Sunday, 1 March 2015

Lent Week 2 Sunday (Year B) - 1 March 2015

Readings: Genesis 22; Psalm 116; Romans 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10

We hear the gospel of the transfiguration at least twice each year, on the Feast of the Transfiguration in August and on the second Sunday of Lent. This year we hear Mark’s account which focuses on the disciples’ experience of this transformation of Christ, a metamorphosis that came over him and which they witnessed, a change he underwent in their presence.

This event has been understood in a number of ways. One is that it is a sudden revelation of the divine nature of Christ, an unveiling that reveals for a moment the mystery of the Person of the Son of God, the Person Jesus is. It has also been understood as revealing, in advance, the glory of the resurrection, the glory that was to be given to the human nature of Jesus, the Father’s reward for his love and obedience. He will rise from the dead in glory, and Peter, James and John are given a foretaste of that glory in the Transfiguration.

The liturgy of the Roman church favours a pedagogical interpretation. The preface for the feast and the preface for today both see it as a teaching, helping them to see that the way  to Resurrection can only be via the cross. The apostles are being prepared for the scandal of the cross by being given a glimpse of the glory to come, in which the whole Body of Christ will participate.

This transformation of Christ involves also a transformation of history. It is a wonderful tableau which encapsulates the whole history of salvation. We have Moses and Elijah on one side, and Peter, James and John on the other. Moses and Elijah are present, the Law and the Prophets, but as the scene unfolds they fade into the background. Peter, James and John are also present, fearful and overwhelmed at first, but slowly they are brought into the foreground, led by Jesus they come into prominence as the scene unfolds. At the end there is ‘only Jesus’, now with the apostles, and they leave the mountain together talking about resurrection. At the beginning Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah but at the end he speaks with Peter, James and John. The transformation of salvation history in this event means a fulfilment, a culmination, of all that had gone before: to this Moses and Elijah bear witness. At the same time it opens on to what is to come in salvation history, the suffering and death of Jesus, and his resurrection: and of this Peter, James and John will be the witnesses.

So the Transfiguration tells of a transformation of Christ and a transformation of salvation history. It tells also of a transformation of creation. The elements of the created world are completely at God’s disposal. Created realities are used, as they are so often in the Old Testament, to reveal the presence of God and to carry God’s power. Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white. The cloud is a vehicle for the presence of God. The other accounts speak of his face shining. The physical body of Jesus, his clothes, the elements – all are at the Father’s disposal, to serve the purposes of salvation and revelation. All is being transformed, we can say, as Jesus is transfigured – history, creation, humanity. And all created realities are taken up into this transformation, put at the service of the Divine Love that is revealing itself within the world’s history.

There is, finally, the transformation of us that is underway. The metamorphosis of Jesus speaks also of our metamorphosis, our conversion, that we are being changed into the likeness of Christ. It is why the gospel of the Transfiguration is read early in Lent, to remind us of this ongoing transformation which is the Christian life and to which we are called again in this season. We too are being ‘metamorphosed’, as Saint Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 3:18, ‘from one degree of glory to another’. He speaks of it again when he urges the Romans not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. It is the task set for us in Lent.

How does this work of transfiguration continue in us? Saint Paul tells the Romans they are ‘to present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’ (Romans 12:2). This is their spiritual worship. The work of repentance and conversion undertaken in Lent is an effort by us to engage in this spiritual worship. The Father’s voice tells us to do it by listening to Jesus, to do it then by obedience, prayer, faith. We are to listen to him, attend to him and to his teaching, look at the life and work of his disciples, reflect on what he has meant in our lives up to now, be present with him in the mysteries of his life, death and resurrection. Listen, look, attend, reflect, believe, be with him.

The work of transfiguration continues also through the sacramental life of the Church. In baptism we are conformed to Christ, sacramentally transformed into him. One Christian author sees in the white garments of the transfigured Jesus the Christians who have put on Christ in baptism: they are in him already, in the moment of his transfiguration. The life that begins in baptism continues in the Eucharistic life of the Church. There bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, another example of God’s freedom to use the elements of creation, to place them at the service of revelation and salvation. In the Eucharist also we experience the transformation of those who participate: the Church calls the Holy Spirit to change those who receive the Body and Blood of Christ into what they eat. The purpose of the Eucharist is that the transfigured and transfiguring life in the Spirit might grow stronger and deeper, that we might become in fact, and not just symbolically, one body and one spirit in Christ.

It is all towards resurrection. In the parish church of Fairford, in Gloucestershire, is an intact cycle of medieval stained glass windows with scenes from the Bible. It is miraculous that this set of windows survived the vandalism of the reformation. In the place where one expects a representation of the Resurrection of Jesus there is instead a representation of his Transfiguration. The apostles are told, as they leave the mountain, that they are not to speak about it until he had risen from the dead. And that, for now, leaves them perplexed. It teaches us that this event is about the transformation that begin in fact with the resurrection of Jesus.

The transfiguration of Christ, the transformation of history, the metamorphosis of creation: all speak to us of life in the eternal kingdom. A new heavens and a new earth are being created as this creation groans in its one long act of giving birth. The first fruits of that groaning is Christ, the firstborn from the dead. What has been promised is for us also, and we can only reach it along the way he teaches us, the way of spiritual worship. We are to see him so as to become like him. We are to listen to him so as to learn his wisdom. We are to be with him on the road and in Jerusalem so as to be with him in the glory of Easter.

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