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The Ordinary and the Transcendent

Father George Smiga
February 24, 2013
Luke 9:28b-36

The word dichotomy is used to describe two forces that differ from one another. We use dichotomies to identify our place in life. For example, we use the dichotomy happy and sad. Are you happy today or are you sad today or some place in between? We use the dichotomy holy and sinful. Are you a holy person or are you a sinful person or someplace in between? Dichotomies are important because they reveal to us the dimensions of life and the different ways in which we can look at life: rich and poor, beautiful and plain, healthy and sick.

Now of course some dichotomies are more important than others. Philosophers argue over which dichotomy is most fundamental. A good candidate is the dichotomy good and bad. Is life good or is life bad or someplace in the middle? But there is another dichotomy which can give good and bad a run for its money. That is the dichotomy of ordinary and transcendent. Is life an ordinary series of events one following after the other in a set pattern? Or is there to life a larger meaning, a transcendence, which rises above the ordinary and gives meaning to the regular patterns of our lives?

Today’s Gospel deals with the dichotomy of ordinary and transcendent. The disciples know their ordinary pattern with Jesus. As disciples, they travel with Jesus, they eat with him, they listen to his teaching, and they watch him as he cures the sick. But this day on the mountain is something different. This day Jesus is transfigured before them. His face changes. His clothes become dazzling white. He speaks to Moses and Elijah. This is not an ordinary day. This is the other side of the dichotomy. On the mountain of the Transfiguration, the disciples experience the transcendent.

It is clear that the dichotomy of ordinary and transcendent is not the same as good and bad. The Gospel is not telling that being on the mountain with Jesus was a good thing and being off the mountain was a bad thing. In fact, what we see on the mount of Transfiguration is a mixture of good and bad. Certainly Jesus’ face was transfigured and he was speaking to Moses and Elijah, but what he was talking about was his upcoming passion and death in Jerusalem. Yes, Peter says, “It is good, Master, that we are here,” but Peter is also confused and frightened. The story of the Transfiguration is not telling us that being on the mountain is better than being off the mountain. It is telling us that being on the mountain is different. It is transcendent. And in making this claim, it is inviting us to claim the transcendence in our own lives.

Now, what do we mean by this? What parts of our lives are transcendent? Let me offer you a simple example. I will ask the people who are married here tonight three questions. The first two can be answered simply. The third question is different. The first question: When were you married? Second question: Where were you married? Third question: What does being married mean? If you have the information, you can answer the first and second questions and be done with them. But the third question—“What does marriage mean?”—is a deeper question. You cannot answer it completely. Perhaps you cannot even understand it completely. Is marriage a good thing for you?—yes. Is marriage a bad thing for you?—sometimes. This question about marriage reveals to us an aspect of a marriage which is mystery, which goes beyond our ability to quickly describe or control—that aspect is transcendent.

Of course this dichotomy applies to most areas of our lives. What does it mean that I have the profession that I have? What does it mean that I love the music that I love? What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to have a passion for serving those in need? Our lives are composed of many ordinary things but our lives are more than just ordinary things. They are part of a dichotomy with the transcendent.

So today’s Gospel asks us to know and to claim the transcendent aspect of our lives, to know that we can find in our lives a deeper meaning. It is in this deeper meaning that we will find God. Our lives are surely filled with ordinary things: planning our day, meeting our responsibilities, following our schedule. But to limit our lives only to that level would be stunting and incomplete. Today’s Gospel reminds us that every important aspect of our lives has a larger meaning, a mystery, a transcendence. We need to claim it. As often as we can, we need to place ourselves with Jesus on the mountain because it is there that we come closest to seeing who he really is and who we really are. We are called to be people who know the transcendent dimension of our lives because it is in that dimension that we come to understand more clearly what it means to be alive.

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