Growing into the Light
Second Sunday of Lent. Fr John Orme Mills considers why the joyful story of Christ’s Transfiguration should feature so prominently in this penitential season.
For a long time the Gospel for the second Sunday of Lent has been the story of Christ’s Transfiguration. Why, though, are we being reminded of the Transfiguration at this time of all times? After all, isn’t Christ’s Transfiguration one of the most joyful events written about in the gospels?
We are told that Peter and James and John saw their Master transformed before their eyes — that his face shone, as the face of the prophet Moses had shone after his encounter with God. And so those disciples came to know that their master was indeed the Messiah. Moreover, they were given a hint of what he was destined to be. These are things to be happy about. Yet Lent is a season which is supposed to prompt us to penance and self-denial and self-sacrifice, not rejoicing.
Or is that true? At the heart of all the Lenten observances is a journey. The penance and the self-denial and the self-sacrifice only make sense because we have reason to believe we are having to go somewhere, that we are being called to make our way to God. The story of Christ’s Transfiguration helps to make us aware of where we are supposed to be going, in the same way as, nearly two thousand years ago, seeing Christ transfigured gave those disciples an inkling of where they were supposed to be going, of what being in heaven is like. For, as the Lutheran theologian Bonhoeffer said, ‘There is simply no such thing as standing still.’
The disciples were frightened, of course, for they did not properly understand what they were experiencing, but Peter said to Jesus, ‘It is wonderful for us to be here.’ Did Peter think heaven was already arriving? Jesus responded by shocking them. He made it very clear, when they all got back to Galilee, that heaven was not yet arriving: he told them more bluntly than ever before that his redeeming work would take the form of a resurrection that would mean for him first of all a journey through diminishment and loss and death.
What, though, does all this imply for you and me? We are told that Moses appeared with Jesus on the top of that mountain. Like Moses, we are called to travel into a new and seemingly unknown land, to take risks on behalf of the God we are following, to climb the mountain of the Lord. And, like Moses, when he climbed Mount Sinai to receive the divine commandments from God, it seems that we journey in darkness towards God. Also, though, like Moses, we have the hope of coming to know what the glory of God is like. On that mountain the disciples, through no special power of their own, suddenly were aware of who Christ truly was.
As we grow to be what God has called us to be, we grow ever closer to the image of Christ which has been planted within us. This can be very painful. Yet if we set out to travel towards God with trust in God we are never in fact on our own; God will stretch out a hand to help draw us on the way.
In the opening prayer of today’s Mass we pray to God our Father:
Help us to hear your Son. Enlighten us with your word, that we may find the way to your glory.
Perhaps the most important thing that the story of Christ’s Transfiguration has to tell us is that if we are willing to live truly as disciples, we too can be transformed so that we can see things differently. It does, then, in fact make sense that in these early days of Lent we are reminded of the story of Christ’s Transfiguration. Undoubtedly penance and self-denial and self-sacrifice are an important part of Lent, but not the only part. The tragic things in the story of Jesus (above all, the Cross) and the joyful things in that story (above all, the Resurrection) go together.
Lent is not only a season of timely disillusionment and harsh realities but a time of growing light and life — of the growth in our lives of God’s love.