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Costly Transfiguration

There’s a New Testament verse that has always fascinated – and troubled – me. Yet I have rarely seen it commented upon. Paul exhorts the Colossians: “Do not lie to one another!” (Col 3:9) The Apostle is not denouncing “garden variety” fibs or convenient mental reservations. Something much more serious is at stake. A fundamental falseness. Mere seeming rather than being. An inauthenticity and duplicity too often hidden even from oneself. Indeed, such willful self-deception is the “old leaven” which makes Pharisees of us all, and which Paul exhorts us to “cleanse out.” (1Cor 5:7)

The urgency and scope of the task is summed up succinctly by Paul in the very next verses he addresses to the Colossians. “You have put off the old man [ton palaion anthrôpon] with its practices; and have put on the new self [ton neon] who is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator.” (Col 3:9-10) But since it has already been proclaimed that Christ himself “is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), Paul is reiterating his insistent call to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, making no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:14) – the very verse that spurred, at long last, Augustine’s conversion.

And, of course, that movement from the old self to the new self has been initiated in Baptism. “All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. . .so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:3-4)

The whole of the Christian life, then, is the appropriation of what has already transpired in our Baptism, but must now be realized fully in each of us until together “we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to the one perfected humanity [eis andra teleion], to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:13) One can sense the Apostle struggling to express the transformative newness to which Christians are called. The words tumble forth, as he strains to provide some sense of the reality envisioned.

What’s clear is that unlike the egoistic withdrawal of the old Adam, anyone incorporated into the New Adam, Jesus Christ, is fundamentally a self who lives the new life of communion. And foremost among the practices of that new self is “to renounce the lie and to speak truth to one’s neighbor, since we are members of one another!” (Eph 4:25)

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One often hears that Divine Providence supplies the Saint that the Church needs at a particular moment of its history. When Pope Francis canonized John Henry Newman on October 13, 2019, I had the privilege of being in Saint Peter’s Square. And the special grace I received was to encounter a number of committed young people, who, seeing my Roman collar, asked me to hear their Confession.

I asked each of them: “what brought you to Rome?” since four new saints were canonized that day. Each replied: “Newman.” It was not the Newman who pioneered the theological discussion of the development of doctrine or who championed the indispensable role of the laity in the Church. It was Newman the spiritual guide, the preacher who sets before us the costly adventure of holiness, the path to transfigured life.

No accident, then, that the first of his great “Parochial and Plain Sermons” is entitled “Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness,” and that the text upon which it comments is from Hebrews: “Holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” (Heb 12:14)

Newman’s sermons opened to his young English audience of the mid-nineteenth century vistas into the daunting beauty and challenge of the Christian life in the waning days of a domesticated established religion. But several of those sermons continue to challenge us all as we seek to find our way in the present societal and ecclesiastical decadence.

Sermons like “The Thought of God the Stay of the Soul,” “The Cross of Christ the Measure of the World,” and “The Yoke of Christ” offer a bracing regimen for cultivating that holiness to which Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium summoned the Church. But perhaps one sermon is particularly apposite today: the sermon entitled “Unreal Words.”

Newman begins this sermon with the timely reminder that, being himself the Truth, “Christ brought truth as well as grace.” But ever the realist, he concedes that when Christian profession becomes rote and the Church’s rituals routine, religion becomes “a hollowness and a mockery, like the whited sepulchers of which our Lord speaks.” Then the life of Christians and the life of the Church becomes “unreal,” devoid of vivifying substance. The professions and pronouncements no longer speak truth, but a lie.

On this feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord – a transfiguration to which Christ’s disciples are all called – we need to make as honest an assessment of the Christianity of our day as Newman did the Christianity of his. We need to confess the lie embodied in our deeds: the infidelity of priests and people to their vows and promises, the scant transparency and accountability of leaders, the apostasy from or sacrilegious reception of the Holy Eucharist. The debasement of the language of faith.

And we need to hear anew and make real for ourselves Newman’s great peroration to his sermon: “It is not an easy thing to learn that new language which Christ has brought us. He has interpreted all things for us in a new way; He has brought us a religion that sheds a new light on all that happens. Try to learn this language. Do not get it by rote, or speak it as a thing of course. . . .Time is short, eternity is long; God is great, man is weak; he stands between heaven and hell; Christ is his Savior; Christ has suffered for him.”

Saint John Henry Newman, pray that our words and acts not be unreal!

 

*Image: The Transfiguration [1] by Aelbert Bouts, late 15th century [Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England]

Robert P. Imbelli, a Priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations on the New Evangelization. A volume of essays in his honor, The Center Is Jesus Christ Himself, edited by Andrew Meszaros, will appear next month from The Catholic University of America Press.