachers of prayer call “Passive Purgation.” And so the Soul is sent home to learn how to wait and listen.
Advent 4 Meanwhile, Back At Home ... (Year A, Mt.1:18-25), (Year B, Lk.1:26-38), (Year C, Lk.1:39-45)
Mary At The Well Annunciation, Basilica of San Marco, Venice, 11th century
And Mary said, “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. -Luke 1:38
What use is prayer if prayer does not pervade my home and daily life? I have work to do, and can't be church-y all day. For every action the soul can take, there is a passive element in which my work is simply getting out of the way of Divine Grace. I have to learn (again and again) how to allow the Holy Spirit work in me.
Passive purgation is allowing God to work in me. And I might as well be at home for this, keeping the Apocalypse in my inner sight, retreating to the desert in breaks from my desk work, withdrawing to places of liminality between wash-loads.
When I least expect it, grace breaks through, often utterly silently and in darkness. A flutter of wings, a disturbance of the boundary of time, eternity breaking in.
Like John the Baptist, Mary has traits I must take into myself. Here is Mary at her spinning or weaving, or, in subversive medieval art, reading, but most likely shelling chickpeas or sweeping or working the hard earth. The question to her is the question asked in my own soul:
detail, Nativity (Joseph Dreaming), Unknown German Master, 1250
Will you bear the Prince of Peace? Will you allow yourself to be impregnated with compassion, no matter the cost to you and to those you love?
The question may come in dreams from the unconscious.
Joseph, Mary's betrothed, is a dreamer. When she is found to be pregnant, his rational mind says one thing: quietly put Mary away and get on with life. But the message in the dark is utterly opposite: do not fear, but enter this adventure with all the integrity of your being. Will you protect this Unknown, this new thing ….?
The Question may come in other forms. On the road or in the visit of a friend, like Elizabeth greeting Mary: And why has this happened to me? That suddenly, the truth I carry within myself responds to the truth you carry within yourself? How is it that I know now, what I did not know only moments ago?
The Visitation, Breviary, Flemish Miniaturist, 1520-25
And then, you just go about your business, because no one can see your heart, even though it has changed so radically.
In Christian mythology, while Gabriel speaks to Mary, the other angels in heaven hold their breath waiting for Mary's answer. Within the analogue of my own assent, I often think my angels must turn purple day after day waiting for me. What about you?
But without cynicism, and after the most basic and un-nuanced questioning, Mary says, “yes.” This is what I must learn from her. Mary becomes my companion in the way of passive purgation.
She guides me toward saying Yes to the Unknown. Yes to Something so large I can not see it, or even put together a concept of it cogently in my mind. Something like instinct is asked of me. Something not rational. But not irrational either. With some hibernating faculty I hear the question asked of me inside a pure plane of silence.
Arrogance can obscure the glimmer of angel wings. All of my Advent prayer prepares me in humility for this moment to which I must respond in profound, accepting silence.
detail, The Census At Bethlehem, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566
The Virgin, weighed With the Word of God Comes down the road: If only you'll shelter her.
-John of the Cross
Christmas Texts : (Nativity Luke 2:1—20), (Word Made Flesh John 1:1-18), (Massacre of the Innocents/ Flight into Egypt Matthew 2:13-23), (The Presentation Luke 2:22-40), (Young Jesus in the Temple 2:41-52)
And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. -Luke 2:7
And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. -John 1:14a
Adoration of the Shepherds, Rembrandt, 1646
The shepherds, dully keeping watch over their flocks by night are terrified by the sky breaking open and heaven pouring forth with strange sounds and incomprehensible lights.
A little apocalypse takes place over that rocky field, and they are sore afraid.
But the lights and sounds fade away and the stars return, and the sheep, living fully in the moment, forget the recent chaos and find themselves grazing in the middle of the night.
“Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. (Lk.2:16)
What did the shepherds expect to see?
If they expected to see something extraordinary, worthy of the sky breaking open and angels singing, were they disappointed to see the familiar squalor, dung and fleas and sour hay? A baby sleeping in a feeding trough or nursing at its mother's breast or wailing over its gassy tummy and general discomfort? The text tells us the shepherds saw this and returned glorifying and praising God.
In my own interior life, the shepherds represent my instincts, which, over a lifetime I've tried to thoroughly repress. The shepherds knew this birth was extraordinary, because every birth is extraordinary. The shepherds know intuitively what I struggle to comprehend: the infant is somehow the Word - the Word that existed before all things came to be, before time, at the heart of the universe. John 1:1Who needs a mystical path to tell you that? Because of my own distrust of such an instinct, my journey is long.
So,I can do worse than place myself with shepherds once in a while, accompanying them to this cave or that birthing room to see miracle after miracle, the universe bringing forth life to be transfigured again and again.
detail (Mandorla) Icon of the Ascension, Russian, Novgorod School,
In the Christmas of my soul what am I saying 'yes' to? A cute little baby I can patronize in its helplessness? Or Word enfleshed in my own species of helplessness? When I say 'yes' to the mystical life, I say 'yes' simultaneously to babe and to Word.
