In years to come, the spring of this year is more likely to be remembered for the outbreak of the new coronavirus and COVID-19, the acronym for the disease symptoms associated with it, beginning last year, than even the ongoing political hullabaloo in this country pointing toward the elections of next autumn. In comparison, our observance of Lent may seem routine and in fact ordinary, but the message of this second Sunday is no less timely because it is timeless.
The central element in this triptych of scriptural passages is the account of the Transfiguration in Matthew’s gospel, one likely based on Mark’s and Luke’s accounts. (Mysteriously, there is no parallel passage in John’s gospel.) So important was this event in the view of later Christians that a special feast day was instituted to commemorate it, still one of the holiest celebrations in the eastern Orthodox Churches.
The framing narratives begin with God’s command to Abraham to leave Haran in what is now Turkey for a land of promise, the beginning
of the long pilgrimage of the Elect, the ‘Chosen,’ toward their spiritual destiny. For Christians the passage from the Second Letter to Timothy over two millennia later points to the fulfillment of that promise “manifested through the ‘epiphany,’ “the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” [2 Tim 1:10]. The prediction of the death and resurrection of Jesus knits the three readings together, a point made clearer in Luke’s account with the observation that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his “exodus” which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem [Luke 9:31].
Typically, the disciples fail to comprehend the meaning of this prophetic moment, much as we are likely to do ourselves if distracted by current events, however pressing. And that’s why it is fitting on this second Sunday of Lent to be reminded of the significance of what happened there and what we are doing here.
As we ponder the events of the last three months, what strikes me about the gospel reading, is how exactly it affirms that the approaching suffering and death of Jesus robs death of its power and brings life and immortality into the clear light of glory. In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, which are echoed in today’s liturgy, Jesus had to enter his glory through suffering, the Passover or departure spoken of by Moses and Elijah: “For it was fitting that [God], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering [Heb 2:10].”
The relevance for this Sunday in the “joyful season” of Lent is that by following Christ, taking up our own crosses daily, we are drawn ever more closely into his Passover, his departure into glory, even if, like him, we enter it fully only beyond the final curtain of life.
Each of the three gospel accounts relate that Peter proposed erecting three tents or “tabernacles,” a suggestion that might seem strange except for the fact that the Churches celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration in August, close to the Jewish Feast of Succoth or Tabernacles, the festival of the fruit harvest. The connection is important, because the principal offering at this feast was a basket of harvest fruits accompanied by the recitation of the great acts by which God delivered the Hebrews from captivity and their entry into Canaan, the land of Promise. The Book of Leviticus prescribes erecting huts or booths made of leafy branches as a reminder of the desert journey of the Hebrews [Lev. 23:39-43]. Many observant Jews still do this.
But even this Passover theme, and the fulfillment of promise that it commemorates, falls short of the truth revealed on that mountain. And here is where the clue is so important. If Jesus had to enter his glory through suffering, the “Exodus” or departure spoken of by Moses and Elijah, can we who profess to follow him expect a lesser, easier path?
According to today’s gospel, the tedium of trekking through a dark wasteland of testing and trial is broken by a shaft of light that leaps ahead from the Resurrection. For a brief moment, we see divine radiance shining through and around Jesus, standing between those other two wayfarers, Moses and Elijah, who were also holy mountain climbers, and there comes a voice…
Like Peter, James, and John, we hardly know what to make of all this. But there it is. Whatever happened on that mountain, the event itself was long and widely remembered. And as a reminder of human hope and a prelude of glory, this memory of Transfiguration comes at a moment both appropriate and opportune in Lent and in life, not least as we ponder how best to assist those who suffer wherever there is need for hope in the promise first made so long ago to a small tribe of pilgrims wandering in the deserts of the Middle East in search of a land of promise.