The Second Sunday in Lent

Today’s Gospel is the story of the Transfiguration, a very untypical example of a Lenten Gospel even if it has occupied this place in the worship of the Roman rite for a long time.

Today’s Gospel is the story of the Transfiguration, a very untypical example of a Lenten Gospel even if it has occupied this place in the worship of the Roman rite for a long time. The typical Lenten Gospel, surely, is the one we heard last Sunday.

In his Wilderness Temptations Jesus was confronted by the Evil One who presented him with the classic wrong choices made – according to the Old Testament – by his people, the House of Israel. Taking up that cue, in Lent we remind ourselves liturgically how horrible the human race has been and is. We call to mind that we share in a general tendency to criminality. This Lent, as every Lent, the media will reinforce the work of the Liturgy for us. They will show us how in human beings everywhere the demons of anger, avarice, lust, jealousy and pride (and not forgetting gluttony and sloth), live, move and have their being.

But just as we’re starting to come to terms with that in the Lenten project, the Church presents us with a very different Gospel, to put it mildly: the Gospel of the Transfiguration. The Jesus whom we have just seen – last Sunday, in fact – enveloped by evil, is now, this Sunday, bathed in the Glory of God: God’s radiance, his bliss, his joy. At the Transfiguration the deepest reality of Jesus’s being broke through and showed itself to his disciples.

Why? Or indeed, How? To understand what on that occasion was going on, we need to share the faith of the Church – as indeed we do in order to get the hang of the biblical revelation as a whole. So what was going on? In the womb of Mary, the human soul of Jesus had been assumed by God the Word. It was united personally to the Word who himself had shared the Father’s overflowing goodness before all time: before the Big Bang, and whatever preceded it, if anything did – before all worlds. At the Transfiguration, for one brief moment the body of Jesus, his face, and even his clothes became the picture of his soul – his soul as united personally to divine being, to the Word, and, through the Word, to the Father.

Nothing could be more natural, then, that in this unique moment of the public ministry the disciples saw in him the splendour, the Lordly beauty, of God himself.

There’s nothing accidental about the way the Church gives us this episode to hear about while Lent is in mid-course. It’s an ancient tradition which, fortunately, has survived in the modern Lectionary – and ancient traditions must have a lot going for them if they survive the razor-cuts of modernity. So why have people – ancient and modern – been so keen on this seeming disparity, this apparent incongruity?

The message to us of the Transfiguration in its unlikely Lenten context is that the last word in the struggle of the Christian life does not, actually, lie with struggle. The last word does not belong to coping with temptation. On the contrary, the last word lies with seeing the glory of God. What Peter, James and John saw on Mount Thabor – the traditional site of the Transfiguration event – we too shall see if we stay faithful. We shall see the glorified humanity of Jesus Christ. The glory with which he was surrounded on Thabor was not just an episode.

What happened on the mountain was that, to strengthen those three key disciples for the ordeal of his coming Passion, there took place a real anticipation of what was going to be with his Resurrection and Ascension an abiding state of affairs. The Lord Jesus has in permanency now that glorified humanity, that transfigured condition where the glory of the Godhead shines out through his human nature for our sake. He has it: he lives in it and he lives as it. True, he continues to carry the marks of the Passion, which are his wondrous trophies. But he is now beyond all suffering, standing before the Father’s Face in the Fire of theHoly Spirit.

One day – the day of our personal judgment – the Light of Thabor will penetrate our souls, initially to judge them but then, please God, to warm them forever. So too in the General Resurrection, when the material cosmos comes to its final goal, that same Light will be reflected in the glorification of our bodies also. And this is what makes all the struggle of life, the struggle of Lent, worthwhile.

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