Sometimes I see it. Sometimes it is mere dissonance and confusion. Why am I confused? Why is this old story of babe in the manger suddenly so new and inside-out and even threatening, somehow? Babe and Word are like the images of Christ in the mandorla of an Icon, ambiguously coming from heaven or going to heaven, because the portal represents something entirely outside coming-and-going space-and-time type of categories.
Solving the confusion, I think, is not a matter of engaging the intellect, of figuring it out. Like Mary, I have said 'yes' to what I do not know. I am growing in awareness. I am changing. My prayer is dark.
When a woman gets pregnant, new life embedded in her womb, the changing hormones in her body often make her nauseous. Compassion, embedded in the womb of the soul and starting to grow will make anyone spiritually nauseous. The growing Compassion within you causes you to begin to see the suffering you veiled yourself from.
detail, Slaughter of the Innocents, Duccio, 1308-11
In the Christmas of my soul what am I saying 'yes' to? A cute little baby I can patronize in its helplessness? Or Word enfleshed in my own species of helplessness? When I say 'yes' to the mystical life, I say 'yes' simultaneously to babe and to Word. What have I done? What have I said 'yes' to? Bearing the Prince of Peace will change everything forever.
“And will do you no good,” adds my Ego voice.
Saying 'yes' to compassion is the beginning of the death of ego. Or at least a remaking of that ego into a servant of a higher purpose than itself.
The Soul is changed forever by awakening to the suffering of the world. The beginning of contemplation causes ordinary intercessory prayer to falls through a kind of trapdoor into the connectedness of humanity. The starving child in Somalia is linked to your own soul. The little girl molested as she goes to fetch water outside the refugee camp in Darfur. The little boy sold into sex slavery in Thailand. The women raped and mutilated in the DRC (Congo.) Teenagers, men, women, tortured in Syria. The millions displaced.
How can you ignore these things taking place within your own soul? (Unless, of course, you are so completely cut off from your own soul, your deepest self?) The 'yes' to mystical union is a 'yes' to knowing and bearing the suffering of others because that suffering lies at the essence of your own soul. The Divine Light illuminates the dark corners of your heart. You see what you could not see before.
Saying 'yes' to babe and Word means less hiding in ignorance and more growing into an incarnational responsibility that will never abate.
The dark side of Christmas and the Prince of Peace is the dread of this increasing sense of unity, connectedness with the suffering of the world and God's own pain.
In Matthew's Gospel Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mt.10:34)
And in Luke's Gospel Simeon says to Mary and to us, “And a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” (Lk. 2:35a)
Every massacre is a slaughter of the innocents. Every day. In Ordinary time.
The Flight Into Egypt, Adam Elsheimer, 1609
In the Mystical Journey of prayer, this Night of Faith eclipses the now familiar ways of purgation and passive purgation. Negotiating the night is the first principle of the mystical life.
John of the Cross teaches that the nights of the soul occur when God's Presence so floods your soul with Light, you are blinded by it. And so you react, like you do in a dark room when the light is suddenly switched on and you are temporarily blinded. At first, you may interpret the darkness as abandonment. But quite the opposite, the dark is a matter of quietly observing. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. (Lk.2:19)
Here is a practice to embrace for the rest of your life, for the darknesses become more intense and the soul's journey increasingly threatened. If you know, however, that the darkness is God's Presence, Uncreated Light flooding your soul with unmitigated holiness,you will learn to sit quietly, and take the time to absorb that Light, integrating Light with the mundane materials of daily life and work. (Lk 2:51)
It is no wonder that the Church observes Light of the World born into the darkest time of the year. We need the practice.
Arise, shine for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising....
The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.
detail, Garden of Earthly Delights, H. Bosch, c 1500
Epiphany Day (ABC) Mt.2:1-12 Epiphany 1 Baptism of the Lord (Year A Mt.3:13-17) (Year B Mk.1:4-11) (Year C Lk.3:15-17,21-22) Epiphany 2 (Year A Jn1:49-22) (Year B Jn.1:43-51) (Year C Jn.1-11) Epiphany 3 (Year A Mt.4:12-23) (Year B Mk.1:14-20) (Year C Lk.4:14-21) The Epiphany season may have up to 9 Sundays, depending upon the date of Easter. These are scenes from the Galilean ministry. Last Sunday of Epiphany (Transfiguration) (Year A Mt.17:1-9) (Year Mk.9:2-9) (Year C Lk.9:28-36,(37-43))
When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. - Matthew 2:10-11
Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano
Just as the shepherds represent my instinctual self, the magi represent my reason. I'm much stronger in reason than instinct. I understand the Magi occupying themselves with maps and charts and esoteric scrolls and interpreting books and ciphers and symbols. Unlike the shepherds who saw the sky dissolve right over them, the magi prepared themselves like athletes for the moment of grace. It's a wonder they ever looked up from their desks to notice the actual Star blazing from the heavens.
