On the 2nd Sunday of Lent, the Church presents the story of Our Lord’s Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. As the Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated officially in the Church’s calendar on August 6, the question may arise as to why it is repeated here, in Lent. The short answer is that the custom of reading today’s story about the Transfiguration near the beginning of Lent came from a tradition which held that the Transfiguration took place forty days before Good Friday. But that only raises another question: why did the Transfiguration take place forty days before Christ’s suffering and death?
In the case of this week’s Gospel reading, we need to understand the context in which it’s set in order to see why it’s so appropriate at this point in Lent.
In the verses just before the Transfiguration account, Jesus shared with His disciples the first prediction of the Passion that He would undergo. This prediction was received with disbelief (such as Peter’s reply as he rebukes Jesus, saying: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you”). The response indicates a weakness on the part of the disciples to understand the path that would ultimately lead to our redemption. Jesus, aware of this weakness, decides to take three of them to the top of Mt. Tabor to show them His glory. As St. Thomas Aquinas years later comments, Jesus did so “to strengthen the hearts of His disciples,” to prepare for His coming Passion.
The importance of the Transfiguration event during Lent is best understood when considered in the context of the Cross that lies ahead in the journey. It offers us an image of not only our Lenten journey, but of our entire lives while we are here on this earth. Life involves a series of “ups and downs” as we encounter various joys and sorrows. The Lord blesses us with times of peace and joy, times where we’re especially mindful of His love and concern for us, His children. These good moments give us encouragement when we face times of difficulty and suffering, teaching us not to give up in the face of setbacks.
As with the disciples at the Transfiguration, the Cross is the central reference point for all of the events of our lives, both the good and the bad. But, there’s a difference in how we view this important symbol of our faith.
For the disciples, the cross was a sign of scandal, a sign of failure. When confronted by it at the Passion, all but a select few fled. Even though the Lord had prepared them for His Passion, it was too much for them, for they didn’t yet fully believe that the Cross would lead to the Resurrection.
We, who now live in the time following the Lord’s victory over death in the Resurrection, have the privilege of seeing the Cross in a different light: no longer seeing it as a symbol of failure, but rather, as the symbol of victory. Instead of being a shameful reminder of death and defeat, it’s a source of encouragement as we continue to journey toward the Resurrection. St. Paul tells us this, writing: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing; but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18).
After the Resurrection, the leading disciples who went up on Mt. Tabor with Jesus would come to fully realize the connection of the Transfiguration with the Cross, and how the Cross would lead to the glory of God fully manifested. Looking upon the Cross would be for them a reminder of that feeling of joy which prompted Peter to say: “Lord, it is good that we are here” (Matt. 17:4). Even when they would face the challenges of living the Christian faith, they could look to that symbol which once was a source of scandal, but which now becomes the image of hope, and an assurance that they, too, would share in the victory of God’s glory (which they experienced for but a brief moment on the top of that mountain).
During Lent, we’re invited to refocus our attention on the Cross, to see it as that sign of triumph. The gift of our faith helps us to see beyond the suffering depicted on the Cross and to focus on the glory of the Resurrection. In a very real way, our looking upon the Cross serves the same purpose for us as the Transfiguration did for Peter, James, and John: to encourage us not to despair in our journey, and to persevere in following the often difficult path that leads to our participation in the Resurrection.
As we continue our Lenten journey, take some time to ponder the great power of the Cross and all that it means to us as Christians. May it be for you what the Transfiguration became to the disciples: a source of strength to not give up as we face the difficulties of climbing the mountain of Christian perfection.