The first Sunday of Lent, for obvious reasons, gives us Jesus fasting in the wilderness for forty days. But the second Sunday takes us to a different image: the Transfiguration. (In the coming weeks, the readings of the post-Vatican II differ from the old Lectionary. But these first two weeks are traditional – in fact, before Vatican II both Saturday and Sunday of this weekend had important liturgies centered on Matthew 17:1-9.)
In the past, the Transfiguration was seen as a central mystery of the faith. It reveals the deepest mysteries of grace and the Incarnation, the total penetration of humanity by divinity. But here at the beginning of Lent, let us notice the penitential themes in this reading.
The setting is a high mountain, by themselves. In a sense, we are recapitulating the story of the Temptation: the Spirit drives Jesus into a lonely place, and Jesus leads his disciples into another one. In the Temptation, we saw Jesus triumph over the devil – here, we see him shine forth with divinity. We go into the wilderness of Lent to battle with the devil – and so to see the glory of Jesus. We will do the same thing a third time on Good Friday.
Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. As we were reminded in the Sermon on the Mount, Moses is the lawgiver, the taskmaster. Elijah and the prophets called the people deeper into the Law, to a more perfect observance. And Jesus takes us deeper still. We are reminded of the moral radicalism of Jesus.
Peter wants to make tents. He wants, on the one hand, to stay in this lonely place with Jesus, and on the other hand to do something for him. So too in Lent we both offer Jesus our hard work – and, more deeply, we spend a few weeks dwelling alone with him, pitching our tent with no one but Jesus.
But a voice from a cloud interrupts Peter’s proposal. It says, “Listen to him,” and the disciples fall to the ground afraid. More and more radical. In Lent we shut ourselves up for a few weeks and fall before Jesus in reverence. We enter into a holy fear, realizing we need to be more radical, more obedient, less inclined to follow our own desires and more inclined to live for nothing but Jesus.
And they look up, and see no one else, but Jesus alone. Nothing but Jesus. That’s why we put aside other things, that’s why we fast, that’s why we enter into this Lenten wilderness: to spend a few moments with nothing but Jesus. What a grace!
The story ends with Jesus telling them to keep the vision to themselves, “until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” We look forward to the Resurrection. But we look forward, to, to the Cross. Lent does both those things. A hard Lent teaches us the joy of looking forward. It also teaches us that there the only path to Easter joy is through the Cross.
If we open our Bibles, we find that the Transfiguration, in Matthew 17, immediately follows Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow him. And that came immediately after Peter’s confession, with Jesus’s first prediction of the Cross and his rebuke of Peter. Peter proclaims Jesus Lord, he looks forward to the Transfiguration – but Jesus tells him that the only path to that mountaintop is through the wilderness of Lent.
And right after the Transfiguration, in the rest of chapter seventeen, Jesus talks about the radical call to conversion of Elijah and John the Baptist, he casts out demons, and he talks again about resurrection. At the heart is the divinity of Jesus – but all around it is the call to radical conversion.
Finally, Matthew’s Gospel is organized around narratives leading up to great sermons. Chapters sixteen and seventeen are part of the lead-up to the sermon on community, in chapter eighteen. In that sermon, he calls us to be the least, not the greatest; to cut off the hand that leads us to sin; to seek out the lost sheep; to forgive seventy times seven times; and not to be liking the unforgiving servant, who refuses to extend to others the mercy his master has shown him.
The Transfiguration is like the Temptation. To have the glory of Jesus is to do battle with the devil.
The other two readings remind us that grace is at heart. St. Paul teaches us to be hardships – as in Lent – but with the strength that comes from God. In all these battles we learn that it is only the glory of the Transfiguration that carries us through the challenge of conversion.
And the reading from Genesis simply tells us that it is God who will make us a great nation, God will will bless us, God who make our name great, and God who will make us a blessing to the nations.
The path of Lent is a path of radical conversion – but far deeper, it is the work of God within us.
How is Jesus calling you to put him more radically at the center of your life this Lent?