In the midst of the strange chaos and confusion of these times, so often marked now with random acts of violence, we find ourselves at this point in our Lenten journey puzzling over promise, preparation, and fulfillment. It is fitting. What we hear in the Word of God is that the promise made to Abraham over a thousand years before, after he led his family from Chaldea, the southern part of what we call Iraq, finally came to pass in a wholly unexpected way in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The chosen disciples were being prepared. So far, so good. But what has it all to do with Lent today?
As we grieve and wonder at the social turbulence and violence of the last several weeks, what strikes me about the gospel reading, is how exactly it affirms that it will be the suffering and death of Jesus that robs death of its power and brings life and immortality into the clear light of glory. The opening words of our reading from Second Letter to Timothy says as much, a line so easily lost in the glory of what follows: “Bear your share of the hardship which the gospel entails.”
In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, which are echoed in the Preface of the Eucharistic canon today, 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].”
And that is “it,” I think — the revelation that makes sense out of the suffering of the innocent anywhere, whose struggle is necessarily and inevitably linked to that of Jesus. By following Christ, taking up our cross 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 this life. That is what we hear in that mysterious preface for this Sunday, so listen for it:
“On your holy mountain he revealed himself in glory in the presence of his disciples. He had already prepared them for his approaching death. He wanted to teach them through the Law and the Prophets that the promised Christ had first to suffer and so come to the glory of his resurrection.”
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all relate the story of the Transfiguration, and the Church dutifully recalls each of them year by year on the second Sunday of Lent. The scene has no parallels elsewhere in the Bible, by the way, much less any of the pagan literature of the time. But only Luke’s account, which we heard last year, makes clear the connection with the passion and resurrection — Jesus’ Passover [Luke 9:31], for that is what Moses and Elijah were discussing with him. But in all three accounts, the disciples don’t get it — not until after the Resurrection will the meaning of this event become clear to them.
All the accounts agree, Peter proposes erecting three tents or “tabernacles,” a suggestion that seems strange except for the fact that the Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration in August, close to the 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 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. Many 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 Passover or departure spoken of by Moses and Elijah, can we who profess to follow him expect a lesser, easier path?
Finding the right path is what Lent is about. In today’s gospel, the tedium of trekking through a dark wasteland of testing and trial is broken by a shaft of radiance that leaps ahead from the Resurrection. For a brief moment, we see divine light 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 — or was it thunder? Like Peter, James, and John, we hardly know what to make of all this. But there it is.
Whatever happened on that mountain, it 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 – not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in Sudan and the other drought-stricken lands of southern Africa where human violence has now assured the most widespread and terrible famine in modern times. It resounds in the call for compassion and care for the widows, orphans, and refugees of our time as it did so long ago. Neither God’s mercy nor God’s justice has changed and we are more in need of imitating them than ever before. We, like the disciples, are enjoined to be God’s agents, bringing hope and help wherever there is need. We are called today to fulfil our faith in the pledge first made so long ago to a small tribe desperately wandering in the wilderness of the Middle East.
The promise and hope of glory now lives in us.