What does our Lord’s Transfiguration have to do with Lent? It seems, at first, to be a strange story to choose, and yet, for centuries, the Church has read this Gospel on the second Sunday of Lent. Why?
We can understand the events of the life of our Lord better if we understand them in context. This episode is from the beginning of the 17th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. If we look at what immediately precedes it in the 16th chapter of Matthew, things become clearer. It reads, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” These lines represent a decisive turn in the Gospels, when our Lord turns from teaching and preaching in the Galilean countryside (think of the Sermon on the Mount and the miraculous healings) to pursuing the primary reason for which He has been born into this world: to suffer, die, and rise from the dead. For this, He must go to Jerusalem.
You will hopefully recall that after our Lord’s death, the Apostles were confused. They seemed not to know that He would rise from the dead. This was not, though, for lack of our Lord trying to tell them that this would happen. The events of our Lord’s Transfiguration today are a critical part of the preparation for His Passion. He is showing them what is to come. At the Transfiguration, Christ breaks through space and time to show three of His Apostles – Peter, James, and John – what the vision of His glory in Heaven will be like.
There are two important realities about Christ that are confirmed at His Transfiguration: First, His divinity. God speaks from Heaven: “This is my beloved Son.” Belief in Christ’s divinity will be crucial for the Apostles in order not to lose hope after His crucifixion and to believe in His resurrection. Second: His glory. Christ here shows us what is in store. He is not meant for this world, but for heaven. Even after His resurrection, Christ will not remain long in this world but will soon ascend to His heavenly Father.
What, then, is the importance of these events for us? Principally, the Transfiguration of our Lord shows us with what attitude we ought to approach the holy season of Lent, which is to say, enlivened by the virtue of Hope. Lent exists to purify us for the celebration of the Passover of the Lord, and so we should experience ourselves being strengthened by this vision of Christ’s glory.
Next, the vision of Christ’s Transfiguration shows us not only His heavenly destiny but ours as well. Lent is also a time to walk with Christ, to experience in our bodies and our souls the death of the Lord through the Lenten disciplines we have taken up. Our eternal home is Heaven. We are sojourners, wayfarers, travelers on this earth. Lent helps us to recall that we should not feel too at home in this life. This is why we castigate our bodies and our wills through penance – to remind ourselves that the truest pleasures are to be obtained not here, but in Heaven.
This point is reinforced by the words of St. Paul in today’s epistle: “He saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design.” Thanks be to God that His plan for us is not dependent on our own works, or we would merit precious little indeed! But He does have a plan for us, based on His own design, made possible through Christ’s redemption of the human race. This plan, St. Paul says, is now made manifest through Christ. God has called us, through Christ’s redemption, to the same glory that Christ shows us today.
Taking on Christ’s heavenly glory is meant not only for the glorious day when, our time of purification in purgatory having ended, we get to enjoy the beatific vision in Heaven. It is meant for our life on earth as well! This is why we have this time of Lent, to purify ourselves of our attachments to the things of this world, the things that hold us back – most especially our sins! – in order to be transfigured into the image of Christ.
Today, Christ gives us a vision of hope, a vision of the possibility of perseverance, a vision of what He has in store for those who love Him. Remember at the beginning of Lent, in the Gospel of Ash Wednesday, that those who fast should be cheerful and not gloomy? Keeping this vision of His heavenly glory before our mind’s eye will help us to be focused this Lent on what really matters – not our accomplishments, but the Heavenly glory for which they ought to prepare us.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. Charles Borromeo
II Sunday of Lent, 7:30 a.m.