Not a Time for Glory?
Second Sunday of Lent. Fr Benjamin Earl wonders why we read about the Transfiguration during Lent.
Every year on this second Sunday of Lent we hear one of the accounts of the Transfiguration of Christ: the glory of the Lord is revealed, and Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah in the presence of some awestruck apostles.
This perhaps should raise certain questions in our minds. After all, we’re supposed to be in a time of penance, and preparation for Easter. It’s a time for serious evaluation of our lives as Christians and examination of conscience; it’s not a time for glory. Indeed, the Gloria itself gets quietly put on the shelf for Lent, ready for its triumphant and glorious return with the resurrection of the Lord at Easter. But Easter is still a month away! Why, barely ten days into Lent, do we seem to be focusing on glory?
If our liturgy is puzzling, we might puzzle all the more about the manner of Christ’s transfiguration. We have this great revelation of God’s glory, in front of just three disciples, and they never actually told anyone about it until much later. Wouldn’t Christ’s task have been rather easier if he had been transfigured in front of those thousands of people he used to teach? Nobody would doubt him if he appeared in front of five thousand people in dazzling white raiment, flanked by Moses and Elijah.
Both these questions, about why the liturgy commemorates the transfiguration today, and why the transfiguration is such a brief and private event, show a misunderstanding about the purpose of the transfiguration. The key, perhaps, is in the first reading, where the Lord calls Abram to embark on a journey, a journey away from his own country and kindred to a land that the Lord was to show him.
Nowadays journeys are rather easier and therefore more frequent than in the days of Abram. Indeed, about this time of year, or earlier if you are more organised, many people will be thinking of planning summer holidays. Very often, families will be looking to go somewhere they’ve never been before, whether at home or abroad. But, of course, they don’t choose places at random; instead they do their research, get a brochure from a travel agent, read the guide books, look at pictures of the place on the internet, check reviews, and so on. They want to be shown where it is they are going; of course, a guidebook or a website can only give you a glimpse of the place you intend to go on holiday, and the real thing will be very much better. The guidebook gives a concise, pocket-size idea.
The transfiguration serves really very much the same function as a guidebook and all those other ways of researching a holiday or journey. The transfiguration shows the apostles Peter, James and John their destination, and through the scriptures it shows us too our destination. On any journey, if you’re not sure what your destination is, chances are you’ll never get there; so as pilgrims on the Christian journey, we need this glimpse of our heavenly destination to help us get there. But at the same time, it is only a small glimpse of the future glory of Christ, only a glimpse of the glory in which Christians hope to share, a glimpse not seen by all, but only those charged with leading the journey: and having that glimpse of the destination doesn’t mean avoiding making the journey.
So this is why we remember the transfiguration now. It is a small glimpse of the destination of the Lenten journey, Christ’s risen glory. It gives hope that we might reach that same destination, the abolition of death and the bringing to light of life and immortality through the Gospel. For our Lenten journey to be effective and fruitful, we need to have our destination in mind. There is, of course, a danger of losing sight of it, of turning our eyes away. We need Christ to lift us up, to take away our fear. We should have eyes for him only. We try, through our Lenten penances, to be detached from the things of this world and not to fix our faces on the earth, but rather keeping our vision fixed on the Christ who touches our very lives.