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The road to Discipleship

A commentary on Discipleship in "Jesus of Nazareth",
the book from Pope Benedict XVI,
with a better understanding of Scripture,
and a wonderful insight from Saint Ephraim.

Of all the things that one could wish to be in this life, a pilot, a president or a princess, a Nobel prize candidate or an American Idol winner, if someone had told me years ago that what I l want to be more than anything else in the world today is to be a disciple, I would have been bafffled and incrudulous! But my own spiritual journey took many twists and turns and started rather late in life but it brought me where I am today and for that, I am extremely grateful. I am Catholic, I am grateful and I know what I want: I want to be a disciple of the Lord!

And I have to thank Pope Benedict XVI book on "Jesus of Nazareth" for making this clear to me. His book is terrific, a very fertile research on "the face of Jesus", a wealth of scriptural commentaries exposing all the various links involved, unraveling for us the various layers of this amazing mystery of the Word Incarnate. I highly recommend it because everyone will benefit from it, from the biblical experts to anyone interested in deepening their faith, included the simple disciple-wannabee like me. But the truth is that he wrote some beautiful and profound pages on discipleship and on the Kingdom of God and he showed how intertwined they are and how it is only in being a true disciple of Jesus that we can have access to the Kingdom, to the glory of God. The theme of discipleship runs through the whole book as a golden thread, especially in the section on the Beatitudes, illuminating the path with the "promises resplendent with the new image of the world and of man inaugurated by Jesus, his 'transformation of values'. When man begins to see and live from God's perspective, when he is a companion on Jesus' way, then he lives by new standards". Thus the "Beatitudes express the meaning of discipleship… and a disciple "immersed in communion with Christ" (1). Benedict XVI opens them up one by one, pairing them and showing how each one of them is a stepping stone on the journey. He shows the constant struggle in both the ancient world and in today's global affairs to replace the powers of chance with the one true God, to "exorcise the world from the poisoning of the spiritual climate all over the world that threatens the dignity of man". He says that the mission to exorcise and to heal is to establish a new Kingdom. He is very explicit about the Kingdom not being a thing or a geographical dominion, but it is he, Jesus himself. The glory of God is now "a person", it's Him, he is both the door to God and God Himself !

            Jesus of Nazareth, a book by Pope Benedict XVI             Saint Ephraim prayer card

Benedict XVI says that the real experts in opening up God's words, the true interpreters of scriptures are the saints and he is right. I can prove it! There is one verse that I have always found very puzzling and it is "There are some here who will not taste death before seeing the glory of God" (Mark 9:1). I heard it said before that he was referring to the end of the world and that with time passing by, with every Apostle dying one by one (they all eventually got to taste death), some people began to wonder what Jesus really meant. I have even heard it said in some circles (especially the ones attracted to de-construction) that maybe Jesus made a mistake…

This riddle was just solved for me and it was done the way Benedict XVI pointed out. On Saint Ephraim's feast day (2), I ran a Google search and found various Orthodox sites with information on his life and samples of his writings and I discovered the most amazing explanation of the verse mentioned above. Ephraim, a Deacon in the second century in Syria, wrote that what this verse is talking about is the upcoming Transfiguration moment.

I have a very special fondness for the Transfiguration: do you realize that he was transfigured before his Passion? Right there and then, his divinity is affirmed in front of the 3 Apostles by 2 OT witnesses, the Law and the Prophet. It is a fantastic "Trinitarian moment" with the Father's voice pointing to the Son like a laser beam, the Son reflecting the Father's glory like a mirror and the power and love of the Holy Spirit bathing this moment in the most dazzling light and, in the process, opening up the minds of the witnesses to the truth of what is going on. In a nutshell, that is what I see every time the Transfiguration is mentioned.

