We have begun the second week of Lent, a season of intense prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Yet our readings today seem to break the somber mood we would expect. Though the liturgical color is still penitential violet, the readings are painted in colors of radiant glory. The liturgy does throw us off like this sometimes. For example, immediately after the joyous celebration of Christmas Day, the Church draws our attention to the martyrdom of St. Stephen (Dec. 26), then the killing of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28). As Pope Francis mentions in this week’s Reflection, today’s Lenten Gospel “shows us the Christian perspective of suffering.” All our penitential sacrifices of Lent are intertwined with our anticipation of a victorious celebration of Easter. Mother Church does not want us to be trapped in the practice of mere external Lenten rituals. Rather she draws us to ponder their deeper meaning and their relevance for our glorious eternal destination. To help us do this, she offers us today’s readings.
Our first reading takes us to our father in faith, Abraham (when his name was still Abram), and to the great promises that God makes to provide him with both progeny and land. Since the first mention of these promises back in Genesis 12, Abram has left his homeland, passed through Egypt, and flourished as a foreigner in Canaan. As we pick up the story today, God renews the promise of descendants, as countless as the stars in the sky. Abram, now over seventy-five years old and childless, responds with great faith. He believes in this seemingly impossible promise, putting “his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.” Abram’s friendship with God is built on faith, not on anything Abram has done to win God’s favor.
But how long can Abram continue to believe in this beautiful promise without any sign of its fulfillment? The Lord’s next step is to confirm Abram’s faith. He makes a formal covenant with him as a solemn guarantee of his promises. This is the meaning of the strange ritual of splitting the sacrificial animals in two and walking between the pieces. The parties who enter such an agreement declare that if they ever violate the covenant, they deserve to suffer the same violent death. When God, who cannot be divided and who cannot lie, makes a promise, we can be absolutely certain that it will be fulfilled. This is the faith of Abraham. This is the faith that we have received as his spiritual descendants.
Peter, John, and James are descendants of Abraham. But on the mountain, they receive a greater sign from God than Abraham ever received. Instead of seeing symbols of God (such as the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch) during a trance, they awaken from their deep sleep to see Jesus himself transfigured in glory, along with Moses and Elijah. This awesome vision is enriched even further when they hear the voice of the Father identifying Jesus as his Son: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Whatever they thought about Jesus before this, and whatever fears of suffering might arise after this, everything is changed by this experience of seeing Jesus in glory.
Today this vision is shared with us so that we too will “wake up” and recognize Jesus as the eternal Son of the Father, the greatest guarantee that God is on our side. No trial or contradiction is more powerful than God. When we “listen to him,” we receive the light and strength to persevere in faith and love.
St. Paul, writing to the Philippians, is concerned that they may lose sight of the glory that God has revealed and end in destruction. With tears in his eyes, Paul urges us all not to follow the example shown by those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ… [whose] God is their stomach; their glory is in their ‘shame.’” He reminds us that we are made for much more than the things of this world. “Our citizenship is in Heaven!” Thus, we can even now allow the glory of Easter to peek through our Lenten fasting and abstinence. As citizens of Heaven, we look forward to a heavenly future, when the Lord “will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.” In other words, the glory that we see today shining on the face of Jesus will one day shine forth from us – if we persevere in faith.
Our Lenten journey, then, is something like travelling at night. We are in darkness and we suffer from unseen hazards as we strive to progress, in weakness and fear. But like Abraham we can see the shining stars, signs of a bright future. Even more, we have the light of a promise that the present darkness will not last forever. Full of hope, we await the sunrise, when the glory we only briefly glimpse now will fill and overflow from our whole being. In the meantime, we continue to “stand firm in the Lord” as we listen to Jesus. We remain attentive to his word, which is itself a light in the darkness. St. Peter, one of the eyewitnesses of the Transfiguration, urges us to live by the light of the divine word: “You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Pt 1:19). The rising of Jesus on Easter morning shines a light on every moment in history, and opens the way for our entry into eternal glory.
How can I make my Lenten practices more meaningful? In what ways can I get into them more deeply? How do I see the glory of Easter through them?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.