There’s a Glory in an Exodus: Giving our Deaths Away

Year A, Feast of the Transfiguration: Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Peter 1:13, Luke 9: 28-36

Sermon to Pohick Church, MP II in the Courtyard 8-9-20

By The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi

On top of a cloud-enshrouded Galilean mountain, God reveals His glory in the person of Jesus. What’s distressing about Jesus’ Transfiguration, is realizing His glory is directly related to a topic about which most of us spend our lives in denial: Death. 

Even as Jesus’ face is transformed, and his clothes shimmer ethereally, heroes of the faith Moses and Elijah are addressing him about this most distasteful topic. The disciples are awestruck –  and a bit dismayed.

A week earlier, they were already resisting the news of Jesus’ impending death. Peter had declared Jesus “Son of Man” without understanding what it meant. He didn’t grasp that it would be Jesus’ death that would most clearly identify him as God’s chosen son,

The disciples were struggling with this concept when Jesus chose Peter, James and John to accompany him on a mountain hike. The four men trekked 20 miles southwest from Caesarea Philippi, and up Mt. Tabor. If you’ve been there, you know it rises majestically from the bloody Jezreel Valley. It’s the perfect setting for a profound object lesson involving two ghosts.

As Luke describes the scene, Moses and Elijah “were speaking to (Jesus) of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”

The Greek word Luke uses for “departure” is “exodus,” and Luke means for us to understand that word in several ways.

First, it can mean a departure, as in a going away. Luke  is linking this mountaintop event with Moses’ mountaintop experience, and with the Exodus in the Old Testament. ”Exodus” also serves as a euphemism for death, as in referring to our own death by saying “when I’m no longer here.”

According to NT Wright, Luke uses “exodus” to Indicate Jesus’ death will enact Moses and his people’s great Exodus from Egypt – only more so. In the first Exodus, Moses led his people out of slavery home to the promised land. In the New Exodus, Jesus will lead all God’s people out of slavery to sin and death and home to their promised inheritance: the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.

On Mount Tabor the disciples catch a glimpse of the Kingdom –already present in Jesus – but not yet complete. Later, Jesus will continue toward Jerusalem, following the path that Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets, pointed to: Down into the Valley – the place of struggle, despair, and death.

Jesus’ revelation of God’s glory was preparing the disciples for the way glory would ultimately be unveiled: on a very different, smaller hill outside Jerusalem called Golgotha. Later, it would later require the grace of hindsight for the disciples to fully grasp the meaning of Jesus’ passion and death.

Have you ever recognized the significance of someone’s life more fully after their death? Can you recall loved ones whose deaths continued to reveal God’s glory long after their departure?

Recently a family in our parish experienced this. A y0oung woman who was a friend of the family died an early, painful death from cancer. Yet the way she died was a gift to others. With faith, hope and love, she and her husband were planning to adopt her relative’s baby. Her relative was an addict unable to care for the child. In the midst of battling cancer, she selflessly and mercifully offered to save the child. In the process of dying, this young woman revealed God’s glory: the already-but-not-yet Kingdom of God among us. Her manner of dying has and will continue to transform lives.

Like Jesus, this young woman faced her death, and gave her death away as a gift.

Author and priest Ron Rolheiser recently addressed the spirituality of death and dying in his new book Sacred Fire. In it he summarizes the human struggle:

  • The first phase he calls “Essential Discipleship.” During childhood and adolescence, we are struggling to get our lives together.
  • The second phase is “Mature Discipleship.” In early to middle adulthood, we are struggling to give our lives away.
  • Then Rolheiser points out few spiritual writers address the third and final stage, the struggle to give our deaths away.

Henri Nouwen also pondered how our deaths are meant to be our last and greatest gift to our loved ones. He says there comes a time in life when the real question is no longer: How can I live to make a contribution? When the real question becomes:

How can I live now so that when I die, my death is an optimal blessing to others?

We have a model in Jesus. We often speak of Jesus as both living for us and dying for us. These are two distinct phases. Jesus gave his life by his activity – through words, teaching, and acts of healing. He gave his death away through his passivity – through his passion and death.

The word “passion” is not just connected to suffering and pain; its Latin root is “passio,” meaning passivity. His death is something that happens to him. Like a patient facing hospice, Jesus becomes passive, a patient of sorts. He no longer “does” activity. Others do it to him and for him.

Rolheiser points out it was in the manner that Jesus endured passivity, with love, patience, and forgiveness, that he gave his death for us. Jesus’ passion, then, becomes our paradigm for giving our deaths away.

As former hospice chaplain and priest, I’ve been privileged to experience this struggle. I’ve encountered people who were executives, military officers, teachers, nurses, nuns and priests, beloved moms, dads, and grandparents. People used to being on top of their game, in control, and most of all — taking care of others. Suddenly they were flat on their backs, unable to provide for their own basic needs. They were passive – experiencing their own passion. One man cried: “I’m dying and trying to come to peace with that – but what’s worse is I can’t stand being such a burden! You know me – I built the company, provided for my family and church – I always took care of everything! And now I’m lying here helpless, and I can’t do anything!”

Like Jesus, he had once been active, in charge and in control – and like Jesus in the time leading up to his death, he was reduced to being handled by others.

Have you ever seen people transformed and transforming in the midst of their passivity?

My spiritual director, the late Sr. Adeline, was a powerhouse in the Catholic Diocese of Houston-Galveston. Once Vicar of Religious, founder of a retreat center, and confessor to dozens of bishops and priests, Adeline found herself flat on her back with cancer. Unable to care for herself, let alone others, struggling with suffering and dying – she became the patient. I was privileged to minister to her. She gave me the gift of listening to her and praying for her, and ultimately, witnessing her heal from lingering regrets or bitterness, and move to acceptance and joy. I often look back at a selfie I took of us in the hospital. Instead of looking into the camera, she was gazing at me with a look that said, “You are the beloved.” Adeline gave away her life and her death, her activity and her passivity – a gift whose meaning continues to transform lives.

During this worldwide pandemic, we’re faced with suffering and death daily. Like those first disciples, we’d rather deny death, and pretend it won’t happen. We prefer to push it back with noise, activity, and control. There’s a reason not many writers have addressed the spirituality of death and dying!

As the Transfiguration teaches us, glory is not just about mountaintop experiences, or being on top of our game. God’s glory is most clearly and lastingly demonstrated in the valley. Our exodus, our departure, has the potential to leave the most profound gift.

So what is our task? We can ask: how can we give our deaths away? How can we connect ourselves better to the world, others and God? Will we carry on through faith alone, rather than through understanding? Through hope and courage alone, rather than security? Through love alone, rather than through possessiveness and control?

We have models to follow – first and foremost the revelation of God’s glory in Jesus Christ. Believing in God’s promises for the redemption of the world, Jesus submitted to his passion and death with no bitterness or regret, overflowing with compassion and forgiveness. Perhaps one day, we too will choose to give our deaths away. Amen.

  • Rev. Lynn Ronaldi 8/9/20