Conversion of heart lies at the center of our celebration of Lent. Preparing for Easter we take on the penitential practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving to assist us in the conversion of our hearts. Today as we celebrate the Second Sunday of Lent we hear the proclamation of the transfiguration of Jesus.
The account reminds us of the goal toward which we strive. In this particular period of the year we are moving toward Easter; on our journey of life we are moving toward resurrected life.
Jesus takes Peter, James and John up “a high mountain.” The unnamed mountain provides a symbolic meaning for the reader or hearer of the account. Frequently in the Scriptures, extraordinary encounters with the divine happen on a mountain.
You may recall Moses’ encounter with Yahweh on Mount Sinai. Moses first experiences the divine presence when he encounters the bush burning but not being consumed by the flames. The voice he hears says to him: “Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, he continued, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3:5-6)
Later, after the exodus, Moses again encountered the Lord on Sinai when the covenant was established. Elijah likewise had an experience of the divine presence when he was on Mount Horeb. Elijah was “on the run” for the queen, Jezebel, was after his life. He was distraught and said to the Lord: “Enough Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors!” (1 Kings 18:4)
Elijah makes a journey to Mount Horeb, which takes “forty days and forty nights.” Upon arriving he hides in a cave. The Lord speaks to Elijah asking why he is there; Elijah replies, recounting his fear. The Lord then instructs him to go outside on the mountainside where he will pass by. First came a turbulent wind, then an earthquake, then fire – but the Lord was in none of these. Finally a “light silent sound” came by which Elijah immediately recognized as the Lord.
In today’s Gospel account, Jesus’ face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white as he is transfigured before the apostles. He appears with Moses and Elijah who represent the law and the prophets. Then from a cloud comes the divine voice of the Father: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
The account reminds us that Jesus is in continuity with the covenant of Israel. In Matthean language, Jesus fulfills the covenant represented by the law and the prophets. Yet Jesus is more. The voice of the Father recognizes Jesus as his beloved Son and the instruction “listen to him” serves notice that Jesus represents the Father to the disciples. In Jesus, the promises to Abraham, recalled in the first reading for today’s Mass, are fulfilled.
Peter, James and John’s reaction demonstrates an awareness of the divine encounter as they fall prostrate before Jesus. He approaches and says: “Rise, and do not be afraid.” In both word and action Jesus invites them into a close union with the divine. As he walks with them down the mountain he charges them not to speak of the vision “until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The instruction associates the transfigured Jesus with his glorified state which comes at the resurrection.
In this sense the disciples’ presence on the mountain for the transfiguration can be seen as a preparation for what lies ahead. As Jesus journeys toward Calvary, they are traveling with him and will undergo a great test as he is arrested, tried and crucified. Witnessing the transfiguration is to bolster their faith.
In the context of our Lenten journey the transfiguration account serves as a reminder of the end to which we aspire. In the resurrection from the dead Jesus conquers sin and death. His victory is a victory of mercy and life. In him we have found forgiveness and life. In him we have the promise of life eternal.
The second reading for today’s liturgy from the Second Letter to St. Timothy expresses it this way: “He [God] saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
The journey through Lent is one of purification as we seek to be renewed in his love and the life he won for us. The collect for today’s liturgy captures our prayer in these words: “O God, who have commanded us to listen to your beloved Son, be pleased, we pray, to nourish us inwardly by your word, that, with spiritual sight made pure, we may rejoice to behold your glory.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.