What if someone were to say to you,
“I saw you under the street light”
“I saw you under the umbrella.”
Your first reaction would be puzzlement.
You would say to yourself:
“What does that have to do with anything?”
That’s the normal response most folks have
to one of the more cryptic quotes of Jesus.
On the day that he is introduced to Nathaniel, he says,
“I saw you under the fig tree.”
A bit later he adds, “This man (Nathaniel) is a true Israelite.”
Clearly, some cultural translation is called for.
Certain Bible scholars suggest that
“I saw you under the fig tree”
is a bit like saying:
“I saw you under the hood of your car.”
Add a bit more context and you get something like this:
“Looked as though you were teaching your teenager how to change the oil.
That tells me you’re a good man, Nathaniel. And a fine dad!”
What does a fig tree in Palestine
have in common with a car in a driveway?
Well, for the Jewish people, to own and cultivate a fig tree
was a sign of having inherited a piece of the Promised Land of Canaan.
In other words, you were blessed by God with a piece of ground.
You had a place to call your own.
You had a place to call home.
A place to belong.
Today, many Americans are lost, lonely, and adrift.
We don’t need statistics to convince us
that we’ve been uprooted from the nurturing soil
of tradition, religion and close-knit neighborhoods and communities.
This sense of rootlessness is not limited to our own country.
It is evident in the massive migration of millions across the globe,
in the homeless populations in wealthy cities
and in the fractured composition of families.
We all long for a place to call home.
We all long for a fig tree;
for a tent and a campfire in the backyard;
for a piece of the Promised Land.
This is part-and-parcel
of today’s passage about the Transfiguration.
When Peter says, “Let us build three tents!”
he is using the word, “sukkot,”
which is the Hebrew for an autumn harvest feast
in which every Jewish family erected tents in the backyard
to celebrate their heritage.
Under Moses, they had wandered in the desert,
and lived in tents until the day they arrived home!
To celebrate that memory,
Everyone camped out in the backyard
and families invited guests into the tents.
It was a celebration of community,
an experience of being embraced
with ancient meaning and future hope.
The Feast of Sukkot also marked the conclusion
of the year-long reading of Torah,
the Law of God given to them through Moses.
The reference to tents plus Sukkot’s strong connection to God’s Word
leads many Bible scholars to conclude that the Transfiguration
occurred during this feast: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!”
Likewise, many preachers today will note this magnificent event
confirms Jesus as the true fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
Sadly, they will not draw any connection
to families gathered around campfires in their backyards.
Other preachers will comment on how this passage
foreshadows Christ’s Resurrection,
then focus on the encouragement this provides
at the beginning of Lent
Sadly, they will overlook the hope and encouragement
that comes from having a place to call home.
The spiritual writer, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, recently wrote about
the critical importance of his family’s home in his life as a priest:
The early years of my adulthood and priesthood were good years. However, restlessness and inner chaos find us all. I had a little formula to help handle this.
Whenever the chaos got bad, I would get into my car and drive four hours to our family farm. My family still lived in the house I’d grown up in and I was able to eat at the same table I’d eaten at as a child, sleep in the same bed I’d slept in as a boy, and walk the same ground I’d walked while growing up. Usually it didn’t take long. I’d begin to feel steady again.
Coming home didn’t cure the heartache but it gave the heart the care it needed. Somehow home always worked. Tragically, one’s initial home can also be the place where our trust and steadiness are irrevocably broken…. For those who were not as lucky as me, the task is to find a home, a place or a person, that caresses a wounded soul…when our world is falling apart. (1)
Today, in addition to the pandemic of inner restlessness,
it seems as though the entire world is falling apart.
A soothing message hidden within today’s gospel
points the way to our true home in the Tabernacle of God.
Not a place of gold, but a shelter made of canvas,
reverberating with conversations of friendship
and smiles of love and profound respect.
Yes, a place of peace, security and contentment.
This year, the journey of Lent is not just a journey
to spiritual renewal.
It is a journey to a place,
a place where the soul is embraced
in the arms of people we love
and in the arms of Christ,
the God who “pitched his tent among us.”
We all need that kind of tent.
We all need that kind of place.
We all need a place called home.
(1) Adapted and abridged from “When Our World is Falling Apart,” by Ronald Rolheiser, February 7, 2022