Lift Up Your Heads!

Lift Up Your Heads!

Second Sunday of Lent

On this Second Sunday of Lent, Holy Mother Church seeks to prepare us for the events of Holy Week by placing before our eyes the vision of Our Lord’s glorious Transfiguration. The event took place just weeks before the actual passion, and St Leo tells us that it was precisely so that the three apostles, Peter, James and John, who were to be the witnesses of His agony in the garden, would be strengthened in advance by the vision of His glory.

Our Blessed Lord goes up the winding path to Mount Tabor with His apostles and, as He arrives at the summit, enters, according to His custom, into prayer. Going out to the desert and going up to a mountain are the classic Old Testament escapes for finding time to be alone and pray with God. On this particular circumstance, Our Lord brings company, because He intends for it to be a very special, unforgettable time of prayer. But prayer is indeed the main reason for His going up to the mountain; St Luke makes that clear. He prefixes the whole scene with a “while He prayed”.

What time of day was it? We do not know. What we do know is that the apostles were drowsy (as usual!) and fell asleep. What is not their surprise when they awake to the startling vision: Jesus is there, it is the same Jesus, the one they have come to love and to honour, to trust and to follow, the very same Jesus, but different. His aspect has changed. He is no longer the poor, humble, meek carpenter turned rabbi. His garments are now white as snow, His face shines like the sun. He is transfigured. What is happening? Is it a miracle? Not really. The real miracle is that for the rest of His 33 years on earth it did not happen. This is the way the Son of God would have appeared at all times if it were not the Divine will to conceal His glory. But on this day it shines out with the brightness of eternal light, giving those privileged apostles a foretaste of what the vision of His countenance will be like in Heaven. Yes, the Transfiguration is an opening into the glory of Heaven.

But Jesus is not alone. There are two men with Him, Moses and Elias, representing the Old Law and the Prophets, that is to say, the entire Old Testament come bear witness to Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. The evangelists tell us that they were speaking with Jesus. What was the subject of their conversation? Once again, it’s St Luke who gives us the precious detail: they were speaking of His exodus, His going out of this life, in other words of His passion. It is not difficult to imagine the conversation. Moses no doubt reminded Our Lord of all the images of His own Sacrifice that are found in the most remote antiquity: the murder of Abel the just, the sacrifice of Isaac, the enslavement of Joseph who becomes the Saviour, the Paschal Lamb whose blood saves the chosen souls from death. Elias no doubt recounted all the passages in the psalms and the prophets, in particular the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. They were speaking of His exodus, His death.

It would seem, however, that the apostles were so enthralled by the vision that they paid little attention to the content of what was said. They know one thing, and one thing only: this is the place to be, and they don’t want to leave, ever. And of course, right away, hasty Simon Peter, always a very practical man, begins to devise a way to stay there forever. “Lord, let us make three tents, and that way you and Moses and Elias can stay here and not leave us ever again”. But Peter, – for the third time, it is St Luke who gives us the precious detail – did not know what he was saying. It was just a bit too much for poor old Peter. To be jettisoned into this heavenly vision straight out of his sleep. We can’t blame him! And then comes the cloud, which St Thomas tells us symbolises the Holy Spirit, and the voice of the Father, completing the Trinitarian theophany, saying: This is my Beloved Son: listen to Him.

My dear Friends, let us not hesitate to join Peter in his candid request. Let us not hesitate to beg the Lord to stay with us. Let us make every effort to turn all our powers of reflection and prayer to this glorious vision of our transfigured Lord. It is necessary for us, now more than ever. Over the past few weeks, we have evoked many of the trials we face in this awful crisis of the Church and the world, and every day we are saddened by news of so much crime and injustice, so many innocent victims of the thirst for power. But in the midst of it, the most important thing we have to do is turn our eyes unceasingly to the Holy Face of Jesus Our Lord. That Divine Countenance has been revealed to us as the very Face of God, that Face which, even in the dark hour of the passion, will remain noble, serene, admirable, loveable. The Holy Shroud bears witness to that for our unbelieving age.

The contemplation of the Face of our Beloved Christ is, I repeat, the most important thing we have to do. Really, it is the only thing we have to do. It is not by looking at ourselves, much less by looking at the news on the television or on internet, but only by gazing intently at the Face of Our Blessed Lord, that we will find peace, repose, confidence, courage, joy even. Jesus Our Lord has all the answers, He is in control, nothing escapes His providence. He expects from us one thing, and one thing only: utter, absolute, total, unconditional confidence that He is in control. Forget not the tempest at sea while Jesus sleeps. Remember what I said a few weeks ago about letting Jesus sleep. Let Him sleep. Let Him pray. Let His countenance shine upon you, upon us. Open a path for His grace to enter the world. What is that path? Your eyes, if you turn them at all times towards His, not towards yourself, not towards any creature, but only towards Him, will find it. Oculi Mei semper ad Dominum, we will sing in next week’s introit. Ad te levavi oculos meos, we chant almost every day of the week.

In this contemplation you will find everything you need. Without it, you will find nothing but yourself, for your own despair. Remember the serpent of bronze in the desert. Whoever was bit by the poisonous, burning snake, if they but gazed at the bronze serpent, was saved. This is the will of my Father that sent me: that every one who seeth the Son and believeth in Him may have life everlasting. (Jn 6:40). In the eschatological discourse, Our Lord tells us that when we see the signs of the end of time, we must lift up our heads. Not bow our heads. The devil bows our head to the ground. Origen tells us that the Egyptian Pharaoh who oppressed the Hebrews with too much work symbolises the devil who burdens us excessively with thoughts of this world, whereas God calls us to go out to the desert, that is out of our own little world, to offer sacrifice on high. So, let’s get our eyes off ourselves, off our smartphones and computers, and lift them up to God.

This resolute contemplation of the transfigured body of Our Lord, in addition to giving renewed courage and peace to our hearts, will also give purity to our bodies. It is a frequent theme in the traditional Mass readings for the Sundays of Lent for the apostle to put us on our guard against bodily impurity. This morning he tells the Thessalonians: This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from fornication: that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel (that is to say, his body) in sanctification and honour, not in the passion of lust, like the Gentiles that know not God… For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto sanctification (1 Th 4:3-7).

The fact that Our Lord in His Transfiguration is speaking of His impending death, also shows us that it is by means of the passion that we attain to the glory of the Resurrection. To embrace the cross is to set out on the path that leads, beyond Calvary to the Empty Tomb, to the glory of paradise. To help us in this sustained effort to conquer ourselves, let’s meditate these words from St Elizabeth of the Trinity, who writes to a soul discouraged by the sight of her own misery:

“Do not say that you are too miserable, for that is on the contrary an extra reason for going to the One who saves. It is not by looking at this misery that we will be purified, but by looking at the One who is all purity and holiness. Saint Paul says that He has predestined us to be conformed to His own image (Rm 8:29). In the most painful hours, think that the Divine Artist, in order to make His work more beautiful, uses scissors, and remain in peace under that Hand that is working on you. This great apostle of whom I am speaking, after having been taken up to the third Heaven (cf. 2 Cor 12:2), felt his weakness and complained of it to God who answered: My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9)”.

Finally, let us turn to St Joseph during this novena of preparation to his feast which we will solemnly celebrate on Saturday this week. St Joseph had the privilege of holding in his hands and leading to manhood the sacred humanity of the Saviour that we contemplate today. May he obtain for the universal Church of which he is the principal patron, the grace to rise gloriously from the mystical death she seems to undergo at the moment, as the phoenix rises from the ashes, to a new life of grace for the restoration of a truly Christian culture, which alone can save the world. Amen.