Meditating on the apostles’ mountaintop experience, I keep finding myself being drawn underground – to the writing grotto of St. Jerome in Bethlehem.
A strange way, perhaps, to experience the story of Jesus’ transfiguration – the gospel we hear proclaimed on the Second Sunday of Lent. But it’s worth noting that there’s definitely a dark edge to the other-worldly vision experienced by Peter, James and John:
As they were coming down from the mountain, [Jesus] charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.
Worth noting, too, that in the late fourth century, Jerome reportedly spent 30 years working on his translation of the Bible into Latin…working in a cave-like grotto, just steps away from where Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Perhaps it’s the writer in me, but I felt particularly blessed when we visited that spot on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land a couple of years ago. There’s something about Jerome’s “Bethlehem bunker” that just seemed real to me.
I could well imagine the saint trudging down the steps, day after day, to pick up where he left off. I could feel his professional determination – hunkered down, on deadline, embracing a space that offered no distractions beyond its simple stone walls. I even thought I could detect a remnant of the brief elation…the writer’s rush…that no doubt came when he turned a phrase just right: when he’d nailed it.
Encountering the Living Word in those moments of insight must have been like a mountaintop experience for St. Jerome. While his heart would surely have been grateful for those moments, he was also wise enough to recognize that we have been called to journey – with Christ – down from the mountain. Down, ultimately, into death.
In fact, St. Jerome wrote about this very journey in a missive to a friend – what we now know as Letter 60:
Every day, we are changing; every day we are dying; and yet we fancy ourselves eternal. The very moments I spend in dictation, in writing, in reading over what I write, and in correcting it, are moments taken from my life. Every dot that my secretary makes is a moment gone from my allotted time…
…As the vessel plows its furrow through wave after wave, the moments we have to live vanish one by one. Our only gain is that we are thus knit together in the love of Christ.
The love of Christ: with us in all the glorious times (and simple celebrations) of life. With us, too, when those moments ultimately come to an end – when my earthly vessel plows its furrow in the waves no more.
The love of Christ, we are told, is stronger than death. And St. Jerome testifies to the truth of this of this strange notion – just as Peter, James and John had done four centuries before him.
Their testimony is surely worth contemplating as we continue this journey into Lent in 2021 – and advance on our own journeys toward death.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.