The 2nd Sunday of Lent [A]

The Second Sunday of Lent [A]
Gen 12:1-4  +  2 Tim 1:8-10  +  Mt 17:1-9
March 12, 2017

“And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.”

The Transfiguration is one of the best known events of Jesus’ earthly life.  St. John Paul II chose the Transfiguration to be one of the Rosary’s “Mysteries of Light”.  But why do we stop and ponder this mystery on the Second Sunday of Lent?  What’s the connection between this luminous mystery and the journey of penance that we’ve set out upon?

We could certainly say that the Transfiguration is one of the Luminous Mysteries because it “sheds light” upon Jesus’ divinity.  The glory of Jesus’ divinity shone just for this brief moment on Mount Tabor before Peter, James and John.  But why was the glory of the Transfiguration only momentary?

A Carmelite writer in the 20th century noted that the glory that shone at the Transfiguration would have shone fully from His birth onwards, had He allowed it to do so.  But He did not.  That’s because “this effect [of glorification] was impeded by Jesus, who, during the years of His life on earth, wanted to resemble us as much as possible by appearing ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’”[1], as Saint Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans.

“However, in order to confirm the faith of the Apostles who were shaken by the announcement of His Passion, Jesus permitted some rays from His blessed soul to shine forth for a few brief instants on Thabor, when Peter, James, and John saw Him transfigured”. … “The three were enraptured by it, and yet Jesus had revealed to them only one ray of His glory, for no human creature could have borne the complete vision”[2]; at least, not on earth.  In Heaven, the saints look upon the fullness of God’s glory in the Beatific Vision.

The Apostles were shaken by Jesus’ announcement of His Passion, yet we in church today did not hear that announcement.  It’s true that at the end of today’s Gospel passage, we heard how after the Transfiguration, Jesus charged Peter, James and John not to “tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man [had] been raised from the dead.”  However, to appreciate why Jesus chose to show one ray of His glory at the Transfiguration, we need to consider the verses leading up to today’s Gospel passage.

In the eight verses immediately before today’s Gospel passage,[3] “Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed”.  In response to this news, Simon Peter rebuked Jesus, saying “God forbid, Lord!  This shall never happen to you.”  Jesus, in turn, rebuked Peter harshly:  “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a hindrance to me”.

Jesus didn’t stop there, though.  He then spoke those words that we know very well:  those words that sum up our daily Christian life.  “Jesus told His disciples, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’”

That’s the context for today’s Gospel passage.  Jesus followed His difficult message by revealing one ray of His glory to Peter, James, and John.  “Today’s Gospel brings out the close connection between the Transfiguration and the Passion of Jesus.  Moses and [Elijah] appeared on Thabor on either side of the Savior”[4], just as on Calvary two thieves appeared on either side of Him.  As the thieves on Calvary spoke with Jesus about His death, so St. Luke in his account of the Transfiguration tells us that Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus about His approaching Passion.[5]

So what’s the lesson that Jesus is trying to get across to us by His Transfiguration?  “The divine Master wished to teach His disciples… that it was impossible—for Him as well as for them [and us]—to reach the [eternal] glory of the Transfiguration [in Heaven] without passing through suffering.  It was the same lesson that He would give later to the two disciples at Emmaus:  ‘Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and so to enter into His glory?’  What has been disfigured by sin cannot regain its original supernatural beauty except by way of purifying suffering.”[6]

That this glory was only temporary—a fleeting glimpse of the joy that in Heaven is eternal—is highlighted by Peter’s response to the scene.  “Peter cried out with his usual eagerness, ‘It is good for us to be here,’ and offered to make three [booths]….  But his proposal was interrupted by a voice from Heaven:  ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; [listen to Him]!’ and the vision disappeared.”

This teaches us a key lesson about the spiritual life.  This lesson has to do with what theology calls “spiritual consolations”.  You could consider spiritual consolations to be little gifts of grace that God gives whenever He chooses:  not through the sacraments, and not in response to regular, daily prayer.  You could say that spiritual consolations are like a husband giving his wife roses:  not on their anniversary, and not on her birthday, but on a random Thursday afternoon in October, with no particular reason except love.  These spiritual consolations may take many different forms, but He always gives them as pure gifts, and usually unexpectedly.

The same 20th century Carmelite priest whom I quoted earlier explained that “[s]piritual consolations are never an end in themselves, and we should neither desire them nor try to retain them for our own satisfaction. … To Peter, who wanted to stay on Thabor in the sweet vision of the transfigured Jesus, God Himself replied by inviting him to listen to and follow the teachings of His beloved Son.”[7]  And what had that Son just taught?  That Son had just taught Peter and all His disciples that He—Jesus Himself—must suffer and die, and that each of them, and each of us, must deny himself, take up his own cross, and follow Jesus to Calvary.

“God does not console us for our entertainment, but rather for our encouragement, for our strengthening, for the increase of our generosity in suffering for love of Him.

“The vision [of the Transfiguration] disappeared; the apostles raised their eyes and saw nothing ‘nisi solum Jesum’, save Jesus alone, and with ‘Jesus alone’, they came down from the mountain.  This is what we must always seek and it must be sufficient for us:  Jesus alone…  Everything else—consolations, helps, friendships (even spiritual ones), … esteem, encouragement…—may be good to the extent that God permits us to enjoy them.  He very often makes use of them to encourage us in our weakness; but if, through certain circumstances, His divine Hand takes all these things away, we should not be upset or disturbed.  It is precisely at such times that we can prove to God more than ever… that He is our All and that He alone suffices.  On these occasions the loving soul finds itself in a position to give God one of the finest proofs of its love:  to be faithful to Him, to trust in Him, and to persevere in its resolution to give all….  The soul may be in darkness, that is, subject to misunderstanding, bitterness, material and spiritual solitude combined with interior desolation.  [When you reach this point, the] time has come to repeat, ‘Jesus alone’, to come down from Thabor with Him, and to follow Him with the Apostles even to Calvary….”[8]

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[1] Romans 8:3.

[2] Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, Divine Intimacy (Rockford, Ill.: Tan Books, 1996), 309.

[3] Matthew 16:21-28.

[4] Divine Intimacy, 309.

[5] Luke 9:30-31.

[6] Divine Intimacy, 310, quoting Luke 24:26.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 310-311.