Like the shepherds, the Magi found their way to the manger. While following the star they reasoned their way toward the location and they deduced the babe's divinity by their own divining. They brought symbolic gift of gold, frankincense, and myrrh as an expression of their own insight rather than anything the family might find useful (aside from the gold that may have sustained the refugees during their sojourn in Egypt). I like the Magi. Like the other figures I've encountered on the journey, (John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, the Shepherds, the Innocents) I cultivate a prayerful friendship with the Magi, too, because their wisdom and poise can guide me toward many a destination.
Insight is the destination of prayer here. Epiphany means manifestation, the manifestation of God. Epiphany season teaches the practice of discerning Christ's manifestation in the ordinary.
Epiphany offers the soul the skill sets of the Illuminative way of prayer; a lifelong habit of gleaning insight and integrating that insight into life. This mode of prayer involves an aesthetic process of learning to see the extraordinary in the mundane. The Illuminative way is concerned with the heightening of the senses, just as Lent and the Dark Night of the Sense will be concerned with purifying them. The lectionary will take us to Galilee, and Jesus' manifestation through his ministry there.
detail, The Baptism of Jesus, Tintoretto, 1579-81
Epiphany can also mean a more extraordinary manifestation of God – a theophany - God unveiling, like to Moses or Elijah on the mountains, Isaiah in the temple, or to Job in the Whirlwind. In modern times the church has bracketed the season of Epiphany with matching theophanies: the Voice of God over the Jordan River at the beginning, and the Voice of God from the cloud during the Transfiguration at the end.
After leaving the manger scene with the Magi, I find myself standing again among the collection of sinners gathered at the River Jordan. “Behold,” says John, “The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29)
Jesus comes to be baptized. And the heavens open and he hears the Voice of the Divine Holy One, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)
And while this journey is the story of Jesus, this is also my story and your story. And so, hear these words: You are the Beloved. Take this in. Remember it. In the dangerous places to come, you will be tempted to forget.
“Where are you staying?” the disciples ask. “Come and see,” says Jesus. (John 1:39) Come and see expresses the heart of both the Epiphany season and the Illuminative Way. Well, Beloved, let us go with Jesus into Galilee.
Throughout his ministry in Galilee, Jesus manifests himself in teaching, in preaching, in healing. In Mark's Gospel especially, I get the sense that each event is some kind of test for Jesus. Jesus teaches in the synagogues and exorcises a demon. He heals Peter's mother in law. He heals a leper. At Capernaum he heals many people including a young man whose friends break open the roof to let him down in front of Jesus.
Each circumstance confronts Jesus with a choice to respond in such a way that will eventually insure his fate upon the cross. Flashes of anger and frustration rise from him as he realizes this. At each encounter he accepts the challenge of the moment, beat by beat, toward the inevitable. In John's Gospel Jesus manifests himself in his first “sign” by changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana, but he resists at first. “My hour is not yet come.” (John 2:4)
The Calling of the Disciples, Duccio, 1308-11
He goes from town to town teaching and healing. He eats with tax collectors and sinners. He pushes the boundaries of the Sabbath and prods against the sensibilities of the religious authorities who stand at the edges of the Christ Manifestation like a Greek Chorus of negativity.
In Epiphany season, the lectionary emphasizes the call of the disciples. Jesus calls Andrew and Peter, James and John from their fishing. And Philip calls Nathaniel whose character is much more like one of the Magi as he sits studying Torah under the fig tree, than, say, Simon Peter's more immediate imploring from a gut response “Depart from me I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8)
The message for both of them is for you and me. Like all the characters in a dream, imagine you are all the characters in the story. To Peter, an extrovert, he says, “You will be fishing for people.” And to Nathaniel, most likely an introvert, he says, “You will see the heavens opened and angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
The practices of the Illuminative Way mean cultivating an increasing perception of the manifestation offered. Come and see. Perhaps for you it is like Hopkin's “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” or Teilhard's sense of “resplendence which shines through all things and in which all things are ablaze.” But perhaps it is increasingly seeing the Imago Dei in people and a heightening of those sensibilities offered by the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount.
Again, because prayer is a life-long vocation and never mastered, the church gives us a life-time of Epiphanies to renew our practice, because in life every situation incorporates more challenges, beat by beat, into the journey toward compassionate love.
Icon of the Transfiguration, Spaso-Preobrazhensky Monastery, Yaroslavl. Notice the middle panel, where Jesus and the disciples go up the mountain and then go down it on the other side - toward Jerusalem.
At the end of the Galilean ministry, Jesus ascends a mountain with Peter, James, and John to pray. Jesus, suddenly dazzling, talks with Moses and Elijah outside of time. (I love how in some iconography one disciple's shoe is knocked right off by the sight of Jesus transfigured in splendor.) The Cloud of Presence encompasses them and again, like over the Jordan, they hear voice of God: “This is my son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” All of them are bathed in what the Orthodox call “Tabor Light” that is, the uncreated light of God. This moment of awe is a glimpse into Reality.
And for just a while I cling to this vision, like Peter, James, and John. The disciples of Jesus now go down the Judean side of the mountain. They are “on the way” as Mark's Gospel so deftly encapsulates it. So much meaning for so short a phrase - “On the way,” a leitmotif for all that will happen in Jerusalem. As Thomas said, “Let us also go ...”(John.11:16)