So when I read what Saint Ephraim said:"The men whom he said would not taste death until they saw the image of his coming, are those whom he took and led up the mountain and showed them how he was going to come on the last day in the glory of his divinity and in the body of his humanity", a light went up in my mind! Eureka, I thought, that's what he was talking about! This verse is in all 3 synoptic Gospels and it is immediately preceding the Transfiguration in each one of them. I can't thank you enough, dear Saint Ephraim (3). You wrote: "He led them up the mountain to show them who the Son is and whose he is. Because when he asked them "Whom do men say the Son of man is? They said to him, some Elias, other Jeremias or one of the Prophets. This is why he leads them up the mountain and shows them that he is not Elias, but the God of Elias; again that he is not Jeremias, but the one who sanctified Jeremias in his mother's womb; not of the Prophets but the Lord of the Prophets who also sent them. And he shows them that he is the maker of heaven and earth, and that he is the Lord of the living and the dead. For he gave orders to heaven and brought down Elias and made a sign to the earth and raised up Moses. And so on the mountain he showed his Apostles the glory of his divinity concealed and hidden in his humanity". So Saint Ephraim was right, Jesus was alerting his disciples to what some of them were going to be allowed to see.

            The Transfiguration

In his own chapter on the Transfiguration, Benedict XVI expounds on the eschatological dimension because, Yes, it is pointing to the end of times, to that final hour where the glory of God will be over all and evident to all, but it is also extremely Christological since it points to Christ as the key to God. It is the "irruption and inauguration of the messianic age. On the mountain, they learn that Jesus himself is the living Torah, the complete Word of God". There is one more insight that I gained from this chapter: it has to do with the Gospel of John, the one Gospel written by one witness of the Transfiguration. You have to admit that, although every moment with Jesus must have been special, the Transfiguration had got to be one of the key events, one of the "super-moments". The veiled was lifted for a short while and John and Peter and James were allowed to see the glory of God, were permitted to see Jesus transfigured, conversing with Moses and Elijah; they got to hear the Father's voice and to feel the power of the Holy Spirit… … What an incredible moment to go through! Years and years later, John's writings are still infused with that glory and I can hear echoes of the Transfiguration moment in the very beginning of his own Gospel, in those most famous and stunning verses:
"The Word was with God and the Word was God… In him was life and the life was the light of men...
And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us"...

The once perplexing verse of Mark 9:1 is now clear to me. Like any other profound insight, it was actually quite simple but my ability to "get it" was triggered by the fertile soil of Pope Benedict's reflections on Jesus and was brought to completion by the wise words of a Deacon in the early Church. And for this, the circle of my gratitude goes from the West to the East, embracing the two lungs of the Church (4), and, consequently, the very first fruits of my willingness to be a disciple were a newer, better and fuller understanding of scriptures.

So when I think back to all the voices who insinuated that, maybe, Jesus got confused for a few minutes and did not know what he was saying, I can only recommend to them that they listen to the Saints carefully, that they read Pope Benedict's book and that, if they email me their name, I will offer my own prayers to the Holy Spirit, begging that they be given one tiny spark of light to bring them one inch closer to the truth because it sure makes a difference.

Notes and Links:

(1) More on discipleship: "The Beatitudes display the mystery of Christ himself, and they call us into communion with him. But precisely because of their hidden Christological character, the Beatitudes are also a road map for the Church, which recognize in them the model of what she herself should be. They are directions for discipleship, directions that concern every individual, even though - according to the variety of callings - they do so differently for each person". (Chapter 4, the Beatitudes)

(2) The Transfiguration: I have been greatly helped in my own understanding of the Transfiguration by the Luminous Mysteries introduced by JPII a few years ago. I cannot recommend enough the rosary as a school of meditation and a formative source of love for the faith.
- Here is a beautiful page with many Icons of the Transfiguration: here (in French)
- Here is my own page on the Transfiguration, with Mark 9 2-7 and the same drawing than above but larger here

(3) More on Saint Ephraim and Saint Ephraim's beautiful prayer: here in English and in French

(4) The "two lungs of the Church" is the expression used by Pope John Paul II when referring to the Church in the East and in the West.

- See my other short commentary about the First Temptation, from Pope Benedict XVI book here


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