Second Sunday in Lent
From as far back as we know, the Catholic Church in the west has reserved this second Sunday of Lent for contemplation of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. Just as the actual event was to strengthen the hearts of the three chosen apostles before the passion and death of the Saviour, so its commemoration each year prepares us to plunge back into the awful mysteries of passiontide. Let us then with Holy Mother Church turn our eyes to Mount Tabor before turning them to Mount Calvary.
Jesus chooses Peter, James and John and takes them with Him to the top of a high mountain. It is significant that Our Lord wanted this event to take place in an out of the way locality, one that demands effort to reach. To climb a mountain, one must separate oneself from the comfort of one’s home and surroundings; one must make the effort to actually persevere in mounting the steep path. This is the first lesson: God does not ordinarily manifest Himself to the soul that does not make consistent efforts to distance itself from creatures.
When they reach the summit, Our Lord without delay begins to pray. The apostles had often seen Him do so. He would go out on His own, often during the night, to be alone with His Father and pray. This is the second great lesson: the prayer of Jesus. Although Jesus is God in the full sense of the term, He is also man in the full sense of the term. As God He is the object of prayer. As man He is the subject of prayer. To understand something about the prayer of Christ, it is useful to remind ourselves that Our Lord’s human nature is composed of a human body and a human soul with memory, intellect and will like each one of us. The soul of Christ, while not constituting a human person – there is only one Person in Our Lord, the Person of the eternal Son of God – is a creature, and as such needs God. The soul of Christ, however, unlike ours, from the very first moment of His conception in the virgin womb, was endowed with the beatific vision, that is to say, He saw God face to face just as the saints see Him in eternal beatitude. Think for a moment what that means for the prayer of Christ. When He prayed, He saw the Triune God face to face. In other words, He was utterly taken up in the vision of the divine glory. This glory fully beatified the soul of Christ and conveyed to it an ecstasy of bliss that we cannot even begin to imagine.
On this particular occasion, something astounding and totally unexpected happens while Jesus prays. He is transfigured, that is to say, that His garments turn white as snow and His face shines like the sun. We might be tempted to think: what an astounding miracle! But we would be wrong. There was nothing miraculous about the transfiguration. What was miraculous was the rest of His life on earth when He was not transfigured. You see, since Our Lord is truly God, the normal state of the sacred humanity He assumed is a glorified state. It would have been normal for Him to spend His entire time on earth transfigured like the sun. But that would have made it impossible for Him to interact with us and above all to suffer His passion which saves us from our sin. And so He reserved that glory to this brief glimpse given to the apostles in order to strengthen their faith and ours.
In His glory, Moses and Elijah appear with Him. Moses, the great lawgiver and mediator of the Old Covenant, Elijah, the greatest of the prophets: both these men stand on either side of Our Lord bearing witness to Him, and proclaiming to us by their very presence that in the person of Jesus Christ we have the fulfilment of all that was announced either by prophetic word or through prophetic gestures and events in the Old Testament. St Matthew tells us these great saints were speaking with Our Lord. It is St Luke who tells us the subject matter of their conversation: they were speaking of His exodus, His leaving this world, in other words they were speaking of His passion and death. In the midst of His glory, Jesus thinks of His sufferings, the great sign of His love for us. This is the third great lesson: Whenever we receive God’s light and consolation, we must store it up in our hearts and brace ourselves for the coming trial. More than that, we must look forward to the time of trial as being the time when we can prove to our Blessed Lord our love for Him.
The apostles, who by now have woken up from their deep slumber, are enthralled by what they see, but they pay no attention to what is being said. St Peter, not knowing what he was saying, interjects, wanting to set up three tents so that they can all stay there and enjoy the ineffable vision forever. This is the fourth lesson. In this life, the visits of consoling grace are few and far between. They are given to us occasionally when we need them to keep going, but they are not our lot here below. Our lot in this valley of tears is to suffer in peace and to wait for the vision of God’s glory in the hereafter.
Thereupon they enter the bright cloud – symbol of the Holy Spirit – and the voice of the Father rings out, spanning the centuries and reaching our ears today: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him. In one of his immortal homilies, St Leo the Great paraphrases thus the words of the Eternal Father: “This is my beloved Son, Whom Divinity does not separate from Me, nor might divide from Me, nor eternity set apart from Me. This is my beloved Son, not adopted, but Mine; Begotten of Me, not made elsewhere; not made like to me from another nature, but born of My Being and Equal with Me. This is my beloved Son, through whom were all things made, and without Whom nothing was made; for all that I make He likewise makes; and whatsoever I do He immediately and without separation from Me also does. For the Son is in the Father, and the Father is in the Son; nor is Our Oneness ever divided”. This is the fifth great lesson of today: Jesus Christ is the fullness of all religion; in His person He brings all that is good; we need no one and nothing else. If we have Christ we have eternal life; if we have Him not, we remain in darkness and everlasting death. It is important to keep this in mind in an age of inter-religious dialogue, for there can be no fruitful dialogue when the truth is not proclaimed without ambiguity. There is no other name given to us by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12).
Upon rising from their fright, the apostles lift their heads and see only Jesus. His two interlocutors have vanished, as has the cloud. Jesus alone is there. The theophany, that is to say, the revelation of God the Trinity, is over. And so it always is in this life. God speaks; He reveals something of Himself; and while He remains invisibly with us, His felt presence is gone. And that is the final lesson. The Word has been given, it has been heard, it must be preserved in faith and devotion and made to bear fruit. And then we must go down the mountain of consolation back into the plain of day to day combat. But we go back renewed, refreshed, strengthened, fortified to win the battle for our soul and the souls of others.
Those words: and lifting up their heads they saw only Jesus, may remind you of the beautiful prayer attributed to Cardinal Newman where He speaks thus to the Lord: Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go. Flood my soul with Your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that my life may be only a radiance of Yours. Shine through me, and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus! Stay with me, Lord, and then I shall begin to shine as You shine; so to shine as to be a light for others; the light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be mine; it will be You, shining on others through me. Let me thus praise You in the way You love best, by shining on those around me. Let me preach You without preaching, not by words but by my example, by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You.
My dear Friends, if we make our way up to Mount Tabor each day by the serious and consistent and persevering practice of prayer, especially mental prayer, then we begin to live the very life of Jesus. Then we will be able to preach Jesus, not just by words, which are sometimes useful and inspiring, but much more by our very life, our demeanour, the helping hand, the sincere interest in others, the twinkle in the eye that reveals a soul who has seen the great vision, and knows that it is the most precious grace one can have in this life. Then Christ begins to shine in us and through us, spreading His wholesome light and His seductive love to a generation that has neither, but longs for both, more than it suspects. You are the light of the world (Mt 5:14), a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises (2 Pt 1:19).