What words come to mind when you think of Lent? Some that pop into my head include repentance, reflection, testing, growth, fasting, giving and prayer. Why, then, does today's Gospel focus on the Transfiguration? Why do we hear of a mysterious and glory-filled episode on a mountain?
St. Thomas Aquinas, in answering the question, "Was it fitting that Christ should be transfigured?" (Summa Theologica, 3,45,I), wrote, "I answer that, Our Lord, after foretelling his passion to his disciples, had exhorted them to follow the path of his sufferings (Mt16:21-24). Now in order that anyone go straight along a road, he must have some knowledge of the end: thus an archer will not shoot the arrow straight unless he first see the target."
Although the glory of the Transfiguration might seem to be far removed from the challenges of Lent, it provides us the hope and direction we need in order for this season to be truly about becoming more closely conformed to the likeness of Christ. If Lent is a journey through the desert, the Transfiguration provides the light to walk the path and the end toward which we direct our steps.
Another connection can be found in how the Transfiguration revealed the divinity and holiness of Christ. This revelation came while the disciples were struggling with blindness about the mission undertaken by Jesus.
Matthew's Gospel describes how, not long before the Transfiguration, Jesus had rebuked Peter when the head apostle vehemently rejected the notion that his Lord would have to soon die (see Mt 16:21-28). True life, Jesus told Peter and the disciples, consists of taking up the cross and dying to oneself. "Amen, I say to you," he said, "there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom."
The Transfiguration was a vividly experienced foretaste of the Kingdom. It demonstrated to the disciples that the words of Christ were true, and that the beloved Son knew exactly what he was doing, as his heavenly Father confirmed: "Listen to him." During Lent -- or during any trying time in our lives -- we may begin to doubt the words and ways of God and wonder if he really knows what he is doing. The Transfiguration is a reminder that the glory and presence of God is indeed with us.
What the disciples witnessed on the mountain was also an illuminating glimpse into God's plan of salvation. Although Moses had seen God and spoken to him on Mount Sinai, he couldn't look God in the face or gaze upon the fullness of God's glory (see Ex 33:18-23). Elijah, while on the mountain, hid from the presence of God (see 1 Kgs 19:1-14). Man can only be saved by God, but is unworthy to look upon his face. By becoming man, God app-roaches man and draws him into the divine life. "But only on the mountain of the Transfiguration," the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, "will Moses and Elijah behold the unveiled face of him whom they sought" (No. 2583).
Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, each of which gives witness to Christ, who is the new lawgiver and new prophet of the new and everlasting covenant. He is also "our savior Christ Jesus who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel" (2 Tm 1:10). The Transfiguration points to the reality of our own transfiguration, by the work of Christ -- especially through the Eucharist (see Catechism, No. 1000) -- into sons and daughters of God.
In the desert of Lent we seek, by God's grace, to meet the Savior face to face and to be transformed by his transfiguration, all of the darkness of our souls destroyed by the light of his face.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.