Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017

Dominica 2 in Quadragesima / Evening, 11 March 2017 / Church of St John

Behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them (Mt 17:5).

Paradox, noun: “a statement which seems on the surface contradictory, but which involves an element of truth.”[1]

It was a bright cloud that overshadowed Peter, James, and John on Mt Tabor. Ecce nubes lucida obumbravit eos. In nature, even the whitest summer cloud casts a shadow; because of this, we do not commonly describe clouds as bright. And yet, at the Transfiguration, the sacred author describes a bright cloud casting a shadow. Obumbrare is to overcloud or obscure; lucida means clear, bright, lucid. Perhaps it is only your word-obsessed priest, but if we do not call this an outright paradoxical description, then at least it is an interesting juxtaposition of the quality of darkness and light that characterizes this biblical theophany. “A bright cloud overshadowed them.”

No, indeed this may well be a paradox in the sense quoted above: an apparent contradiction, or at least inconsistency, that nevertheless conveys a truth. In this lucid overshadowing, we have a teaching into the nature of Christian faith.     

The Angelic Doctor wrote somewhere: “we know and love God imperfectly.”[2] This is so, not because God fails to give us sufficient grace, but simply because of the nature of the Christian life now. We live in a sin-darkened, world: which is not to say that you and I need to point out sin lurking in every corner and that we must constantly be lamenting the corruptibility of the world around us. Rather, the effects of Original Sin still remain very much with us, even after our Baptism. What are those effects? Our minds are darkened; that is, they learn and apprehend only slowly and with difficulty; our wills are weakened; that is, they choose the good only with exertion and discipline; our passions are disordered; that is, we easily desire the things we should not, or we desire good things in a disproportionate way.

Again, even after our Baptism we must contend with these effects. Baptism pours the light of supernatural faith into our souls and washes us clean of the guilt of Original Sin. But still we are overshadowed; there’s nothing for it.

Why do we say all this?—To give encouragement. Devout souls—especially after a vibrant first fervor—will sometimes be tempted and confused by the difficulties they encounter. They are tempted to believe that something is gone awry because of new and strange difficulties. For them, God seemed so present before, but now he is absent; prayer came so readily, but now it is arduous; the teachings of the faith seemed so clear and sweet, but now they are obscure and dry.  

Ecce nubes lucida obumbravit eos. So long as serious sin has no place in our life, then we can be assured that all this is as it should be. When we hear the report of the Transfiguration at Tabor, we ought to be reminded of the admission of St Paul: “For now we see in a mirror dimly.”[3] For that reason, dear friends, be wary of spiritual disciplines that promise you great consolation and light: they are false—for the Most High God is hidden in a luminous darkness.

As one Dominican author put it, “we are separated from God by the veil of faith. . . . Love is always dissatisfied with the limitations of human knowledge, even when enlightened by faith. The essential drama of the interior life is played between love and knowledge.”[4] Note well: faith is a veil; this teaching is directly from St Paul: “Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully.”[5] Ecce nubes lucida obumbravit eos. But the imperfection of faith is simply the gateway to greater love, and the Passion we commemorate during Lent—and at each Holy Mass—contains every needed grace. 

Living the Faith entails all the difficulties that come with temporariness and imperfection. Yet indeed, faith is the luminous cloud; it conceals transfiguration—Christ’s and ours. To him belongs glory, now and forever. Amen.

[1] Entry “paradox,” from The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, vol III: A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary vols I-IV, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p 718.
[2] STh IaIIae, Q68, a 2.
[3] 1 Cor 13:12, RSV.
[4] John of St Thomas, The Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Cluny Media: 2017), p 18; emphases added.  
[5] 1 Cor 13:12.

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