Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
"Lord, it is well that we are here."
I have some lingering thoughts from yesterday's Leavetaking of the Transfiguration:
When Peter was on Mount Tabor in the presence of the transfigured Lord, he could only desire to prolong that mysterious experience. For Jesus had there revealed to the three disciples - Peter, James and John - His true nature as the eternal Son of God when He appeared to them resplendent in divine glory. When Moses and Elijah appeared and were speaking with Jesus this only further enhanced this incredible event in the mind of Peter, leading him to cry out:
"Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah" (MATT. 17:4).
Jesus did not answer him directly, for while Peter "was still speaking ... a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him'" (17:5). This further theophany was the "answer" that Peter received! At this, "the disciples ... fell on their faces, and were filled with awe" (17:6). But once Jesus "touched them, saying, 'Rise, and have no fear'" (17:8), it was time to descend from the height of the mountain and return to "ordinary reality" — Mount Tabor having been a taste of "extraordinary reality."
This descent from the mountain back into the world of everyday events and the conditions of the fallen world was essential, for Christ had yet to ascend the Cross as He had earlier prophesied (MATT. 16:21-23). In fact, while on the mountain, St. Luke refers to this as Christ's "... exodus, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem" (LK. 9:31). As difficult as it was, this is what the disciples had to "listen" to.
Speaking of "back to reality," upon descending from the mountain, Jesus was immediately approached by a despairing father who wanted his son to be healed of his epilepsy, something his other disciples were unable to do, though given the "authority" to do so (MATT. 10:1). Troubled by this lack of faith, Jesus cried out, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?" (17:17). At this point, Jesus cured the boy.
Although Peter did not know what he was saying on the mountain (LK. 9:33), it is hard for us to fault him for wanting to remain in the embrace of the uncreated light of divine glory. Whenever we are close to God, it only seems natural to say with Peter, "Lord, it is well that we are here." Thus, I believe that that natural response would be our own when gathered together to worship God, especially in the Divine Liturgy. By way of analogy and experience, we symbolically "ascend the mount" when we arrive for the Liturgy, in the process "laying aside all earthly cares."
During the Liturgy, we claim to be in the presence of the Holy Trinity: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." We will join the angelic powers in glorifying the Holy Trinity with their chant of "Holy! Holy! Holy!" We will first be nourished by Christ in the words of the Gospel; and then be further nourished as we will partake of Christ in the Eucharist. The Epistle to the Hebrews captures this with great power in a passage that seems to describe the experience of believers gathered in worship:
"who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come ... " (HEB. 6:4-5).
It is this experience that leads me to say that the rest of our day following the Liturgy is all "downhill!" If not literally, then at least figuratively as we "descend" back into the world. For what could we possibly do; where could we possibly go; who could we possibly meet that would somehow surpass such a liturgical experience?! It will be a better day for having first come to the Liturgy, but no matter how that day unfolds, it will remain anticlimactic! However, if we "depart in peace" - that is, with the peace of Christ "which surpasses all understanding" (Phil 4:7), the day will remain blessed.
This only renders it all the more curious when we are impatient with the time spent in the Liturgy.
Perhaps this is impelled by our fast-paced culture, when our days are a series of unrelated events one piled on the other, and demanding constant motion as we move from one place to another. If we are constantly "driven to distraction," then the meaningful unfolding of the Liturgy — which in itself is potentially an experience outside of time — will of necessity seem "too slow." And that very impatience may formulate itself as a series of blunt questions along the lines of: Why does the Liturgy take so long? Or, what can we do to make the Liturgy shorter?
Those questions can never be answered in a satisfactory manner. Be that as it may, this impatience can manifest itself in a variety of "complaints" disguised as observations:
+ the homily is too long;
+ the choir is singing too slowly;
+ too many prayers are being read out loud;
+ there are so many communicants;
+ there is an extra service/blessing/prayer at the end of the Liturgy.
All of this only sabotages the possibility of the kind of positive experience outlined above. So, perhaps we can ask ourselves a very simple question if we are ever tempted with "liturgical impatience": Just what is the rush?
And once we realize that there is no rush, then we can begin to experience the depth, power and beauty of the Liturgy - from its opening doxology: "Blessed is the Kingdom," to the closing: "Let us depart in peace" — and everything in between!