On the Second Sunday of Lent the Church has always read the Gospel of the Transfiguration. Before Vatican II, it was always from Matthew; now it from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, according to the Gospel we are reading that year. It puts a positive spin on what Lent is about.
This year to help us understand we have a short reading from Philippians. First, St. Paul gives us a Lenten sounding message: “Many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conducts themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach. Their glory is in their shame.” Repent!
But then he gives the reason: “Our citizenship is in heaven.” From there comes Jesus, and “He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.” From Lent we look up to the Transfiguration (and forward to the Easter and all that follows).
The key connecting verse is, “Their minds are occupied with earthly things.” The problem with those who oppose the cross, worship their bellies, etc., is not so much the wickedness of the earthly things as the forgetting of things heavenly. God has so much to offer us – and we pay no attention. “Their end is destruction” because they chase after what passes away (full bellies, etc.) and forget the glory that last forever.
The first reading is the Lord’s promise to Abraham. It’s a peculiar progression. First God promises: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so shall your descendants be.” (That’s as heavenly as the Old Testament promises get.)
Abraham believes, and God counts it as righteousness. (That’s the key verse in Romans, you know: our righteousness is in trusting God’s promises.) Abraham trusts God.
But then God reminds him, as last week, that he is nothing but a wandering Aramean, and Abraham asks – with that righteous faith – “how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
There follows a strange scene: Abraham cuts up some birds, fire passes between them: odd. A key line, however, is “a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.” Abraham discovers the truth of God’s promises by passing through the darkness. Then “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch”: God illumines the terrifying darkness, but with terrifying fire. The Lectionary leaves out the verses in between, where the Lord tells him of Egypt: “your seed shall be a stranger in a land not their own, and shall serve them. And they shall afflict them four hundred years.”
Abraham knows the truth of God’s promises not in success but in captivity, not in glory but in darkness. His act of sacrifice leads him into total trust that the Lord who has promised will do it. And so his eyes are lifted to the stars.
Now, in Matthew (26) and Mark (14), the Gospel of the Transfiguration occurs at the very end, just before the Cross. But Luke structures his whole Gospel around the journey to Jerusalem, so the account we read this year is early, in chapter 9.
Jesus has just told them “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day” – the first prediction of the cross in this Gospel, I think. And then he applied it to the disciples: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”
After the Transfiguration, Jesus will express his frustration at this “faithless generation.” He will tell them again that he will be delivered into the hands of men – and they will respond by talking about who is the greatest.
And then comes the great pivot point of Luke’s Gospel, 9:51, “when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” – to his death.
That is the context of the Transfiguration.
Then we can start to hear the words of this Gospel. “Moses and Elijah spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The word in Greek is exodus – it means his road out, a path both of liberation and of death. In his glory, they speak of the passage through death to glory.
Peter wants to stay with the vision – but they are taking about the road. The Transfiguration is a call forward. Our citizenship is in heaven. We are called beyond.
And they hear the words “This is my beloved Son,” like Abraham, from a frightening cloud.
The Transfiguration is a call to glory. A call to the road that leads, yes, through the Cross, but to heaven.
How do your Lenten practices call you on to heavenly glory?