Second Sunday of Lent (Year A)
We enter upon a crowded scene in today’s Gospel. Not only is Christ in conversation with Moses and Elijah, but the Father booms from Heaven to the quivering apostles beneath. And to this scene, radiant and terrible with light, the Church calls the witness of Abraham, in the first reading it puts before us.
Each was a witness to theophany and a type of Christ, to God’s revelation of his innermost self: before the three divine visitors, in the burning bush, and on Mount Horeb. Each will demand the absolute priority of worshipping the one God: in sacrificing even the promise, in bearing witness before Pharaoh and the wandering hearts of the People of Israel, and before Ahab and his unfaithful Nation. And each will sit and eat bread before God: in the feast prepared for the three divine visitors, in the manna and in the widow’s morsel.
There is another connection to the theophany the Mount of the Transfiguration, and it is associated with this precise moment in Christ’s pilgrim journey to Jerusalem. Abraham, our Father in faith, is called to leave his country, his family and his father’s house for the sake of the promise. He is called to leave his very self behind. So also Christ, the one who brings faith to perfection and who seals God’s promise in his blood. He will be the altar, the priest and the lamb of sacrifice to bring the promise of redemption to completion, to give birth to an innumerable family by grace.
Moses leaves aside the life of blessing that God had deigned for him and accepted the call to proclaim “I Am” to the suffering People of Israel. So also Christ leaves aside the consolations of this world and proclaims God in the fulness of his truth and mercy. He will cleave his own side to lead mankind from slavery to freedom.
Elijah leaves the approval of prophecy and becomes detestable in the sight of Israel, to bear witness to the God of Israel in a foreign land, amongst a people to whom God had not revealed himself. So Christ proclaims the light of divine mercy to all who seek him with an enquiring heart. He is the light of the nations, the still small voice of peace.
The Transfiguration, then, is a leave-taking as much as a calling, a moment of profound vocation as Jesus sets his face to the cross. And it is a moment of tremendous theophany.
Our temptation might be to look upon this moment of the Gospel and be unaffected by its mightiness, its overwhelming effect of light and glory. Many would like to provide a rational or poetic explanation for it, so unusual is it in the general account of Christ’s life. Where miracles might be amenable to a rational explanation, the transfiguration is decidedly otherworldly. Peter thought enough of it to recall it expressly in his epistle many years later (2 Pt 1: 16-18). It must have been the memory of it that prompted his near-naked leap from the fishing boat of Galilee, having returned to his nets and menial tasks in confusion and dejection after the hard and horrific days of Jerusalem, when the darkness of doubt had led to the denial of him who had revealed the radiance of his glory (cf. Jn. 12: 24-30; 21: 7). Peter recognised the voice that had comforted him on the holy mountain, “Stand up, do not be afraid”.
It is Peter, impetuous and without guile, who, overawed by the sight of the transfiguration, falls upon this crowded scene and blurts out his foolish but prophetic words: “It is wonderful for us to be here; If you wish, I will make three tents...”. Yes, it was good to be there, and where the Tent of Meeting was the dwelling place of the Most High, Christ himself is the new Temple, the New Covenant and his Spirit the new Law, where God is worshipped in Spirit and in Truth. He will feed us with his very self, and will sit us down to eat with him.
Peter’s awkward and stumbling intervention reminds us that we can too often desire to domesticate the divine, tidy him up, place him within a context for our comprehension. It is true, God has indeed humbled himself, assuming the condition of a slave and became as all men are (cf. Phil 2:7). The transfiguration, however, brings us back to that overarching reality that infuses the entire mystery of Christ: Deus semper maior. We have need to grasp the overwhelming mightiness of God, the brilliance of his glory, the terribleness of his voice, and the radiance of his Word. Light must precede every darkness, the gratia preveniens every act of conversion and the testing of darkness and temptation.
In some way, the Church’s liturgy today powerfully accumulates this heady mixture of the religious sense that motivates every other religious attitude: That God Is! That He must be first, and he alone must be worshipped. That we must serve Him, and Him alone. We must be overwhelmed by God and astounded by the radiance of his Glory. We must be captured by the beauty of God. He is beyond us! But this tremendous light touches our trembling shoulder, raises our cowering faces and says to us: “Stand up...do not be afraid”; and lifting our gaze we see him asleep upon the Cross. Which is the more terrible sight? The light of his glory or of his love? St. John brings both mysteries together, for Golgotha is for him the mount of the transfiguration, the place where Christ’s love transfigures him in glory (cf. Jn 17: 1-5).
Christ walks with us in our life. We hear him preach. We see him heal. He prays. He eats. He sleeps. Astounded as we are by him, we must admit that he moves as if hidden from eyes without faith. We can doubt our religious sense, our sense of faith that this is He of whom it was said that God would console His people (cf. Is. 40:1). How much we need his consolation! But gazing at his wounded body upon the tree of our lives, taking upon himself our wounds, sharing our weaknesses, let us see him radiant in the glory of his love by the eyes of faith. Let us be astounded by the brilliance of his divine being. Yes, let us tremble at his Word. Let us grasp that simple and most profound truth that Christ proclaims in his every moment and every action: God Is, and he loves you with an everlasting love. “And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one but only Jesus”.
Did we really see the light of his glory, we ask ourselves? Could that moment of transfiguration outlive the long nights of darkness, the cruelty of men, our own weakness and fall upon fall? In every heart the light of God’s glory seeks to glimmer. In some it flames into a mighty fire. In some it smoulders. But if our religious sense has allowed the breath of God to breathe the divine embers into a flame but once in our lives, let us look to that moment and remember. Let us look carefully and see the radiant light of God’s love shine in the gloomiest moment, when the darkness is deepest and threatens to eclipse even the sense which gives birth to every other vital sense: that God Is. In the words of today’s Collect, may He purify our spiritual sense that we may behold the glory of his sight.