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“They fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” That’s how St. Matthew describes the disciples who are with Jesus on the mountain. Peter and James and John have seen a lot already, but they couldn’t have possibly been ready for what they see in this vision, this vision we call the Transfiguration.
Jesus leads them up the mountain and when they get to the top, something happens: Jesus begins to shine— brightly, like a light. Then the disciples see others, figures they come to recognize as Moses and Elijah. In the midst of this great clash of epochs and meanings, as Jesus is blessed by the tradition of the prophets (embodied in Elijah) and the tradition of the law (symbolized by Moses), there’s more light, and sound, and God is there. Peter and James and John fall down. They’re done. They’ve had it. This completely takes them out.
The more literal translations of this verse say that the disciples didn’t just fall down. They “fell down on their faces.” It sounds a little odd to us and is mostly just the way the phrase was constructed, but if we pause for a minute to think of how much time and energy we put into “saving face,” or putting on a “good face,” then to “fall on one’s face,” really does say something. It suggests a place of humility, of abandon, of being reduced to just about nothing, a place of being stripped bare.
If we think about it, people fall down all through scripture. And sometimes they “fall on their faces.” St. Paul hit the ground hard. The Acts of the Apostles tells us “as [Saul] was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” (Acts 9:3).
Jacob doesn’t so much fall to the ground, as he is pushed or wrestled to the ground. (Genesis 32). Jacob is taken down by a stranger who wrestles with him all through the night and leaves him limping.
Often in the scriptures, when people have some kind of significant religious experience, it throws them off balance, and they fall down. But sometimes it’s not a religious experience. Sometimes it’s just life—life’s harshness, life’s unfairness, life’s injustice—that simply knocks a person off her feet. Sarah, Hannah, Judith, the woman accused of adultery, Mary Magdalene…. They all knew what it was to be pushed aside, thrown down, and left to lie alone on the ground.
Think of Joseph, Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers and thrown into a pit. Job, too, fell down, as he was robbed of his family, his possessions, and even his health, so that he was reduced to sitting in ashes on the street, using broken pieces of pottery to pick at his sores.
Even the Blessed Virgin Mary falls. Mary the Mother of Jesus knew what it meant to be called a “fallen woman,” when it became known that she was pregnant. Even though Joseph married her, there must have been talk. And then there was the exile, living as a refugee, until finally, she could raise her son in Nazareth. But Mary never forgot what it felt like to be knocked to the ground. That’s why she could include in her song a particular message from God for the lowly, the hungry, the poor, and those who most need mercy. That’s probably why one of the most popular and loving images of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the pieta: Mary sitting, or kneeling, or crouching, as she bears on her lap the weight of her dead Son, who also has fallen.
Beginning next week, as we walk the Stations of the Cross, we will remember Jesus falling three times. Though this a stylized and symbolic falling, it puts into words and prayer a theological falling. But as Christ falls, he rises. Each time he falls, rises again. And he rises stronger. We can see him practicing this falling and rising again on the night before he is arrested, as he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.
There in Gethsemane Jesus falls to his knees. There on his knees he is reduced, broken, and totally given over to the will of his father: “Not my will, God, but thine.” And there in his brokenness, he finds strength—not his own, but God’s strength.
That’s what happens with Peter and James and John on the Mount of the Transfiguration. They fall down, but are given new strength. Not their own. It’s not as though they think of some new plan, or combine their energy to stand. It’s Christ who picks them up. It’s God who reaches down to give them a hand and raise them up. “They fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Richard Rohr suggests that this is the real secret to life: that “the way up is the way down.” Growth, maturity, meaning—anything worth having, only happens through sacrifice, a “going down,” or a “being taken down.” We go up by going down. We gain by losing. As Rohr says, “We gain spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.” (This is an important thing to remember as we approach the Season of Lent, with the various spiritual disciplines we may try out.) Rohr points out that this is the “little Way” of St. Therese de Lisieux, the Way of Poverty of St. Francis, and the way of powerlessness in the first step of twelve-step recovery programs. This is what Paul means when he tells the Corinthians, “It is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10) [Falling Upward, p. xxiv]
Rainer Maria Rilke reflects on this in Book of Hours:
How surely gravity’s law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world….
This is what the things can teach us:
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.”
[Book of Hours, “Book of Pilgrimage,” II, 15-16, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy]
Rohr reflects further, “God knows that all of us will fall somehow. Those events that lead us to “catastrophize” out of all proportion must be business as usual for God—at least six billion times a day. … God must say after each [falling or] failure of ours, “Oh, here is a great opportunity! Let’s see how we can work with this!” [Falling Upward, p 158.]
This Wednesday begins the season of Lent. I don’t know where you are or will be as Lent begins. It might be that you’re already on your knees, or feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. Maybe you’re standing tall and will accept the invitation of Lent to “bend the knee of your heart” [As in the Prayer of Manassah], bend the knees of your body, or bend the knees of your activity in service to others. Or perhaps you’re at an in-between place, on your way up from being down, or feeling as though you’re falling very slowly.
Wherever you may be on the edge of this season, Christ extends a hand—a hand to hold while we’re down, and a hand eventually to help us up again. May the season ahead of us fill us with faith so that with Christ we may rise in glory.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.