Second Sunday in Lent
“Keep us inwardly and outwardly”
Today’s oration bears witness to that realism so characteristic of the ancient Roman liturgy: the composite being that is our human nature has need to be kept in both its facets: interiorly, our soul, created in the image and likeness of God because of its three-fold power of memory, intellect and will; outwardly, our body which is similar to that of other animals even though more perfect in many of its capacities. All must be kept safely by the grace of God, ready for the day of the Lord, when He comes to ask us an account of our lives.
St Paul, in the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, reminds us that God created us for holiness, and that holiness includes our bodies. Contrary to a number of heresies which teach either that the flesh is not important or that it is so independent of the spirit that we won’t be able to keep it in check even if we want to – both of which errors lead to the same excesses of sensual indulgence –, the Apostle tells us that our bodies are called to be holy and therefore must not be given over to impurity, to unchastity, to fornication, which here refers to all sins of the flesh.
The Gospel of the Transfiguration is read today with a double intent. First, to show us the lofty destiny of our bodies and strengthen us for the battle with the forces of evil. When the Lord, in His prayer on the mount, allows the glory of eternity to seep out, as it were, He is thereby inviting us to acknowledge the grandeur of what we are called to: these fragile bodies that we carry about with us, and which will one day return to dust in the grave, are destined to be resurrected at the end of time and to take part in the glory of God Himself. The Transfiguration, flowing directly from the Incarnation, is the ultimate and definitive promotion of the human body and, at the same time, the decisive condemnation of all that defiles it.
Let our hedonistic age – which, under the guise of satisfying the instincts of the flesh, ends up abusing it, using it as a commodity, thus corrupting and destroying it, – look up to the Mount of the Transfiguration. Let those who truly seek to glorify the human body remember that one cannot, without dire consequences, leave aside the needs of the mind and heart; let them look to Jesus transfigured. Let them find there the answer to their quest: God, more even than we, desires to immerse our nature in an ocean of delights, but this can only be done when we allow the soul to prosper, when we nourish it with pious and holy thoughts, when we refuse it any self-centred gratification. When the body becomes an idol, it kills the soul, it destroys peace and joy, it leads to a slow but inevitable disintegration of who we are.
The cult of the flesh, which our western world is immersed in, is actually a cult of demons, for the self-adulation that is involved in sensual gratification is only the human replica of that diabolical turning away from God to focus on one’s self, which the fallen angels were guilty of and which they seek to insinuate into our hearts. “Become your own god, glorify yourself and make your own rules”, so say the demons, and in so doing, cunningly lead to the alienation of our true grandeur. That is why the saints mortified their flesh, knowing that by so doing, they were preparing it to achieve its final destiny. If you want your body to take part in the glory of Heaven, you must keep it in check, submitting it to the higher values of reason, of self-denial, of holiness.
The second reason Our Lord wanted to be transfigured today was in order to strengthen the faith of the apostles who were soon to see Him in the throes of agony and death, disfigured by the torments of the passion which we contemplate during this Lenten season. In our spiritual life, Our Blessed Lord continues to use this procedure: to prepare the soul to win the victory over itself and reach sanctity by persevering in the dark night of humiliation, He often gives, especially in the early years of one’s conversion, great consolation and spiritual joy. These are good – It is good for us to be here, says St Peter! – and we must thank God for them, but they are not definitive; they are meant, like the sweet milk given to babes, to fortify them so that one day they can eat the strong bread of spiritual soldiers, struggling for and winning the eternal crown of glory, which is not given to all, but only to those who accept to follow Our Blessed Lord to Calvary. When we have such joys, let us, following the advice of St Ignatius (Sp. Ex. 323), make a supply of them in our heart, so that on the rainy days of our trials, we may persevere and obtain the crown.
To achieve this, frequent meditation is required, as the offertory verse will remind us: I will meditate on Thy commandments, which I have loved exceedingly: and will lift up my hands to Thy commandments, which I have loved (Psalm 118). And so we see that in the end, it is only love, true love, that allows us to leave ourselves behind, and in so doing, mysteriously, to find ourselves. Seek yourself, and you will find yourself, and only yourself, for your own ruin. Renounce yourself, leave all, and you will find all. For it is only by leaving himself that man finds himself. It is only by going out of himself that he finds his truly and everlasting home.