The Last Word
Second Sunday of Lent. Fr Aidan Nichols wonders why we read about the Transfiguration 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. 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 Jesus’s own 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 newspapers 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 coming to terms with that in our incipient project of Lenten self-awareness and reform, the Church presents us with the very different (to put it mildly) 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.
To understand what was going on, we need to share the faith of the Church – as indeed we do to get the hang of the biblical revelation as a whole. So what was going on? The human soul of Jesus had been assumed by the Word of God in the womb of Mary. It was united personally to the Word who had shared the Father’s overflowing goodness before all time – and that means before not only Beckham and even Tesco but before the Big Bang and what preceded it (if you think anything did), before – in fact – all worlds.
At the Transfiguration, for one brief moment the body of Jesus 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 fullness, the authority, of God himself.
I don’t think there’s anything remotely accidental about the way the Church gives us an account of this episode to read in Lent, in the mid-course of Lent. 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 and make it into contemporary liturgical life. So why have people – ancient and modern – been so keen on this seeming disparity, this apparent incongruity?
The message to us of this Gospel in its unlikely Lenten context is that the last word in the struggle of the Christian life does not in fact 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 the holy apostles, or at any rate Peter, James, and John, saw on Mount Thabor (that is the traditional site of the Transfiguration event), we too, if we stay faithful, will see as well. We shall see the glorified humanity of Jesus Christ. That glory was not just an episode. On Thabor, to strengthen those key disciples, there took place an anticipation of a definitive state of affairs. The Lord Jesus has in permanency that humanity and he has it in its transfigured condition. He has it, lives in it, 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, before the Father’s Face in the Fire of the Holy Spirit.
On day, the Light of Thabor will penetrate our souls, initially to judge them but then, please God, having judged them, 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. That is what makes all the struggle worthwhile.